Hsiao’s statement might be lighthearted, but it is not to be taken lightly. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote in the final section of Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way): “The wise are not learned; the learned are not wise.” Having the heart of a newborn is among the most treasured virtues of Taoist belief. A newborn is the symbol of purity and innocence, untainted by the chaos and the dirt of a so-called adult world. It is also an important basis for art and creativity. As Chung-Yuan Chang points out in Creativity and Taoism: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art and Poetry, an artist demonstrates his or her innocence and transparency by showing his or her inner serenity, which “is revealed by revealing the serenity of things,” and by achieving that is the attainment of Tao. In other words, it is about authenticity.
Such is the Tao of Hsiao’s artistic trajectory. He is one of the most important and prolific artists in modern art, and despite his achievements remains active in exhibiting, exploring, and creating new work. Inspired by the musings of Taoism and Zen, Hsiao’s philosophical abstract art is to be considered a pathway to the truth, which is key to building a connection within hearts of humanity that transcends the boundaries of nationalities and cultural backgrounds.
Born in Shanghai in 1935 to an esteemed family of artists and scholars, Hsiao followed his uncle Wang Shih-chieh, a prominent politician and scholar during the Republican era, to Taiwan when power changed in China in 1949. He began his artistic training in Taiwan in 1952 under Li Chun-shen (1912-84), an independent art teacher who is widely regarded today as “the father of modern art in Taiwan.” At the rebellious age of 17, Hsiao and fellow art students who later became comrades of the Ton Fan Group, were perhaps exposed for the first time to the possibilities of cross-national artistic ideas. They took a cue from their teacher, who had in his youth challenged a prominent conservative institution. Li left the conservative fine art schools in China in the 1930s for Japan and studied under modern master Leonard Tsugouharu Foujita (1886-1968), who had also bridled against the rigidity of art education in Japan and travelled to Paris in 1913. Foujita undoubtedly became the key pivotal inspiration for Hsiao and his peers.
“All foreign artists…, Picasso had Spanish identity, Kisling had Polish identity, Pascin had some Bulgarian identity. [Foujita] was the first Oriental artist who established himself in the west as an Oriental artist. You have to go to the world, but you have to have your own identity, … [using] knowledge from Western countries without depending on Western culture as the foundation.”
Such beliefs laid the foundation for the forming of avant-garde art group Ton Fan in 1956. Although the name “東方” means “eastern,” it was not intended as a Chinese art group. Rather, it was positioned as an international art group seeking mutual respect and equal standing on the world stage, a profoundly advanced mission during a time when the world was still recovering from the wounds of World War II and in the process of establishing a new order.
Against such a backdrop, Hsiao’s colorful and yet zen abstract paintings in the 1950s and ’60s, developed from his exploration journey through Europe from Madrid to Milan were about finding a voice and giving it full expression with authenticity. As an artist, he strove to find a foothold not only for himself but also for his peers, curating the 1963 exhibition Modern Chinese Artists (Chinesische Künstler der Gegenwart). The exhibit uniting the voices of his peers from Ton Fan as well as other prominent names from the Chinese diaspora including Richard Lin, I.M. Pei, Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki in the West for the first time at the Municipal Museum of Leverkusen (Städtisches Museum Leverkusen) in Düsseldorf, the German city that became the center of postwar art and also home to Zero art movement.
One of the key teachings of Taoism is to achieve self-fulfillment through selflessness, according to Russell Kirkland of the University of Georgia. This might not have been the intention Hsiao when he cofounded Movimento Punto in Milan in 1961, but pushing forward what became one of the most internationally expansive art movements to date was Tao itself.
With the movement’s other founders, Italian artist Antonio Calderara and Japanese sculptor Azuma Kenjiro, Hsiao organized 13 exhibitions held across Europe and Taiwan from 1962 to 1966, bringing together dozens of artists from across Europe, Asia and South America. Artists from diverse cultural backgrounds and nationalities were on an equal footing for the first time. Not only did they exhibit works side by side, but the artists were also united on a spiritual level, seeking mindfulness and purity through their various artistic languages. By working toward the greater goal of serving others, connecting the dots of the Eastern and Western art worlds, Hsiao achieved far more than if he had merely focused on his own art and self.
The results of such self-fulfillment were reflected in Hsiao’s works, such as the Dancing Lights series developed and executed during this period. Like his other works, the paintings were an honest, innocent expression of his inner self of the moment. They were motivated by true emotions rather than the instinct to make pleasing images for others.
“The strongest manifestation of my spiritual energies in the 1960s. It brought together my experiences and views on life. I gained deeper insights as I created my work, through which I felt the spiritual elevation,” he said. If innocence is the Taoist path to greatness, then Hsiao showed the world how to walk this path through his art.