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The Real Treasures At The National Palace Museum — Giuseppe Castiglione & Lee Tze-Fan

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A little while ago I spent an afternoon at the National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院) here in Taipei, whose main claim to fame is it that it houses one of the largest collections of Chinese art and artifacts in the world. The story, as I understand it, is that when the Nationalist forces were retreating to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese Civil War, they grabbed as many artifacts as they could from museums and storehouses, either for altruistic purposes or with visions of future monetary gain; the altruistic reason could very possibly be the one though, as many people in China regretted the many artistic treasures — such as Ming dynasty ceramics, which we all know as a synonym for ‘fancy, expensive auction item’ — which were sold-off by warlords in the preceding thirty years or so. It should also be noted that many Chinese are actually very grateful the Nationalists did this, as it is highly likely these artifacts would have been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Unfortunately, most of the artifacts are actually pretty dull. There are urns, some urns, and, um, oh yes — some more urns. If you’re an urn fanatic, then get thee to the NPM. Even their ‘prized possessions’ are somewhat laughable — one is a sculpture in jade of a Chinese cabbage, the other is a rock that looks like piece of pork.


Now, these are neat looking and all, and I understand that there was probably a fair amount of artistic skill involved to carve these so intricately, but you wouldn’t believe the special treatment these things get. They (along with some other things of the same ilk) are in their own special room, the lights dimmed, each in a separate display case with very soft spotlights casting more of a glow on them instead of actually lighting them up. Photography is forbidden (notwithstanding the photos above). And they are popular; I tried for about ten minutes to get a close-up view of the cabbage, but couldn’t even get near the thing for the waves upon waves of Japanese and Korean tourists and Taiwanese school-children filing through the room, pushing and shoving for space, camera flashes going off unabated (despite the futile attempts of stewards to abate). I don’t know if the popularity is because this type of sculpture is really respected and marvelled at in Asia, or if it’s simply because these items were taken directly from the Forbidden City in Beijing and so they have an aura of ‘the forbidden’ about them; overall though, I consider them no more than fancy trinkets (There is, however, a very nice ‘peace garden’ next to the museum, pictures of which are here).

For me, the best exhibits were those devoted to two painters — the well known Italian missionary Giuseppe Castiglione (郎世寧 1688 – 1766), and the hardly known outside of Taiwan Lee Tze-Fan (李澤藩 1907 – 1989).

Castiglione predates the mafia with his version of 'sleeping with the fishes'

Castiglione was quite the interesting character (from the NPM website):

Among the many Western missionary-painters who came to China, perhaps one of the most talented and well known was Giuseppe Castiglione, also known by his Chinese name Lang Shih-ning. Castiglione was born in the city of Milan, Italy. At the age of 19, he entered Society of Jesus in Genoa as a novitiate, studying oil painting and architecture as well. In 1714, he was sent to China for missionary work and by 1715 had arrived at Peking . . . at the Ch’ing court, Castiglione devoted himself to harmonizing Western painting techniques with Chinese styles, subjects, and materials. In addition to providing instruction in oil painting, he also took part in the architectural design of . . . European-style buildings . . .

What really sets Castiglione’s work apart from his Chinese contemporaries is his use of colour — he really worked at successfully merging Western artistic techniques with the Chinese style and subject matter; as a result, many of the most famous ‘Chinese’ paintings of that era are actually his.

One which deserves special mention is A Hundred Steeds:

Handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 94.5 x 776.2 cm (click on the picture for a large version)

First off, there’s the sheer size of it — almost eight metres long (roughly 26 feet). The colouring and shading techniques employed here were foreign to Chinese painters at the time, and finally, well, I just think it’s hilarious that a Catholic missionary concocted what could very easily be described as a ‘Kama Sutra for horses’ (although you could argue he was just being a naturalist, but anyway). Here’s a link to more of the paintings found in the exhibit.

Lee Tze-Fan was basically the opposite of Castiglione — a Chinese painter who went to the West (from the NPM website):

Lee Tze-Fan, born in Hsinchu City, was among the first generation of Western-style painters in Taiwan. After he began studying watercolor painting from the Japanese Western-style artist Ishikawa Kinichiro (1871-1945) in 1924 (during Japan’s rule of the island), Lee resolved to devote himself to the world of art . . . Lee Tze-Fan’s paintings represent the spectrum of art trends that swept Taiwan throughout much of the twentieth century, ranging from social realism in the 1950s to abstract expressionism of the 1960s and the return to nativism in the 1970s. In each of these stages, his art advanced and he continued to make breakthroughs. Into the 1980s, his paintings increasingly came to reveal a style fusing the techniques of Chinese and Western manners along with the spirit of life and culture in Taiwan. In the end, his works express a deep and overall artistic essence along with personalized, individual emotion.

Lee actually travelled extensively in North America (and, if I remember correctly, he had many, many children, some of whom lived in either Canada or the States), and while he was there he painted quite extensively. I can tell you it was very strange to be in Taiwan, walking through an exhibition by a painter I hadn’t heard of before, and see paintings of Niagara Falls and New York.

Sunset Over New York City, 1975, watercolour on paper, 54 x 77 (click on the picture for a large version)

drawingWhat strikes me most about Lee’s style is what you could alternately call his versatility, restlessness, or desire to copy the prevailing trend of the day. I know that many painters experiment with different styles throughout their careers, but as you can see from the bio above, Lee seemed to do so based on what was fashionable at the time. Nevertheless, he moves between these styles with such technical expertise and grace that you can’t help but be impressed. Here’s a link to more of the paintings found in the exhibit.

The Lee Tze-Fan Memorial Art Gallery is in his hometown of Hsinchu; it’s about an hour from Taipei by train, and I teach there once a week. I think I’ll have to pop in to the gallery one day to check it out. 03971semaj

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, September 6, 2010 10:48 pm

    I finally made it to the Lee Tze-Fan Gallery in Hsinchu; it’s a very tiny space on the third floor of a nondescript building near the train station. There were only about 10 – 12 of his paintings on display, plus his old easel. It was kind of nice and peaceful in its quiet and simplicity, but I worry for its survival, as it appeared to not be in the best of ways.

  2. Friday, July 5, 2013 2:09 am

    Um. . . maybe you should get yourself acquainted with Chinese art before passing judgement on THE finest collection of Chinese arts and artifacts in the world. Oh yes, those are not really “urns.” Those are testaments to some of the most advanced metallurgical technology in the ancient world.

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