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

How-to-paint Books

The selection of traditional painting manuals (gafū) with images to be used for copying practice and more recent largely text based how-to-paint books at the Taiwan Government General Library speaks to the educational aspirations of the library. The subsection of the 812 Japanese and Chinese Painting dedicated to painting techniques had 13 books in 1917, and by 1927 acquired additional 15. Among them were two Japanese translations of the widely renowned Chinese painting manual from the early Qing dynasty, Kaishien gaden (En. Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, Ch. Jieziyuan Huazhuan), as well as three different “How to paint nihonga” books by contemporary Japanese artists. The increase appears modest, yet it does suggest a steady interest.

Similarly, the 814 Western Painting section had a total of 13 technique-related books in 1917, and acquired additional 23 by 1927. Their subject matter ranged from how to paint in oils, watercolor, pencil drawing, and crayon, to how to handle composition, human figure, and landscape. The library owned Yamamoto Kanae's extremely popular Aburae no egakikata (How to paint in oil), as well as two publications by the renowned watercolor artist, long-term resident of Taiwan, and exhibition juror, Ishikawa Kin'ichirō: Shasei shinsetsu (New text on sketching, 1914), and Shindai gajutsu (Painting techniques for the new times, 1926). Many prominent artists in Japan and some artists of the middle ranks penned how-to-paint books. This activity must have provided additional income and was an extension of their work as art instructors in public schools and private ateliers.

How-to-paint books made artistic knowledge more accessible and targeted a range of audiences. Some explained the basics to amateur painters in pursuit of hobby and pleasure. Others catered to young aspiring artists, giving advice on the development of an artistic career and the steps necessary to establish oneself professionally. Yet others provided highly technical information about pigments and painting techniques relevant to professional artists. Overall, these how-to-books were largely text based and focused on advice. They did feature some reproductions or a few drawings, yet they did not include workbook-like materials for a hands on practice. The authors seemed aware of the limitations of the book medium in artistic transmission and thus focused on encouragement and explaining practical matters, such as necessary equipment or what constituted basic drawing skills and subject matter.

A pamphlet published on the occasion of the Library Week at the Taiwan Government General Library in 1932, Saikin ōku yomareta ryōsho 200-shu (Selection of 200 popular books), suggests that how-to books were especially popular among the library's users. Except for Tōyō bijutsu no chishiki (Knowledge of Eastern art) and Sankō sekai bijutsu yomihon seiyō hen (Reference reader in world art: Volume on Western art), all other positions listed in the arts section were how-to books on the various techniques of printing, sketching, oil painting, and photography, headed by Ōta Saburō's Aburae no egakikata (How to Paint in Oil).

These Japanese language how-to-paint books helped popularize in the colonies new (some would say “modern”) worldviews regarding artistic professionalization, such as the importance of attending an art school and establishing a stellar exhibition participation record. By doing so, they must have brought into sharp relief the limited opportunities for artists in Taiwan in comparison to metropolitan Japan. Also, even as the how-to-books often focused on one specific technique or medium, overall they reinforced the conceptual categorization of painting into nihonga and seiyōga in accordance with the recent custom in Japan. The putatively universal image of the artistic profession had in fact implicit imperial geography (see also Holca 2016, 68).

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