Self-Portraits, Family Portraits, and the Issue of Identity: An Analysis of Three Taiwanese Painters of the Japanese Colonial Period

By Yen, Chuan-ying | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview
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Self-Portraits, Family Portraits, and the Issue of Identity: An Analysis of Three Taiwanese Painters of the Japanese Colonial Period


Yen, Chuan-ying, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Taiwan's national identity has been historically weak. Taiwan emerged from China's sphere of influence at the end of the Qing period only to find itself absorbed by the Japanese empire. Though it was neither entirely Chinese nor Japanese, Taiwan cultivated modern technology and developed its natural resources and agriculture to provide for its imperial rulers. This colonial subjugation contributed to a sense of social instability (Yanaihara 1929, 29-36). During the 1920s, intellectuals tried to raise political consciousness and strengthen social ties with the ultimate objective of heightening Taiwan's political and cultural status and generally improving life on the island (Wu 2008, 83-114). The colonial government, however, maintained strict political and economic control. Taiwan's secondary and higher education system was hindered and basic cultural development was greatly restricted. Cultural identification thus became an extremely complicated issue, even to the point of becoming distorted and confused. Group identity reflected the constant shifts of society and was thus unfixed and unstable, while individual identity was decided by personal education and experience. In sum, Japanese colonial rule made it a great challenge to reflect the life of the individual and to investigate the fraught question of cultural identity.

From 1927 to 1943, there were sixteen modern art exhibitions in Taiwan. The colonial government supported these exhibitions and encouraged new art forms generally. These exhibitions also benefited from media coverage and the endorsement of community leaders. Consequently, young Taiwanese students were drawn to the arts. Under colonial rule, however, Taiwan could not provide satisfactory art education and novices found it difficult to develop as artists. Even those fortunate enough to study abroad ran into difficulties. Modern art demands the acute observation of life and society and an acute sense of self. Developing and maintaining this sense of self was the biggest challenge facing the colonized artists. Under the framework established by the government, Taiwan's painters had to become simultaneously Westernized and Japanized. At the same time, they had to cultivate their individuality and explore the hidden nature of their self-identity.

Though the official exhibitions during the Japanese colonial period featured relatively little self-portraiture, (1) this article considers issues of cultural self-identification in the context of both portraiture and self-portraiture (Yen 2004, 113-41), focusing on three important Taiwanese artists: Chen Zhiqi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1906-31), Chen Jin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1907-98), and Li Shiqiao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1908-95). (2) If the relevant body of portraiture and self-portraiture is relatively small (particularly in the case of Chen Jin, who painted her only known extant self-portrait after she fell gravely ill in 1965, beyond the historical frame of this article), all three artists used their families as models, and therefore much of their work has the aspect of portraiture and may be compared to their self-portraiture. During his short life, Chen Zhiqi took his wife as the principal subject of his figure painting, transforming her image into a kind of symbolic self-image. The discussion of Li will focus not only on his self-portraiture, but also on his two masterpieces The Family of Yang Zhaojia (Yan Zhaojia shi jiazu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1936) and The Happy Farmers (Tianjiale [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1949). He painted these important works thirteen years apart, the latter during the post-colonial period, but their composition and substance are importantly related. in The Happy Farmers, Li used his family members as models, and the rendering of some of the figures, such as his wife and his father, can be traced back to a 1943 draft of the painting. in this sense, the two paintings are more nearly contemporary.

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