Modernism Between Space and Home: An Exhibit at the Taipei City Fine Arts Museum
Albert on modernist Taiwanese art, its global connections, and the unconscious aesthetic vocabulary through which we come of age
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). It was on an outing to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for a required class in my first year of college. The Pollock sighting was accidental: the lesson was meant to teach us about the transition from Renaissance to Baroque through paintings. Dutifully—and not without guilt, because I had slept through the entirety of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo the week prior—I tried to muster interest in painting after painting of Madonna with child. But I was bored. Much later I would come to love the Brueghels and the northern Renaissance Dutch masters, but to this day Italian Renaissance paintings leave me cold. Sorry, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
After the tour, the professor dismissed us to wander through the rest of the museum, and somehow I found myself in front of Autumn Rhythm. Something about the size of the painting, the layers of paint, and its energy snapped me awake. I spent the rest of the afternoon in the modern art section, mesmerized by Jasper Johns and Willem de Kooning and the other abstract expressionists on display. I couldn’t explain why I was drawn to them at the time; it remains something of a mystery even now. Perhaps it was a rebellion against the curriculum—screw your classicism, show me the iconoclastic stuff!—even though I’d later come to love that too.
I was reminded of that field trip recently as we strolled through a show at the Taipei City Fine Arts Museum, “Art Histories of a Forever War: Modernism Between Space and Home.” (I should say in advance that I know next to nothing about Taiwanese postwar modernist art, but this exhibition worked as an introduction to the period.) Michelle and I weren’t able to see the entire show because of a certain tired baby (spoiler: ours), but we plan to go back.
The curators situate Taiwanese modernism within its global context, highlighting how artists here responded to the predicament of the Cold War as well as the local conditions that constrained their work. The exhibition is smartly organized into big themes that allow viewers to grasp common threads: for instance, the space race, which Chinese and Taiwanese modernists explored by drawing on central motifs from the Chinese literary imagination. In the 1975 series Worship of the Moon (月之祭), Li Shi-Chi (李錫奇) juxtaposes paintings with poetry to process man’s lunar conquest.
The architect Wang Da Hong (王大閎), who won the competition to design the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei, was also inspired by the Apollo 11 mission. A Chinese Catholic, he envisioned a chapel-like building, the same height as the Statue of Liberty, as a monument to the moon landing, to be called Selene. He planned to raise funds to donate the building to the United States as a sign of the bond between the U.S. and Taiwan, but the plans for the project fell apart after the U.S. formally recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1979.
Striking as the designs for Selene are, I was more drawn to Wang’s interior designs. The exhibition showcased pictures from his apartment on Jianguo South Road, considered one of the first residential apartments that blended Bauhaus architecture with traditional Chinese patterns. One distinctive feature was a brick “moon door.” The apartment was scheduled for demolition, but several architects built an exact replica of it and it is now part of the museum.
Wang’s work served as a bridge to another theme—what the curators called “the global domestic”—showcasing how Cold War geo-politics infiltrated everyday objects. One room was dedicated to glass artists, and in particular how their promoters capitalized on the idea of a “Free China” to gain an international audience from the 1950s onwards. (Glass art remains a major market in Taiwan.)
I was especially moved by the intimate work of the Punto International Art Movement, one of the first and only East-West artist collectives, which sought to merge traditional East Asian philosophical concepts with the language of abstract expressionism. I loved the bold colors in this 1972 work by Hsiao Chin (蕭勤), who co-founded the group in Italy.
Here is a marvelous series of untitled miniature paintings by Lee Yuan-Chia (李元佳), a co-founder of the Punto collective. Focus on its deliberate, finite strokes, which Michelle described as “calligraphy without language.”
But the show also meditated on the way that Cold War tensions ruined lives and careers. The career of Chin Sung (秦松), whose Spring Lantern (春燈) evokes early Pollock—especially the latter’s 1943 painting The She-Wolf—has a tragic history: two rivals accused him of hiding an upside-down Chiang character (蔣) in Spring Lantern, claiming he was advancing a subversive critique of Taiwan’s authoritarian ruler Chiang Kai-shek. Chin was arrested and questioned, his career opportunities in Taiwan blocked; he left in 1969, effectively exiled, and never returned.
The work of one artist, Yang Ying-feng (楊英風), also known as Yang Yu Yu (呦呦), particularly caught my eye. Born in 1926 to a prominent family in Ilan, on Taiwan’s eastern coast, Yang traveled in the 1940s to Japanese-occupied Beijing, where his family did business. He studied art and architecture in Tokyo until 1944, when the war forced him to return briefly to Beijing and then to Taiwan. His movement through these spaces is reflected in his early woodblock prints.
I loved this one, of a boy with his water buffalo, titled Companion. I detect hints of Käthe Kollwitz and the social realism that Lu Xun advocated in the New Woodcut Movement, with an inflection of Japanese-style woodblock painting. My mind also darted back to the water buffalo I’d spotted on a recent trip to Hualien, my parents’ childhood home, also on the eastern coast of Taiwan.
In the early 1950s, Yang became the artistic director of the well-circulated Harvest Magazine (豐年雜誌), which remains the longest-running journal devoted to issues of agriculture and rural affairs. The magazine received funding from the U.S. government, which feared a communist uprising in Taiwan. Yang’s work on the magazine allowed him to experiment with form and graphic design; in this cover, he uses woodblock printing techniques to reimagine the Chinese god of agriculture, Shennong, who taught mortals how to plant crops.
Harvest Magazine produced educational materials with pictures and drawings to aid illiterate farmers—such as this 1951 guide on how to produce better oranges. You can see the American influence in the bottom left, in the insignia that says “produced through Sino-American cooperation.”
As I kept seeing his work throughout the exhibit, I started to wonder: Yang Ying-feng, Yang Yu Yu, why is that name so familiar? Like many of life’s mysteries, reader, Google solved it: to my surprise, Yang has a connection to Hsinchu, the town where I grew up. Toward the middle of his career, he turned to sculpture, becoming one of the most celebrated sculptors in Taiwan. In 1976, he was hired to consult on a redesign of the Tsinghua University campus, where my father worked and where I spent my childhood. Many of his sculptures line the Chiaotung University campus, where I used to ride my bike; one of his most famous ones is next to the Hsinchu train station, which I explored often with my classmates. A friend told me about the Yang Ying-feng museum in Taipei and took me there in high school. Yang, Google tells me, died in Hsinchu.
As we continued through the gallery, I felt I was on the cusp of understanding something. It appeared that my earliest, most unconscious connection to art of any kind was shaped by Yang, who in turn had been influenced by postwar global modernism—the aesthetic vocabulary in which I was raised. Was my preference for mid-century modernism—which I’ve long ascribed to serendipity, to my own coming of age in New York—really not of my own choosing? That first year in the city was dislocating, alienating, and thrilling, and I realize now that the sensation I felt upon first encountering Pollock was one of recognition, not shock. Perhaps my love for the modernists wasn’t an act of rebellion at all, but rather a return to the warm embrace of the familiar.
The show runs until February 20, so if you’re in Taiwan, please let us know if you want to go. We’d love to go again.
We’re so excited to be publishing a beautiful guest essay from historian Catherine Chou next week. Catherine describes the challenges and joys of learning Mandarin and Taiwanese during her time in Taiwan. Look out for it next Sunday!
Our editor Daniel Levin Becker has a book coming out soon: What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language (City Lights). It’s about the verbal artistry of hip-hop, and an excerpt of one of our favorite chapters has just been released at The Paris Review. Congrats, Daniel!
Thank you Alexander Chee for this kind shout-out! What an honor.
Virtual Book Club: The Brothers Karamazov, Friday, January 28th, 7 PM EST
Well, Dostoevsky certainly seems to stir up strong feelings—people love him or really, really hate him, but nobody’s neutral. So much the better! We’ve decided to make a push to read the first half of The Brothers Karamazov by January 28 and the second half by the end of February, so that the pooh-poohers can return to the book club in March. Let us know if you’d like the zoom link; all are welcome.
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