Guo Xuehu's hours spent studying at the library and sketching around Taipei paid off. In 1928, his painting “Scenery Near Yuan Shan” (Maruyama fukin) received a special award at the second Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition. Moreover, the Government-General purchased the work at a very high price of 500 yen (Taipei Fine Arts Museum 1989, 207).
The viewer's eyesight takes in the lone worker, maize, sunflowers, and fields in the lower part of the painting, then travels through the hilly park, finally to discover an iron truss bridge and street lamps towards the left. A small flock of birds draws the viewer's attention to the landscape on the other site of the bridge, not represented in the painting. These are the grounds of the Taiwan Shrine (Taiwan jingū). Taiwan Shrine was constructed in 1901 to enshrine the spirit of the imperial prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa. Kitashirakawa died in Tainan in 1895 during the military campaign to occupy the island (Allen, 2012, 164; see Japanese Sacred Spaces in Jilong for a discussion of Shinto's expansion in colonial Taiwan). The whole area of the park and the shrine was developed in the early years of colonial rule. Even the maize and sunflowers are not local plants but possibly crops introduced by the Japanese. The white boundary tablet in the lower side of the painting indicates that the land has been measured and defined by ownership (Lin 2008, 29-30). The lush greens evoke the natural beauty of a landscape. Yet, it is a clearly man-made site, imbued with historical and political significance.
Art historians have pointed out that the coloring of this painting is similar to the painting style of a Japanese juror and settler artist, Gōhara Kotō (1887-1965). Guo Xuehu is said to have admired Gōhara's set of three hanging scrolls on view at the first Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition, depicting birds and flowers (for black and white reproductions click here) (Lin 2008, 248). In 1929, Guo Xuehu began studying with Gōhara and joined the Sendansha (Sandalwood Society, 1930-36), an exhibition group founded by Gōhara Kotō and another established nihonga settler-artist, Kinoshita Seigai (1887-1988).
Guo Xuehu's paintings demonstrate technical mastery of complex compositions and great attention to detail. The artist explored different techniques and styles: he produced works in lush greens and drip-in technique reminiscent of Rimpa painting (“Scenery Near Yuan Shan,” 1928; “After the Rain,” 1931), applied perspective and vivid colors to capture a bustling urban scene (“Prosperity of South Street,” 1930), and carried out an unconventional experiment with ink and paper to convey a mysterious evening mood (“Solitude,” 1933). In his depiction of the Dihua Street in the Da Dao Cheng's Yon-lo District, he deliberately chose to depart from naturalistic depiction by extending the buildings upward and foreshortening the depth of the street to convey prosperity of shops on this street with many signboards in Chinese and Japanese (Lin 2008, 35-36). He achieved balance between naturalism and an overall decorative quality of the painting surface in a way that spoke to Japanese jurors and audiences familiar with nihonga (see also Yen 2007, 103).
The official salon and the library brought Guo Xuehu into the orbit of Japan's imperial art world. The Culture and Education Bureau, Tainan Public Hall, and Navy Officer's Department would purchase his salon works. His paintings were accepted to all annual salons in Taiwan. Moreover, Guo Xuehu received special awards in 1928, 1929, 1931, 1932; the Taiten Prize in 1930 and 1931; the Tainichi Prize in 1932; and, the Asahi Prize in 1935. Starting from 1933, his works were exempted from review (mukansa). Most of his salon works were landscapes.
Art historians have pointed out how the early development of landscape painting in Taiwan went hand in hand with colonization and exploitation of the island, especially of the mountain areas and indigenous communities (Yen 2006, 250). They have also likened the ability to represent a landscape in art to conquest, as it allows the artist to manipulate the image freely (Liao 2007, 45). Maps, travel writing, postcards, photographs, and paintings during the colonial rule have represented a particular kind of Taiwanese landscape. These representations reflected and shaped the stereotypical image of Taiwan as Japan's colony, with unspoiled nature, picturesque sites, “exotic natives,” and colonial urban development (Kikuchi 2007, 14-15). Moreover, these images of beautiful Taiwan belied the colonial exploitation of the island (Lin 2008, 135). As Hsin-Tien Liao has pointed out, they promoted tourism, transformed the landscape into a consumer product, and encouraged an exoticizing gaze (Liao 2007, 55-56).
Young artists in Taiwan grew up looking at these representations. Also, they received their artistic education from Japan-trained teachers and competed at the salon, with Japanese artists judging their works. Jurors emphasized so-called “local color,” demanding that art in Taiwan depict local subject matter and display distinct native characteristics (see discussion on this topic here in relation to model works). At the same time, they assessed the paintings of artists in Taiwan based on their mastery of metropolitan painting styles. In this way, young Taiwanese-Chinese artists had to negotiate contradictory demands. More importantly, they were expected to represent colonial difference and exoticism for the metropolitan audiences, as well as collective experience of and for the colonized. Literary scholar Aimee Nayoung Kwon has coined the term “conundrum of representation” to describe these contradictions (Kwon 2015, 10-13). Kwon's work focuses on Korean writers writing in the Japanese language during the colonial period. I suggest that colonial painters, including Guo Xuehu, faced a similar conundrum to those of their literary counterparts. Guo Xuehu negotiated these contradictions by focusing on Taiwan's lush nature and sites of great importance in the island colonial history.
His double prize-winning “After the Rain” (1931) depicts the Zhishan Cliff (J. Shibayama), a site of assassination of six Japanese teachers in 1896. From the colonizer's viewpoint, they were considered pioneers of Japan's cultural presence on the island. From the colonized viewpoint, they were invaders. In other words, the flourishing garden and park in the painting rest atop a site of sacrifice for the imperial cause and of anti-colonial resistance. A pathway through the carefully cultivated fields leads the eyesight into an elevated area of the park, with two distinct rooftops visible amidst foliage: that of a memorial shrine established in 1930 to commemorate their deaths, and a local temple. The two buildings were in fact situated apart from each other, yet the artist depicted them in close proximity. Such juxtaposition suggests a peaceful integration of Japanese and Taiwanese elements (Yen 2007, 103;. Lin 2008, 254). We can only speculate how this message of peaceful co-existence resonated with this painting's audiences in Taiwan in 1931. This work was on display only a few months after the violent and widely publicized Musha Incident—the last major uprising against the Japanese colonial government instigated by an indigenous group of the Seediq people.
In 1935, Taiwan Government-General Library gave Guo Xuehu a special award of 500 yen. This award was given out only once a decade and provided enough money to sustain a small family for a year. The same year, his painting “The Junk” (Janku) on view at the ninth salon won the Asahi Award and was purchased for the exorbitant amount of 1500 yen by the Taipei Police Station (Taipei Fine Arts Museum 1989, 208). Within the span of less then ten years, Guo Xuehu established himself as a professional artist.