Art Column
Classics of Liao Chi-chun Sensing Eternity in the Use of Colors
Odile Chen / Ravenel Quarterly No. 21 2017/05 / 2017-05-11

As his name suggests ("abiding spring"), the extraordinary elder generation Taiwanese painter Liao Chi-chun has preserved his eternal youth. As a contemporary artist, Liao has created many rare treasures over the course of more than 70 years of his life, and has consistently maintained his youthful vigor. Always sensitive to color, Liao has derived a distinctive subtropical southern style from the colors of folk temples and buildings, landscapes, and still lifes of flowers and vases. Observing generational change in the art market, the post-1962 works of Liao Chi-chun, who grew up during the Japanese colonial period, pursued self-exploration, and absorbed ideas and techniques from the American abstract expressionists, are prized by both academic researchers and collectors. Exulting in his freedom, the painter Liao Chi-chun seems to use color to hint at his premonitions of the changing times, which can be left unspoken.

 

The 2017 Lunar New Year was not long ago, and there is still a chill in the early spring air, but the art world has had some good news. A book recording some of the greatest works in Taiwan’s art history – Centurial Rarity: Complete Works of Liao Chi-chun – was formally announced on February 11 at the Ever Harvest Art Gallery in Taipei. The “Complete Works” was produced with the authorization and assistance of Liao Chi-chun’s family, and was jointly edited by the Harvest Art Gallery’s Jeffrey Yu and Cecilia Cheng. Eight of Liao’s major representative works were displayed in conjunction with the book announcement conference, and representative members of Liao Chi-chun’s family, painters who had been taught by Liao as students, collectors, media personnel, and various figures from the art world were among the notable guests in attendance. Because of the rarity and spectacular nature of these works, original plans called for them to be put on display for a two-day period arranged to coincide with the book’s publication. However, after strenuous appeals from family members and viewers, the display period was specially extended to two weeks. As a result, this small but extraordinary exhibition of Liao Chi-chun’s works ended up having the highest CP value among Taipei’s artistic and cultural activities during February.

 

 

Remarkable Paintings with a Historical Aura

Centurial Rarity: Complete Works of Liao Chi-chun contains 317 of the artist’s paintings, including 260 something oil paintings and small numbers of pastels, sketches, and prints. According to Jeffrey Yu, Liao Chi-chun dedicated his life to education, engaged in art education throughout northern and southern Taiwan for several tens of years, and lived a simple and austere life. It was not easy for Liao to devote effort to making art, which is why his works are limited in number. Cecilia Cheng also noted that Yu and she spent several years planning and producing this album, and this work involved great responsibility to history. And while Cheng and Yu did their utmost to collect the works of Liao Chi-chun, she noted that she is not entirely satisfied with their result, since there is still a small number of works for which she cannot obtain image files. However, she nevertheless is hopeful that this book will serve as a starting point for the publicization of Liao’s art. The album also sows the seeds of hope for art brokers, and truly represents an admirable step forward. With regard to this artist and his peers, Taiwan’s government and art organizations can and should have much room for further effort. At present, Liao Chi-chun’s great importance in art history is out of proportion to his obscurity in the public eye. Since even TV news announcers don’t know about Chen Chengpo and Liao Chi-chun, how knowledgeable are most people about the art of Liao Chichun?

 

Throughout the 74 years of Liao Chichun’s life, he may have produced fewer than 300 oil paintings, as well as only around 33 pastels and watercolors, 21 sketches, and one print. In comparison with the more than 300 oil paintings and two or three thousand paper paintings of the very popular overseas Chinese painter Sanyu, Liao’s output was exceptionally scanty, and thus worth treasuring. Both Liao and Sanyu were known for their distinctive personalities, and each one’s appealing and highly idiosyncratic style has made a lasting mark on the art world. Having been born at nearly the same time (they differed in age by only 1 year), their major creative work is gathered on the beautiful island of Taiwan.

 

Art organizations in Taiwan have collected a total of 48 of Liao Chichun’s works: The Taipei Fine Arts Museum possesses 37 of Liao’s works (9 oil paintings, 17 watercolors & pastels, and 11 sketches), the Taiwan Museum of Art possesses 5 oil paintings, the National Museum of History possesses 5 oil paintings, and one of Liao’s oil paintings has been collected by the Taichung Fengyuan Public Office, which is in the artist's hometown. It is also known that the Taipei National Museum of History has collected 52 of Sanyu’s works: 49 oil paintings and 3 drawings; at the time this quarterly was published, the “Remembering Paris: Exhibition of Sanyu’s Works from the Museum’s Collection” was being held at the Taipei National Museum of History.

 

It has been reported that Lin Hsiming – Liao Chi-chun’s grandson – noted that members of the family possess a total of more than 70 paintings. The family originally planned to publish an album for commemorative purposes, but later decided to cooperate with the Ever Harvest Art Gallery in producing an album. It has taken approximately ten years to edit this book, and the work was daunting at times. It is no easy task for a commemorative museum or museum of fine art to establish an artist’s reputation and work. But in order to help the academic world better understand this painter’s art and life, family members donated a lot of paintings to Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 1996, and established the Liao Chi-chun Commemorative Scholarship Account Management  Committee during the following year. The Liao Chi-chun Commemorative Scholarship Account seeks to build on the painter’s contributions to education by providing grants to young artists. In addition, the “Liao Chi-chun Oil Painting Award,” which has been held with funding from the Liao Chi-chun Commemorative Scholarship Account nine times since 2000, has provided tangible encouragement to the ten contemporary artists Chu You-yi, Hung Tien-yu, Lu Hsien-ming, Abugy, Liu Kuo-cheng, Kuo Wei-kuo, Chen Meng-tze, Lin Chinhsien, Tang Ruo-hung, and Chen Tienmao. Although, due to lack of funds, the Scholarship Account cannot continue to provide grants, and the artist’s successors cannot help but lament that research and promotion have fallen short of expectations, nevertheless they still hope that educational extension activities will ensure that the influence of Liao Chichun’s art will continue far into the future.

 

 

An Artist with Character and Originality

This extraordinary painter of the older generation, devoted much of his time to the cause of art education in Taiwan. He spent 50 years as a teacher, and he is still considered a model. And as a contemporary artist, Liao encouraged students to think for themselves, and make art based on their ideas. This kind of novel thinking was considered heretical at the time, and Liao’s survival and influence within the conservative teacher education system was a difficult feat.

 

Liao Chi-chun was born on January 4, 1902 in a small hut near Huludun (today’s Fengyuan), Taichung County. This small hut was where the person who watched over the water gates controlling local irrigation water resided. Liao’s parents passed away while he was still young, making him an orphan, and he was raised to adulthood by older brother Liao Chijung and his wife, who were farmers. The family was impoverished but hardworking. The inspiration for Liao Chichun’s paintings was derived from seeing his mother make embroidered shoes when he was a young child, and the seeds of a love of beauty took root and grew in his soul. In spite of the family’s difficult economic circumstances, Liao was raised in a warm household, and attended Fengyuan Huludun Public School. Thanks to his hard work, Liao was able to make the trip to Taipei to take the high school examination in 1918, and he was admitted to the Class B Teacher Training Program  of the Taiwan Governor-General’s National Language School. While at school, Liao once saw Japanese art students painting in Taipei’s New Park, which inspired his interest in oil painting. He subsequently embarked on his own exploratory attempts at oil painting using a set of oil paints and equipment that someone had purchased in Tokyo, along with a pamphlet introducing oil painting.

 

After graduating from the teacher training program, Liao returned home and became a teacher at the school he had attended as a child. At that time, he planned to propose to Lin Chiunghsien, whom he had secretly been in love with for many years, but Lin’s parents refused to let their daughter marry a man from such an impoverished family, which caused Liao to actually become ill from heartache. Lin Chiung-hsien was from a relatively affluent family living in Fengyuan, and was the first-place graduate of Changhua Women’s High School. Lin’s great self-confidence and determination greatly moved and impressed Liao Chichun. While Lin didn’t care if her future husband was poor, their marriage was premised on the requirement that he must study overseas and return with a degree before marrying and starting a family. In 1924, Liao Chi-chun entered the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. After graduating three years later, he became a teacher at Tainan Changrong Middle School and Women’s Middle School. Around this period, two of his works were finalists at the 1st Taiwan Art Exhibition, and “Still Life” received the highest honor – Special Selection – in the Western painting category. In 1928, his “Courtyard with Banana Trees” was a finalist at the 9th Imperial Art Exhibition in Japan. This achievement was the start of Liao’s reputation, and established his status in the art world. This painting, which has entered history as one of the classical works in the development of Western art in Taiwan, is now in the permanent collection of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

 

Liao Chi-chun and his wife raised seven children, including five boys and two girls. The financial burden on the household was heavy, and in order to help her husband continue to produce art, Liao’s wife ran an art materials and implement shop, which allowed Liao to make art when not busy with his work. From today’s perspective, it is admirable that his wife did so much to encourage his artistic progress, but it is also due to her powerful personality that nudes disappeared entirely from his later works. While Sanyu freely painted women, animals, and flowers, the topics of Liao Chi-chun’s paintings consisted of landscapes and still lifes of flower arrangements. Liao grew up during the period of Japanese occupation. Having undergone study in Japan, selfexploration, and encounters with the  transformations in the times, Liao was still able to maintain his youthful vigor, and like his name “abiding spring,” he seemed to always preserve his youthfulness. When encountering the early impressionist, later impressionist, and Fauvist styles, he was able to foresee contemporary trends before they happened. He always had great sensitivity to colors, and he used colors in profusion. From the colors he used to portray local shrines and buildings, we can see the distinctive southern hues of subtropical Taiwan.

 

Always gentle but somewhat impassive, Liao possessed exceptional talents. He underwent a period of deprivation in the wake of World War II, and his good friend Chen Cheng-po was put to death during the 1947 228 Incident. Having studied in Japan, Liao was one of the targets of repression during the early post-war period, but Liao still managed to produce some remarkable paintings during this time of trouble. In fact many of Liao’s early oil paintings reflect the historical changes and thinking of the times. Afterwards, after the painter Liu Kuo-sung, we come to Taiwan from mainland China, launched a wave of anti-traditionalism during the 1950s, in spite of the fact that Liao Chichun was caught up in the turmoil of the times, he nevertheless treated his students with great compassion and tolerance, and sought to defuse the intense generation gap and prejudices that separated him from his students. As a result, the fiercely youthful Liu Kuo-sung referred to Liao as a “highly accomplished and upright painter.”

 

In 1962, responding to an invitation from the US State Department, Liao Chichun took an artistic fact-finding trip to Europe and the United States, and this experience caused a pivotal transformation in his art. Liao relished telling his son, who was already living in the US at the time, that he seemed to be able to see his own paintings in American museums. What he meant was not that his paintings are actually displayed in those museums, but that he had pioneered exploratory ideas and techniques as early as the leading American abstract expressionist painters. Liao’s trip increased his selfconfidence, which allowed him to cast aside the burden of his self-misgivings, and his art consequently made a huge leap forward after his return to Taiwan. His works after 1962 were characterized by free and unrestrained use of colors and forms, which is what academic researchers and collectors most prized in Liao’s work.

 

 

The High Price Threshold of a Classical Artist’s Paintings; Cultural Creativity Attracts a New Generation of Collectors

Liao’s art was much anticipated due to its rarity, and the importance of his paintings made them lasting classics. During his lifetime, Liao Chi-chun seldom sold his works, and most were given away to friends and family members. During the 1970’s, Tsai Chen-nan of the Cathay Group became the first corporate head to purchase paintings from the then-elderly painter. Tsai established the Cathay Art Museum in 1977, and in 1981 published Collected Paintings of Liao Chi-chun, which contained more than 80 of Liao’s oil paintings and paper works from different periods that were in Tsai’s  collection. Because of the paintings' known provenance and exceptional talent, the album later became an important reference for collectors and art dealers. Thanks to his extensive financial resources and aesthetic judgment, Tsai Chen-nan made many large purchases of paintings by artists from the older generation, which induced many real estate developers to follow suit. This initiated the art market with active trading in Taiwan. But when the Tsai family was implicated in the Shi-hsin and Kuo-hsin cases during the mid-1980s, the family had to sell numerous works by older painters, including many by Liao Chi-chun, in order to avoid ruin. Nowadays, the family that owns the Cathay Group is still one of the wealthiest in Taiwan, and the members of the Tsai family are still regularly involved in the art market, where their purchasing ability is still amazing.

 

During the late 1980s, the average market price of Liao Chi-chun’s paintings was approximately NT$100,000 per “Hao”(unit size). As the market heated up, price of his paintings increased to around NT$200,000 per “Hao”, or even NT$600,000 per “Hao”, after 1990, but because of the scarcity of his works, they were not commonly seen on the market. Most of Liao’s paintings on the market were old works being resold, and prices jumped considerably each time the paintings changed hands. Around 2000, the prices of Liao’s oil paintings had already broken through the NT$1 million level. The highest prices of his paintings surpassed the US$1 million mark in 2005, putting them on a par with the works of internationally famous painters. To date, the highest auction price of one of Liao Chi-chun’s paintings was obtained by No. 50 “Garden”, which fetched HK$35.05 million (approximately US$4.51 million or NT$140 million) in the 2008 Hong Kong Christies spring auction. Liao’s second highest-priced painting was No. 30 “Canal”, which was originally in the Yageo Foundation’s collection, and fetched NT$80.85 million (approximately US$2.52 million) in the 2006 Taipei Ravenel spring auction. Nowadays, the average price of Liao’s paintings is approximately 2.7-2.8 million.

 

Since paintings by Liao Chi-chun routinely fetch several millions or tens of millions of NT dollars, apart from company owners and very deep-pocketed collectors, ordinary new art buyers and younger buyers would have difficulty buying any of his paintings. This situation applies to the works of both Sanyu and Liao Chi-chun. If someone can’t afford one of Sanyu’s oil paintings, they might consider a watercolor sketch, but with his watercolors selling for as high as NT$20 million and his sketches selling for as high as NT$5 million, and even small prints selling for over NT$1 million, buying a work by Sanyu is basically just a dream. As a result, when the National Museum of History introduced its cultural creativity products for 2017, both major collectors and smaller collectors went into a buying frenzy, and the attractive reproduction paintings and albums sold out the first day they were put on display.

 

Returning to the example of Liao Chichun, Liao’s paper works are not as numerous as Sanyu’s, and fewer than 100 are known. The painter’s family still holds approximately 70 of his paintings, and the second-generation family members, who still keenly remember the past, are mostly unwilling to sell their father’s paintings. However, as the second-generation ages (they are at least 70 or 80 years old, the third and fourth generations are absorbing modern thinking, and are becoming receptive to the importance of educational extension and cultural creativity. Recently, Liao Chi-chun’s family established an art company, which issued a series of prints for the purpose of educational extension not long after it was established. These prints were distributed to elementary and middle schools in an effort to promote art education at an early age. Looking ahead to the future, there may be opportunities to replicate the successful model established by Sanyu’s cultural creativity products, which can serve as a blueprint for art extension involving Liao Chi-chun.

 

As generations change in the art market, and artistic styles increasingly cater to youth, originality, and international perspectives, as members of Taiwan’s art community, we can be optimistic that the early generation of Taiwanese artists headed by Liao Chi-chun will continue to appeal to collectors in the 21st century, and that we can also let even more international collectors appreciate Liao Chi-chun, who deserves be known for both his upstanding character and his outstanding artistic achievements.  

 


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