Nihonga painter captured Taiwanese beauty


The scene was tranquil in 1927 at the newly established “Taiten” annual fine arts exhibition in the Japanese colony of Taiwan, which had been ceded by China in 1895 as a result of the First Sino-Japanese War. None of the artists practicing in the Qing Period (1644-1911) styles of Chinese painting were accepted for the “Toyoga (Eastern)” painting section. In all, only three Taiwanese artists had any work selected in that division. Two of them had actually lived in Japan and all three were producing nihonga — Japanese style paintings. The majority of paintings in the exhibition were the work of Japanese officials or other Japanese living in Taiwan.

The first Taiten was a carefully orchestrated affair designed to promote the cultural authority of nihonga as the national style of expansionist Japan. As a national consciousness grew in the Meiji Period and thereafter, the delicate lines, brushwork and atmosphere of nihonga was promoted as the essence of Far-Eastern art. Nihonga, it was imagined, might become representative of a pan-Asian alliance.

The three Taiwanese artists in “Toyoga” were Lin Yu Shan, Kuo Hsueh Hu and Chen Chin (1907-1998), who had three entries in the exhibition, the most in the section. An anonymous contemporary Chinese review in the Taiwan Nichinichi Shimpo newspaper praised her: “Miss Chen Chin of Hsinchu alone displays unusual color for the people of the island. Her brush is light and her colors bright and alluring.” All three artists, who were around 20 years old, were acclaimed as models for the future and dubbed “The Three Youths of the Art Exhibition of Taiwan,” thus helping nihonga to become Taiwan’s mainstream art style.

The “Centennial Celebration of Chen Chin” showing at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Kobe, till July 23 before traveling to the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum July 30-Sept. 10, is an excellent occasion to see how Chen’s early focus on politics and propaganda is replaced by the elegant and free-spirited sentiments of an artist enamored of her medium.

Chen, like all students in the colony, studied Japanese from early childhood. Her painting teacher at Taipei Third Girls Senior High School, Koto Gohara, encouraged her to continue her studies in the Department of Japanese Painting at the Tokyo Women’s School of Art, which she graduated from in 1929. In Tokyo, Chen was a student of the painter Yuki Somei and also studied with Kiyokata Kaburaki, who popularized nihonga in the early 20th century, and Shinsui Ito, an accomplished painter of bijinga — paintings of beautiful woman.

After winning three more special selections in the 1928-30 Taiten exhibitions (Gohara was one of the two judges responsible for selecting Chen in the first Taiten), Chen’s reputation was firmly established as the foremost female painter in Taiwan, and she became a judge in the sixth to eighth exhibitions. In 1936 she was even selected for the Imperial Fine Arts Academy Exhibition (Teiten) in Tokyo, becoming the first Taiwanese woman to be graced with such a high honor.

Beautiful women were a frequent subject for most women practicing nihonga, such as Uemura Shoen and Shima Seien, whose works are included in the show along with those of Chen’s many teachers who painted from the 1920s to the 1940s. In paintings such as “Leisurely” (1936), Chen used the bijinga style to capture the local flavor of Taiwan by portraying traditionally attired Taiwanese women in domestic settings. She also tackled other nihonga themes of plants and flowers — in particular her favorite, orchids.

After she married in 1946, she increasingly focused on family as her subject matter, but as early as 1942, Taiwan nihonga was already being touted as moribund. In the colonial setting, the style was historically unmoored and there were few opportunities to study it there. Besides, the younger generation seemed more excited by Western Realism and Impressionism. Of the 25 or so Taiwanese students admitted to the Tokyo School of Art prior to the colony being restored to China in 1945, none had enrolled in Japanese painting courses.

For Chen, though, there was no colonial baggage to be shed with following the Restoration. She continued to paint until her death in 1998, and her later work is particularly strong in the exhibition. Even in 1966 she could be found painting a romantic Mount Fuji with the summit typically floating in the clouds, disembodied from its lower half. She even used the same approach with Mount Rainier in the cityscape “Seattle” (1969).

Her later work absorbed more elements from Western style painting as Taiwan’s modernization made it easier to find examples. A painting like ‘ ‘Views Caught in Louisiana” (1981) is almost Impressionistic and “Prosperous Chongshan N. Road” (1986) adopts modern cityscape subject matter in combination with a diluted realism.

But it is for her loyalty to the nihonga style that Chen is still accruing honors posthumously — the current show is the first major solo exhibition of a Taiwanese artist to be sent on tour in the Japan.