The Western Gaze: Modern Art and Cultural Diplomacy in 1950s and 1960s Taiwan

Written by Man-hua Chen.

Image credit: Kandinsky by Peiyu Liu/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

Cultural diplomacy today is an academic field of research and is one of the soft power tools. It is defined as the deliberate act of cultural engagement overseas. However, there was no such a term and policy in Taiwan’s official documents until the 1990s. In the early post-war period, to fight the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for legitimacy as the sole representative of China, the Republic of China (ROC) government endeavoured to participate in international art exhibitions, in which cultural diplomacy was gradually formed in practice. This paper examines the motivation and process of the ROC Taiwan’s participation in the Paris Biennale in the 1950s and 1960s. It discusses how the government practised cultural diplomacy to reinforce international representation undertaken by envoys and bureaucracy in art and culture.

Taiwanese modern art burgeoned in the Japanese colonial period. After World War II, along with the change in regime in Taiwan, participation in international art exhibitions as a country became an essential cultural and diplomatic means adopted by the ROC government. The original motive behind this initiative was purely political; nevertheless, it has been a key driver for promoting the development of modern art in Taiwan.

Because the Paris Biennale was considered a crucial stage as an international art competition, the ROC government aimed to win awards to demonstrate its national strength. Therefore, the exhibition jury members in Taiwan tended to select artwork that they believed would appeal to the sensitivities of Western modern mainstream art to ensure a greater chance of winning. Hence, numerous abstract paintings were selected; this unexpectedly led Taiwanese art into a new direction that changed the art trend, which had been restricted to impressionism since the 1920s.

Participation: An Interweaving of Art and Politics

The Paris Biennale was founded in October 1959 and hosted by the French Ministry of Culture. In the inaugural event, over 40 countries participated, and the exhibited artwork included paintings, sculptures and prints. The ROC government was invited by the French government and participated from 1959 to 1963. However, in 1964, France established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Hence, the ROC government subsequently severed its diplomatic ties with France and did not participate in future editions of this exhibition.

In April 1959, the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs received an invitation to attend the exhibition from the French government. Later, the invitation was forwarded to the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education assigned the National Museum of History (NMH) to execute this task. The NMH accepted and responded that it is appropriate to participate as this art exhibition promotes Taiwan’s international status and increases the ROC’s international political and diplomatic competitiveness.

In early May, the ROC government decided to take part in the exhibition.

Taiwan’s initial participation in this event demonstrated significance in both the realms of art and politics. First of all, this participation opened the way for Western art to make great strides in impacting Taiwanese modern art. For instance, after the artwork selection process for the 1959 exhibition had been completed, the NMH asked candidates to describe their artistic concepts through questions. The queries included, ‘should a painter follow the Old Masters’ style or be entirely free to create’ and ‘which modern artist do you admire the most’? As a response, some artists stated that modern artists should equip themselves with painting skills and knowledge of art history. For example, Yang Hsia indicated that modern painters must learn the origins and conditions of the world’s ancient and modern paintings. Among all modern painters, he admires Klee, Dali, Picasso, and Kandinsky. Those were artists from Europe, the so-called Western world.

As part of the catalogue requirements for the exhibition, the NMH invited senior artist Chun-shen Li, who was also an art teacher, to write an article entitled ‘The Trend of the Chinese Youth Art Movement.’ In this article, Li proposed that the dominant art styles in the early Chinese youth art movement were transplanted from Europe, including Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstraction. He also argued that the leading modern art trend is anti-academic, which emphasises an artist’s individuality. (NMH Archives, 048-100036-4-034) His arguments on modern art have influenced young Taiwanese artists during the post-war period.

Moreover, the ROC government had a solid intention to gain international recognition utilising art exhibitions, which was disclosed by its considerable concern for the reaction of the French government. For example, in the 1959 Paris Biennale, letters sent from ROC diplomats in Paris described French Minister Malraux praising Ming-hsien Hsiao’s work as the best piece in the exhibition. It was regarded as a diplomatic victory.

Battleground: Contradictions in Diplomatic Confrontations

The exhibition regulations of the 1963 Paris Biennale emphasised that the exhibition’s principle is to ensure young and junior artists to be independent of senior artists. (NMH Archives, 052-100236-2-014) That is to say, young artists were expected to take a primary role in this exhibition. However, it was quite the opposite in the selection process of the ROC’s participation. The jury members in Taiwan consisted of senior artists and teachers. Because the government was eager to win this international art competition, it was believed that senior artists and teachers instead of junior ones could offer valuable opinions.

After severing diplomatic relations with France, the ROC government did not receive any invitations from the Paris Biennale for future exhibitions. In April 1965, the NMH submitted to the Ministry of Education a letter which expressed that although the diplomatic relations between France and the ROC have broken down, it is necessary to strengthen cultural activities outside of the formal diplomatic track to resist the culturally united front of the Communists. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Education decided not to participate. Thus, Taiwan no longer took part in the Paris Biennale.

The official motivation for the ROC Taiwan’s participation in the Paris Biennale was to take political action against the PRC government and strive for international renown. When the ROC government had no solid strategy for cultural diplomacy, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs undertook the mission of fighting the PRC through modern art subject to Western art styles. This action represented a practice of cultural diplomacy, and it promoted the growth of Taiwanese modern art.

In addition, the cultural diplomacy in Taiwan today is quite different from the 1950s. It is now a deliberate plan instead of random actions. The Ministry of Culture, established in 1981 as Council of Cultural Affairs and upgraded to ministry status in 2012, is a specialised institution in charge of domestic and foreign cultural policy. It is declared that to promote international cultural exchange and expand cultural diplomacy in every possible way is one of the key cultural tasks. In particular, establishing a Taiwan Academy overseas as a cultural base to connect local art and cultural organisations effectively extends Taiwan’s international cultural network.

Alongside the Ministry of Culture’s efforts, the Ministry of Education has selected teachers to teach Chinese abroad, and the Overseas Community Affairs Council has promoted language teaching in overseas Chinese schools. Also, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has set up the International Youth Ambassadors Exchange Program to advance performing arts exchange. These are the ROC Taiwan government’s cultural actions to broaden diplomatic influence.

Man-hua Chen, National Museum of History (Taiwan)

One comment

  1. “Among all modern painters, [Yang Hsia] admires Klee, Dali, Picasso, and Kandinsky. Those were artists from Europe, the so-called Western world.”

    “[Chun-shen] Li proposed that the dominant art styles in the early Chinese youth art movement were transplanted from Europe, including Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstraction.”

    Apparently “The Western Gaze” was preceded by the Eastern gaze at Western modern art that lead to Western art being emulated to attract a westernised gaze at home. From there it was only a small step for Taiwan’s government to present modern Taiwanese art to “The Western Gaze” in its quest for cultural power, thus increasing the market potential for Taiwanese modern art and that in turn created a powerful incentive for Taiwanese artists to engage in modern art.

    But can cultural diplomacy be effective when there is not at least a touch of a specific Taiwanese style-variant visible in the exhibited art? Would Taipei 101 be such a powerful symbol if it looked just like any arbitrary high-rise in America, Europe or China?

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