Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Guo Xuehu's Prize-winning Essay

In December 1931, the twenty three-year old Guo Xuehu submitted an essay in Japanese to a contest organized by the Taiwan Government-General Library, in which he extolled the benefits of library use for aspiring artists. (You can find English translation here.) The library staff was well aware of his professional path and may have well encouraged him to participate in this contest.

In the essay, Guo Xuehu describes the development of his professional career as a painter and the difficulties he encountered in achieving the two credentials necessary to become a professional artist:

  1. acquiring art education;
  2. and, receiving social recognition through exhibition participation.

Guo's successful if unexpected acceptance to the first Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition launched his career in 1927 at the very young age of nineteen. Yet, a one-time success was not enough. He needed to prove himself as an artist of true ability by securing admission of his works to the salon in the following years. In this pivotal moment, he turned to the Government-General Library for art education.

The essay highlights the importance of looking at art as part of artistic training. First, Guo Xuehu explains how he became a scroll mounter to “come in touch with great paintings.” Second, he details how he was able to look at many artworks in reproduction at the library, including those in special collections (tokubetsusho):

…I looked mostly at books featuring new Eastern Painting (atarashii tōyōga), read about painting theory, copied old masterpieces, and studied new painting techniques.

While the essay does not reveal in detail the names of artists whose works he was looking at so carefully, scholars have suggested (perhaps based on later interviews with the artist) that he had studied acclaimed works of artists in Japan active during the Meiji and Taishō periods, as well as masterpieces of Chinese painting from the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties (Taipei Fine Arts Museum 1989, 17). Access to paintings, whether in original or in reproduction, facilitated copying and acquiring the knowledge of painting techniques. The practice was not new. Yet, the advent of public exhibitions and an increase in the quality of reproductions expanded access to art to a larger number of aspiring artists, who lacked affiliation to established ateliers or art schools.

Guo Xuehu's essay won the second prize in the contest and was published alongside the first prize winning essay in the major Japanese-language newspaper in Taiwan, Taiwan nichinichi shinpō, in January 1932. The first prize went to an entrepreneur Xie Yonghe. Both winners were Taiwanese-Chinese men in their twenties with modest family backgrounds, who attributed their professional success to their persistent library use and expressed themselves fluently in Japanese. Their respective essays paint a very positive image of the library, and by extension of the colonial government. Both essays suggest that the users discovered the library in a seemingly serendipitous manner and that the library transformed their lives by providing them with instruction and access to information, which they were otherwise unable to obtain.

Guo Xuehu is an unusual case of an artist who achieved prominence and a longstanding professional success without attending an art school or affiliating with an established artist. His insistence on the importance of looking at art and striving towards professional recognition at the official salon suggest emergence of shared practices and assumptions about artistic professionalization Japan and Taiwan. Moreover, Guo's interest in older Chinese art overlapped with those of many Japanese artists, who mined the artistic pasts of East Asia for a mode of expression suitable to the modern times (see also Wong 2006).

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