Chia-Yi Park- The Light and Warmth at 23°28' 48’’ N
Chen Cheng-Po was born in Chia-Yi, Taiwan, in 1895. His father was a xiucai scholar of the Qing Dynasty; his mother died young, leaving him to the care of his paternal grandmother. Following China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, Japan took over Taiwan the year Chen was born, and during his childhood, he witnessed the Japanese colonisation of Taiwan. Chen's artistic awakening began in 1913, when he was a student in the teacher-training program at Taiwan Sotokufu Mandarin School. Inspired by one of his instructors, the renowned Japanese watercolour painter Kinichiro Ishikawa, he demonstrated both a talent and a passion for painting. At his mentor's wish, Chen enrolled at Tokyo University of the Arts in 1924. During his time in Japan, he worked diligently, not only attending exhibitions in order to broaden his perspective and absorb new ideas, but also investing tremendous amounts of time in exploring his own style as a painter. In 1926, when Chen was still a third-year graduate student, his painting Street of Chia-Yi was featured in the seventh iteration of Japan's prestigious Empire Art Exhibition. It was the first time that the exhibition series included a Taiwanese artist in its Western Art category, causing a stir in Japanese and Taiwanese art circles. The painting won a Young Talent prize at the exhibition, and Chen's reputation quickly blossomed.
A Pioneer of Chinese Modern Art: Combining and Reinventing
After graduating in 1929, Chen accepted a teaching appointment at Xinhua Art College in Shanghai. He also taught at Yiyuan Painting Institute and served as the director of Changming Art School. Chen was a founding member of the Juelan Society, an avant-garde Western painting group. He subsequently served on the Western painting jury of the First National Art Exposition, and in 1931, his painting The Brook was selected to represent China at the World's Fair in Chicago. He was also named one of "Twelve Representative Chinese Contemporary Painters" by the National Xun Zheng Memorial Integrated Art Exhibition in Shanghai. During his time in Shanghai, Chen's painting underwent a crucial transition from maturity to refinement. He found time amid his busy teaching schedule to engage with a variety of active painters in Shanghai, including Zhang Daqian, Wang Jiyuan, Ni Yide, Zhu Qizhan, Pan Tianshou, and Pan Yuliang—who provided Chen with fresh ideas of art. At the same time, his study of traditional Chinese art gave him a new insight into painting.
Chen was particularly captivated by the work of Ni Zan, one of the so-called Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty, and Zhu Da, one of the Four Monks of the Qing. He once said, "Ni Yunlin [pseudonym of Ni Zan] used line drawing to make his paintings vivid. However, Bada Shanren [pseudonym of Zhu Da] did not use line when he drew, instead he used rubbing and clumping brushstrokes with great skill. My recent works changed a great deal due to the influence of these two people. The expression in my paintings comes from brushwork. Rubbing brings the canvas to life and communicates a scene in an indescribable way".
During this period, Chen seamlessly incorporated the concepts and techniques of Chinese ink painting into his work as he continued to pursue his individual style. After returning to Taiwan, these features became more apparent in the paintings Chen created. Chen's comprehensive education in Chinese modern art history began in Southern Taiwan, continued during his robust training in Western art in Japan, and harvested in his works and teaching in Shanghai. Amid the collision between new and old ideas, Chen combined Chinese and Western concepts to form his own distinctive style, thus cementing his importance and unique place in art history.
A Fierce Nostalgia for Native Place
Chen left Shanghai in 1933 to return to his hometown Chia-Yi in Taiwan. He once said "nature is my studio". Again, he took the local scenes of Chia-Yi as his subject, expressing his feelings of his native land. His eyes transformed a variety of ostensibly mundane scenes into diversity: he turned the ordinary into extraordinary. Chia-Yi Park, completed in 1910, was one of the places Chen often visited. The large park of more than 130 thousand square metres contains winding streams, the famous Biantian Pond, and rich vegetation. Chen had painted the park seven times after returning to Taiwan, these works provide a glimpse into his constantly evolving artistic perspective: horizontal becomes bird's-eye view, one-point perspective gives way to multiple-point perspective, and pure realism grows more impressionistic. His later works also include increased aesthetic symbolism. These important paintings reveal the evolution of Chen's artistry, but they also embody his fondness for Chia-Yi Park —part of the homeland that nourished his creativity.
From the artist's perspective, Chia-Yi Park was a product of modernization during Japanese colonisation. It was a significant landmark of Chia-Yi. He once said, "As an Asian, I must paint Asia. I may use Western paints, but the subject and the style must convey Asian sensibility". In 1937, Chen finished Chia-Yi Park（Lot 1007）, a painting created with these ideas in mind. Art critics agree that this painting represents the apogee of Chen's Chia-Yi Park series. In 1992, Artists Publishing continued its substantial investment and research into Taiwanese art by attempting a retrospective of one hundred years of Taiwanese fine arts. Chen Cheng-Po topped their list of modern masters. They selected Chia-Yi Park for the cover of the resulting monograph, Chen Cheng-Po: Taiwan Fine Art Series 1. The painting is undoubtedly a symbolic culmination of Chen's lifelong pursuit of art.
Taking a Free Hand to a Midsummer Scene
"You bloom not in the spring, when the many flowers are brilliant, but in the summer, when all things perspire. You were born not a graceful and slender blade of grass, but a strong and massive tree—says who? There are no beauties in the southern country during the spring, but wait until the summer: the poinciana is the beauty of the south".
Silver Bell Society poet Lin Hengtai, Poinciana
Unlike the single-perspective, realist Chia-Yi Park of 1934, or the Chia-Yi Park of 1936 in the collection of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, the 1937 painting is a microcosmic landscape from which the park's bridges, railings, and ambling visitors are excluded. Chen chooses an overlooking perspective focused on the Biantian Pond and a poinciana tree—the so-called "beauty of the south". The tree in the painting reaches powerfully upward, its dense green leaves swaying in a gentle breeze, its upper branches abloom with red flowers that hint at the arrival of summer. Low-hanging branches and drooping leaves extend toward the surface of the pond as if thirsty for a taste of its refreshing water. They dip their heads like the white geese and red-crowned cranes in the pond, adding an embodiment of movement to the painting. The intricate composition of the painting combines a bright melody with a brisk rhythm: a stage where the curtain never falls. Golden rays of light fall on the tree, filling the viewer with the feel of a warm spring day in southern Taiwan. This evocation combines with the cool damp of the pond to form the artist's most powerful depiction of the humid subtropical climate.
Chen's treatment of the tree leaves and trunk demonstrates his unique style of brushwork showing how he combined the best techniques of Ni Zan and Bada Shanren. In his own words, he "conceals the line within the brushwork one stroke at a time, forming an expression in which the line and the brushstrokes complement one another." He paints freely on the canvas with a thick brush inundated with oil paint, using vigorous brushstrokes imbued with confidence, exuberance, and movement. Chen's brushwork expresses the direction of the tree's growth, but also suggests the traces of a gentle breeze shuttling through the leaves in a vivid depiction of nature's undying vitality and rhythm. Chen's son Chen Tsong-Kwang recalls accompanying his father on painting trips to Chia-Yi Park as a small child: "Father was completely focused when he was painting. When he painted the tree, he soaked one side of the brush in paint and then painted the leaves very quickly. He seemed like a warrior in a duel with the canvas. His manner of painting was filled with dramatic tension. His absorbed and confident bearing made a very deep impression on me". In Chia-Yi Park, the artist uses free, rising brushstrokes to compose a vivid song of passion and movement. The painting's composition and short, powerful, rolling brushstrokes are reminiscent of Pine Trees at Sunset by the Western modernist master Van Gogh. There is a flowing connection of form and energy between the two works by Eastern and Western masters. Both express an ardent love for life and land; both brim with sincere emotion and intense ardour.
The Lush and Splendid Colours of the South
"I heard it was Hell, so I was surprised to see that it is Heaven! The colours of Taiwan's natural scenery are rich, and the shape and hue of its flora radiate an intense character. This is the natural distinctiveness of the south. The colours contained in the shapes possess a unique vitality. They are the native colours of Taiwan. The central southern part of the country is a beautiful golden yellow that flickers and shines". These are the words of Chen's mentor, Kinichiro Ishikawa, after he first arrived in Taiwan.
Ishikawa taught a realist style of capturing natural scenery, and he applied his distinctive perspective to the sharp colours of southern Taiwan—the characteristic "rich native hues" and "shining, flickering golden yellow". Chen surpasses his teacher by exploring the ultimate depths of the colours of the south. As Chia-Yi Park demonstrates, he primarily uses a warm colour set of reds, ochres, golden yellows, and deep greens of varying brightness to create gorgeous scenes of vibrant contrast. The colours in his paintings are completely natural and fundamental. In his use of earth-red and green colours, Chen approaches the expression of Cézanne, the father of modern art, in Great Pine near Aix. His summer scene is full of vitality: the light green of new leaves perfectly complements the lusher green of the other plants and the red-brown of the earth. Chen also adds a wealth of contrasting colour: there are the white wings and red pates of red-crowned cranes and also the splendid interplay between red flowers and green leaves in the poinciana tree. In this way, Chen unfolds the vitality of the natural world to delightful effect.
A Fervent Imagination Rushes toward Utopia
"There is no delight in a rational and expository portrayal of objects. Even if it is well done, it lacks the great power to stir the heart. To paint purely from feeling provides a better result".
Two red-crowned cranes, dipping their heads to drink from the pond in the foreground of Chia-Yi Park, strike a graceful pose reminiscent of ballet dancers as they extend their bodies over the lightly rippling water. It seems like quite a usual view, but in fact it is a surrealistic scene. Red-crowned cranes live in temperate zones; Taiwan, situated in the subtropics, is an unsuitable habitat for them, and whenever a small number of disoriented cranes find their way to the island, they always attract a great deal of attention from media and birdwatchers. Archives indicate that red-crowned cranes appeared in Taiwan only in 1932 and 2004, and so could not possibly have become a regular sight at Chia-Yi Park. Chen Cheng-Po's deliberate juxtaposition of red-crowned cranes from temperate climates with the tropical poinciana tree is simply act of individual imagination: an attempt to transcend the traditional realist framework. The red-crowned cranes, which seem like creatures of an otherworldly utopia, add a mystical and moving air to the painting.
According to Chinese tradition, the cranes are a symbol of prosperity, happiness, and longevity. During the Tang Dynasty it became fashionable among the nobility to raise cranes; in Japan, they are called "fairy birds", and can be found in One Hundred Famous Views of Edo by the ukiyo-e master Utagawa Hiroshige. By including these cranes in an everyday setting rich in local colour, Chen demonstrates his heritage and innovation within Eastern aesthetics. In both conception and execution, the painting is a paragon of the artist's high degree of creativity and unfettered artistic facility, and it ranks as a museum-grade masterpiece.
In the words of National Art Museum of China President Fan Di'an, "the Taiwanese painter Chen Cheng-Po is an outstanding representative of the great sages of twentieth century Chinese art. He took part in the Juelan Society, the most forward-looking Chinese art movement of the century, and he threw himself into the tide of change in the art world. After returning to Taiwan in 1933, he painted vocationally while also contributing to art education, and he co-founded Taiwan's largest civil arts organization, the Taiyang Fine Arts Association. His artistic, educational, and societal endeavours spanned the Taiwan Strait and carved his name into the Chinese art history books of the first half of the twentieth century". This year, on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of Chen Cheng-Po's birth, the National Art Museum of China in Beijing and the China Art Museum in Shanghai have both held major retrospectives for the artist, affirming beyond doubt his transcendent aesthetic accomplishments. In the future, Chen's works will certainly continue to generate radiant enthusiasm in the art world.
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