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

The Modern Still Life

A corner “Readers' Assignment” (Dokusha kadai) in the art journal Bijutsu (Fine Arts), features a request submitted purportedly from a reader in Korea “Mr. KM” (KM sei): “I want to see somebody painting a still life. Can you show me a photograph (of an artist painting a still life) please?” The magazine editors responded by featuring a photograph of Watanabe Kōzō (1897-1980) in his atelier with an advice from the artist about his painting process (“Dokusha kadai” 1939). At the time, Watanabe had already established a great exhibition record at the official salon in Tokyo with his still lifes.

Still life came to embody modern life with its cosmopolitan consumer print culture and the basic process of learning how to paint. In his Aburae no egakikata (How to paint in oil), Ōta Saburō (1884-1969) described a still life as the “ABCs” for a beginning painter, suggesting that by learning how to paint a mere vase, one could learn how to paint anything (Ōta 1930, 53). He explained the basics of form, color, shading, and composition and then proceeded to describe the conventional subject matter of still lifes, such as flowers, fruit, and fish, concluding with a section on incorporating other utensils (kibutsu):

Get paints and a solvent in an art supply shop, then go to a bookstore and buy a magazine, drink black tea in a café, and read the evening newspaper on your way home on the train. You will have a still life ready by the morning of the next day. Ōta Saburō, Aburae no egakikata (Ōta 1930, 122).

By carefully picking and choosing, the painter could creatively enhance the conventional still life repertoire with objects hinting at his (more often his than hers) modern lifestyle and perform his artistic persona through the work.

By the late 1920s, Japanese language art magazines such as Atorie (Atelier), Yōga kenkyū (Research in Western painting), Zōkei geijutsu (Plastic arts), and Bijutsu (Fine arts) began to appear as a motif in a number of still lifes on display at the official salons in Seoul and Taipei. The emergence of such still lifes paralleled the increase of imported magazines into the two colonies, as well as their availability in the official libraries and private hands, as artists assembled their own private collections of books, art journals, and images. For example, Kim Chunghyŏn's Still Life from the twelfth Korea Fine Arts Exhibition features an interior with a desk, fruit, a wine bottle, and bread. Popped on the chair in the lower right is a special issue of the pictorial weekly magazine Asahi gurafu (Asahi Graph), dedicated to the Imperial Fine Arts Exhibition.

Similarly, Pan Li-Shui’s (1914-1995) “Painting Implements” (Gagu) on view at the fifth Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition (1931) references this intra-imperial circulation of artistic knowledge by depicting a traditional album, exhibition catalogues, and sketchbooks. In particular, the catalogues of the fourth Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition (1930) and the eleventh Imperial Academy of Fine Arts Exhibition (1930), with their distinct covers, feature prominently in this work, propped to the left of the jar holding brushes. (For a more detailed description of this work see Liao 2002, 219.) They also hint at the position of the artist at the crossroads of the Japanese and the Taiwanese art worlds as well as at the role of public art exhibitions in securing professional recognition.

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