Modernity in Agony: Contemporaneity, Landscape, and the Representation of Modern Life in Colonial Taiwanese Art

By Pai, Andrew Shih-ming | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Modernity in Agony: Contemporaneity, Landscape, and the Representation of Modern Life in Colonial Taiwanese Art


Pai, Andrew Shih-ming, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Beginning with the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895), which brought Taiwan under Japanese rule, and continuing with the colonial government's various "modernization" reforms based on Western models, Taiwan gradually changed from a traditional society to a contemporary civil society. Over time, the "New Landscape" (Xin Dijing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) involving modern Western-style infrastructure gradually superseded the "local" character of traditional Ming and Qing society. At the same time, Taiwan's urban living space became more public, representing the multifaceted and modern lifestyle of modern citizens.

Although the establishment of the government-sponsored Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition (Taiwan Meishu Zhanlanhui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1927-36) and the Governor-General's Exhibition (Zongdufu Meishu Zhanlanhui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 1938-43) had a definite impact on the formation of "New Art" during this period of modernization, colonial-era artists generally sought to construct "local color" (difan secai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). In this process of discovery, the encounters between the new and the old inevitably increased day by day. As the younger generation considered how to "modernize" its work, and as the concept of "local color" came to be viewed with increasing scepticism, artists gradually began to strike out on their own paths and to investigate "modernity." Amidst these changes, exciting new works that aimed to represent the "contemporary landscape" began to emerge.

"New Landscape" images that reflect and evince the results of modernization are the most important visual material relating to urban, technological, and cultural development in Taiwan's public sphere. Many modern artists offered possible models with which to consider contemporary landscape and thereby contributed to the construction of Taiwan's modern urban landscape imagery. This essay focuses on artists' reading, thinking, and writing as they searched for and interpreted this modern urban landscape and pondered the meanings and issues of "landscape writing" during the colonial period. This essay further discusses how colonial-era Taiwanese artists, having experienced "modernization" and the construction of the modern landscape, were able to transcend the dichotomy of new and old in order to advance toward the "modern."

The first section outlines Taiwan's transformation from a traditional to a modern cosmopolitan society. Taipei exemplifies how urban renewal policies affected Taiwan's modern urban landscape and living space, as well as hastened the disintegration of the age-old "local society." The second section fleshes out the issues raised in the previous section concerning urban space, infrastructure, and public amenities. It elucidates how, through the launching of public cultural activities such as expositions, museums, and fine arts exhibitions, the ruling class fostered the development of culture, raised the citizens' cultural spirit, shaped cultural spaces, and encouraged the populace to participate in public cultural life. The exploration and construction of cultural "subjectivity" will also be analyzed. Since the beginning of Japanese colonial rule, the Taiwanese art world's concern with "subjectivity" was mainly reflected in its preoccupation with local color. In the 1930s, artists gradually departed from "local" art and aligned themselves with "world" art, ruminating about artistic ideals and turning inward as they delved into questions of "subjectivity."

The third and fourth sections focus on the discourse of artistic creation and criticism. In these sections, I will consider the Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition and the Governor-General's Exhibition as mediators, demonstrating how artists of different generations thought about the pressing issues of their time. As the fourth and fifth sections discuss, artists of different generations naturally had different points of view about Taiwanese art, and aesthetic polemics played out in heated debates. …

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