Brimming with Nostalgia: A Journey of Taiwanese Watercolor

Lee%2cTze-Fan%2c City Deity Temple%2c 21.25×11.74inches%2c Watercolor on paper%2c 1959

Watercolor as a Western art form was introduced to Taiwan just over one hundred years ago.  Despite its relatively short history, Taiwanese watercolor has flourished, drawing from and establishing roots in culturally diverse soil.  Brimming with Nostalgia, an art exhibition currently on view at Tenri Cultural Center in Greenwich Village, examines the beauty and variety of this watercolor tradition by showcasing over thirty works spanning decades from Taiwanese and Japanese artists.

The island has long been a nexus for Eastern and Western aesthetics.  Combining this history with their own experimentation with watercolor, Taiwanese artists developed unique styles and themes that evolved over the decades but continued to reflect Taiwan’s past and present.  Curator Chin-Lung Huang (黃進龍), an art professor at National Taiwan Normal University and an established watercolorist himself, has thoughtfully found commonalities in otherwise disparate works which include portraits, still lifes, abstract reductions of cityscapes inspired by Western modernism of the 1960s, and proud depictions of the landmark Presidential Office Building in Taipei (itself a representation of Japanese adoption of Western aesthetics) and Taiwan’s distinct landscapes done in styles reminiscent of Chinese ink wash paintings.

At the exhibition’s opening reception attended by Ambassador Paul Wen-liang Chang of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York and Koichi Ai, the Deputy Consul General, Japan Information Center, of the Consulate General of Japan in New York, president of the American Watercolor Society, Antonio Masi, spoke highly of the exhibition, adding his hope for wider recognition of watercolor artists from Taiwan.  For Professor Huang, bringing these watercolors all the way across the Pacific Ocean was both challenging and rewarding.  For New Yorkers, this is a rare chance to appreciate Taiwanese watercolor and its Japanese roots in Tenri’s spacious gallery.

Before the exhibition’s opening, we had the pleasure to talk to Professor Huang about the history of Taiwanese watercolor and the show.

How was watercolor introduced to Taiwan?

It all started from Kinichiro Ishikawa (石川欽一郎) who came to Taiwan from Japan in 1906.  Because of political reasons, Taiwan was a Japanese colony at that time and he came to work as a translator because he spoke good English.  However, he was also an art lover and taught watercolor in private. Several first generation Taiwanese watercolor masters are all students of his, including Shih­-Chiao Lee (李石樵), Chiang-­Huai Ni (倪蔣懷), Yin-Ting Ran (藍蔭鼎) and Tze-Fan Lee (李澤藩). Thus, Ishikawa became the torchbearer of modern Taiwanese Western art.

Ishikawa Kinichiro%2c The Second Highest Mountain in Taiwan%2c 12.71x18.89inches%2c Watercolor on paper%2c 1925

Ishikawa Kinichiro (石川欽一郎), “The Second Highest Mountain in Taiwan” 《台灣次高山》, 32.3 象48 cm, watercolor on paper, 1925

Taiwan has long been a place where different cultures – Chinese, local indigenous peoples, Japanese, and Western  – converge.  Is this reflected in Taiwanese watercolor?  What is unique about Taiwanese watercolor?

Taiwan is undoubtedly heavily influenced by traditional Chinese culture. In fact, traditional Chinese ink painting is similar to watercolor, because they both use water to dilute the ink. However, before Ishikawa came to Taiwan, there was no Western art at all on the island.  Ishikawa learned his watercolor from his British teacher, so his practice is totally rooted in Western cultures.  After Japan returned Taiwan to China, Ishikawa left Taiwan, and his students began their own exploration.  In the 1950s, the relationship between Taiwan and the United States was very close, and American abstraction movement had a deep influence in Taiwan.  All of a sudden, everybody started to paint abstract works.

Chun­Shan Lee, "Abstract Painting", watercolor on paper, 1963

Chun­-Shan Lee (李仲生), “Abstract Painting” 《抽象畫》, 26 x 36.3 cm, watercolor on paper, 1963

That lasted for about twenty years, though some artists in Taiwan later found it inappropriate. They asked themselves, “Why should I see and paint everything in an American way?  I live in this land, why do I follow in Americans’ footsteps?”  Then, in the 1970s, a new wave of native art movement was born.  Artists turned their attention to local landscape and genre scenes.  For example, bicycles, instead of cars or tour buses, were a typical theme in the 1980s watercolor, and they were popular among local people too.

Ming­Zhu Huang, The Bicycles, watercolor on paper, 1980

Ming-­Zhu Huang (黃銘祝), “The Bicycles” 《腳踏車》, 56 x 77 cm, watercolor on paper, 1980

The exhibition description refers to the “Second Golden Age of Watercolor”.  Could you please explain what it is?

The generation I mentioned above, such as those involved in native art movement in the 80s, actually belong to the First Golden Age.  After that period, people’s passion for watercolor began to wane.  The art market in Taiwan valued oil painting much more than watercolor, so many artists turned their focuses away from watercolor.  I am not saying that it is right or wrong that oil painting is the mainstream; it’s just that watercolor does not have to be considered inferior.

The Second Golden Age refers to the recent five to ten years, several people, including myself, have been spending a lot of time and effort to bring Taiwanese watercolor to international venues.  The younger generation was relatively silent during the 90s, and now they are highly productive.  In fact, the so called “Second Golden Age” is a term invented by us.  But to be honest, we should leave it to future generations to judge the historical significance of this current period, maybe after twenty or thirty years.


Ming-Shan Chen (陳明善), “One Side of the North Sea“ 《北海一角》 54 x 74.5 cm, watercolor on paper, 1987

Tell us about how this show was curated.

In general, the space for the show should be decided first.  We were able to reach out to Tenri Cultural Center, since the Taipei Cultural Center in New York has had collaborations with Tenri.  Since Tenri mainly focuses on Japanese art and culture, I wanted to do something related to Japanese art; so, Taiwanese watercolors came naturally as the subject of the show.  I also included works from several Japanese artists.  The works of art in this show were created between 1920s to 2015, so that the audience can have an idea of how Taiwanese watercolor developed and compare them.

I had to borrow these paintings from museums, private collectors, and my artist friends.  There are works from a certain period that I wish I could have found; however, they were immediately sold out back then, and I cannot find any.  There are stories behind some works, for example, one work was acquired by a Japanese paper manufacturer in exchange for a pile of paper, because the artist was poor when he painted it.  After over forty years, the work was bought back from Japan by a Taiwanese collector.  There are interesting stories like that.

How are these watercolor works perceived in Taiwan today? Have they influenced contemporary art practice?

Watercolor is considered national art in Taiwan because it is an art form that everyone can try.  Unlike oil painting which requires more professional tools and materials, watercolor is more accessible, and watercolor courses are offered in both primary and middle schools.  But for artists and collectors, oil painting is the mainstream.  Now people have been putting a lot of effort into watercolor, and Taiwanese watercolorists have won many international prizes.  This will encourage the young generation to join the profession.  My students are all very young, and they become international too, traveling and studying all over the world.

I think watercolor will definitely affect other forms of art.  In fact, in terms of painting as an art form, the so-called mainstream and non­-mainstream are constantly changing and affecting each other.  After all, human beings are living bodies, and everyone uses eyes to look at, ears to listen to, and hearts to feel the world. Things are interactive, so such mutual influences between different forms of are totally possible.

Liang%2c Dan-Huei%2c Penglai Fairyland%2c 22x30 inches%2c Watercolor on paper%2c 2013

Dan-­Huei Liang (梁丹卉), “Penglai Fairyland” 《蓬萊仙境》, 56 x 76 cm, watercolor on paper, 2013


Brimming with Nostalgia: The Humanistic Landscape of Taiwanese and Japanese Watercolor Paintings will remain on view at Tenri Culture Institute, 43 W 13th St., through July 31, 2015.

Lead image: Tze-Fan Lee (李澤藩), “City Deity Temple” 《城隍廟》, 54.3 x 73.4 cm, watercolor on paper, 1959

Images courtesy of Taipei Cultural Center of TECO in New York

Hansi Liao conducted the interview in Mandarin and translated and edited it for this article.  Andrew Shiue contributed to the introduction.