The National Palace Museum is currently exhibiting the works of Li
Mei-shu (1902-1983), one of Taiwan's most celebrated artists. His body of
work includes pieces done during Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945)--a
period during which painting flourished in Taiwan.
By Chinese reckoning, this year marks the 100th anniversary of
Li's birth. To commemorate the occasion, the Li Mei-shu Memorial Gallery,
located in Taipei County's Sanhsia, has generously allowed 33 of Li's
works to be displayed in the museum's Gallery 104.
The collection on display focuses on the people and places known
to the artist. These works, completed between 1919 and 1980, provide
visitors to the gallery with a glimpse of Li's body of work. At a press
conference to promote the display, a museum spokesman said that this
exhibit demonstrates Li's contribution to Sanhsia, as well as to Taiwan as
a whole. The museum, said the spokesman, hopes that members of the public
will come to appreciate Li's lifetime of achievements.
Li is considered a pioneer for bringing Western styles of
painting to Taiwan. A native of Sanhsia, Li was born to a wealthy family
at a time when most people in Taiwan were very poor. He therefore had the
opportunity to pursue his artistic interests. As a young man, the artist
was deeply influenced by his father and eldest brother, who instilled in
him a keen interest in art and music.
By 1914, Li had begun to study drawing and ink painting from his
Japanese fine-arts teacher, and four years later he entered what is now
the Taipei Teachers' College. In his spare time, Li studied art books from
Upon graduating, Li enrolled in a summer art class taught by
Ishikawa Kinichiro (1871-1945). Shortly thereafter his family allowed him
to move to Japan so that he could further his studies. In 1929, he was
admitted to the Western Painting Department at the Tokyo School of Fine
Arts, where he learned various styles from well-known Japanese painters.
It was in Tokyo that Li received a solid background in the Western
painting style called realism.
Li never tired of painting portraits. "The human line is the
most wonderful line," he said in 1966. "It is the most beautiful
work of God." Li's family, relatives, and friends all sat as models
for the artist. "Portrait of Dr. Liu Ching-kang," a 1947
portrait of Li's eldest brother--who adopted his mother's surname--is
injected with brotherly sentiment.
"Tea Picker" and "Seated Lady (3)" are two
works Li painted in the early 1960s to demonstrate simple and elegant
feminine beauty. He used his own daughters, dressed in costume and posing
in front of a suitable background, as models for these paintings. Not only
do these works stand as a testament to Li's skill at vivid expression and
realistic representation, but they also immortalize important moments in
the lives of his subjects.
One year after he came back from Japan, for example, he painted
his nephew's new wife in the impressionist style. His intention was to
create a classical oil painting of Taiwan beauty.
Works such as 1975's "On a Rooftop Garden" and 1979's
"Enjoying the Water," depicting Li's daughters-in-law, are
representative of the style he employed in his later years. One can see
that he has used bright sunshine in these scenes to bring out vivid colors
for an aesthetic effect that differs from his earlier work.
Su Chen-ming, a professor at a visual arts college, acts as a
guide to the exhibition. He says he is a fan of Li's landscape paintings,
particularly those that depict the Sanhsia area's river scenery. Su admits
to being moved by "Washing Clothes by the Clear Stream" and
"Morning Along the River," both of which depict the way Taiwan
peasant women used to wash their family's clothes in the river in the
Referring to "Morning Along the River," Su explained
that this painting of women wearing broad-brimmed rain hats and squatting
at the riverbank is a link to Taiwan's past. Matriarchs used to gather in
groups to do the wash and to exchange gossip.
Li Ching-yang, the artist's son, pointed out that older people
all seem to notice that the women in this painting are Southern Fukienese.
The clue, he explained, is that Southern Fukienese women would face the
river while washing. Hakka women, on the other hand, kept their backs to
the river and their eyes on the shore, so that nobody could sneak up on
Perhaps the most representative of Li's landscape paintings is
1977's "Spring Morning in Sanhsia," in which the curved arches
of the Sanhsia Bridge stand enveloped in the early morning light and mist
above the Sanhsia Stream. This painting evokes a sense of peace and
nostalgia among people familiar with the area.
Li's affection for his hometown serves as the inspiration for his
art. Many of his works depict people and events in Sanhsia. Since his
childhood, Li took part in the town's many folk activities, such as the
religious festivals, glove-puppet shows and Taiwanese opera performances
that flourished in the area at that time. Many of the pieces he did in his
teenage years depict traditional theatrical characters.
Li's famous "Tsu-shih Temple Festival" recreates events
taking place in front of the Sanhsia Tsu-shih Temple in the early 1960s,
while "Incantation" depicts worshipers inside the temple holding
ritual objects and reciting prayers. The evocative yellow, red and brown
hues in these two paintings reflect the artist's dedication to capturing
the characteristics of his hometown.
Other subjects favored by Li are everyday objects and women
performing household chores. In the eyes of historians and cultural
observers, Li's paintings are ethnographic and historical images that can
serve as a window to the past. In the 1930s, the artist faithfully
recorded family life in Taiwan. Body language, facial expressions,
hairstyles, tableware, typical dishes, and women knitting and doing other
handicrafts all found themselves duplicated on his canvas. Consistent with
the style taught to him by his Japanese mentor, his works from this period
are noticeably mild in color.
Li was insistent that his works be as realistic as possible.
Using the technology of photography to help him improve his painting, the
artist would take several photographs of models in different postures,
paying especially close attention to light and background when painting
women. In his later period Li developed a great devotion to public affairs
and would often use his camera to do composition work.
Li personally inspected the clothing and accoutrements of his
models, as well as the props in the background. He painstakingly
reproduced every minute detail, from his grandson's toys and pets right
down to legible handwriting on a calendar in the background of one of his
paintings. In Su's opinion, it is Li's attention to detail and dedication
to realism that are responsible for his success not only with academics
but also with ordinary people.
Li had three passions: art, education and local politics. Before
moving to Japan to advance his studies, the artist spent a short time
teaching fine arts at elementary school. After he reached the age of 34,
he began a career in local politics, eventually serving as chairman of the
Sanhsia farmers' association. During that time he produced works of art
depicting the daily lives of farmers on the island--picking wax apples,
digging sweet potatoes and working in rice paddies. He even convinced some
of the association's clerks to model for him.
In the 1960s, Li began teaching at universities, nurturing the
careers of many students who are now among Taiwan's outstanding painters.
Chen Ming-ching, an artist who studied under Li, said he was especially
impressed with the economy of style in Li's "Turkeys." The vivid
painting of three turkeys, Chen emphasized, "wastes no brush
strokes." The public will be able to enjoy the exhibition of Li's
work until Aug. 5. A variety of the artist's oil paintings, watercolors,
ink paintings and pencil sketches are on display. For the duration of the
exhibition, the museum will be holding symposiums and speeches on
holidays, as well as parent-child activities designed to help the public
learn about the artist and the beauty of Sanhsia.