Culture / Art Republik

Post-War Abstraction: The Chinese Story

The significance of a whole generation of post-war Taiwanese artists is coming to the fore against a backdrop of global interest in reevaluating the historically overlooked

Apr 14, 2018 | By Art Republik

Chen Ting Shih, ‘Day and Night #70’, 1981, 120 x 240cm. Image courtesy Art Agenda, S.E.A.

The story of abstract art’s emergence and dominance in the post-war decades, particularly in the western world, is a story that needs little further narration. New York’s affinity with abstract expressionism propelled it to dominate the world stage, no matter how much it was in fact a pinpoint art movement centred around a small number of artists and critics in a particular time and place. Contemporaneous to it and across the Atlantic, movements such as Art Brut and Tachisme prevailed upon a new generation of artists. From the 1960s onwards, colour field and hard-edge painting, as well as geometric abstraction began to gain greater traction. Through these “internal struggles” between movements, much of the narrative that has been told and continues to ring loudest is largely western-centric, focused on developments and artists from both sides of the Atlantic.

For the longest time, artists of Asian descent– even those who were part of the discourse in the west– rarely feature in the big broad brushstroke that defined western post-war abstraction. There has, however, been recent broader interest to resuscitate and rediscover forgotten or marginalised modern artists; and with it, Asia and its artists have now firmly become a focal point of this fresh global uptake. 

Ho Kan, ‘Untitled’, 1979, oil on canvas, 50 x 60cm. Image courtesy Art Agenda, S.E.A.

In the history of Chinese art, an important historical development is how modern art in mainland China was stymied by the Cultural Revolution; art was wielded to the service of political purposes, with no natural function or value of its own. There was, however, a whole cohort of artists and other intellectuals who had left mainland China for Taiwan in the immediate post-war decades. They articulated liberal values through their works and broke new ground, forging an abstract visual vocabulary, and cementing their place in the history of Chinese art as modern pioneers. Their avant-gardist stance arose against a backdrop of the rise of western liberalism, where abstraction, especially of the expressionistic mold, signified freedom, particularly poignant to generations of Taiwanese artists who lived through three decades of martial law.

Li Chun Shan, ‘Untitled’, acrylic on paper, 27 x 39cm. Image courtesy Art Agenda, S.E.A.

The central figure behind modern abstraction’s rise in Taiwan is Li Chun-Shan who was educated in art in Tokyo. Modern art concepts promulgated in 1930s Shanghai and Tokyo, due largely to mediators such as Li, who, as artist, writer and art educator in Hangzhou and Guangzhou, imbibed modernism and influenced generations simultaneously. Moving to Taiwan in 1949, he continued to advocate liberal values, aligning it with the modern movement in art, essentially birthing abstract art as the dominant form of modern art in Taiwan. His students include Hsiao Chin, Ho Kan and Chin Sung who established the Ton Fan Art Group while other students like Chen Ting-Shih founded the Fifth Moon Art Group.

Hsiao Chin, ‘Abstract’, 1959, ink and colour on paper, 65, x 41cm. Image courtesy Art Agenda, S.E.A.

In the immediate decades following the end of World War II, Taiwanese artists pursued a modernist stance and propelled Chinese art into the modern period. The most significant art movements, Ton Fan Art Group and Fifth Moon Art Group, were established in 1957. The Modern Print-Making Association followed a year later. Abstraction as advocated and practiced by these artists form perhaps the most significant but overlooked chapter in the narrative of modern abstraction’s emergence in the fragmented post-war artworld in Asia.

Wang Zineng is the founder of Art Agenda, S.E.A..

This article was written by Wang Zineng for Art Republik 18.

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