| They take pleasure in observing nature and daily
life, both indoors and out. People going about their daily affairs are
their ultimate inspiration. They pursue the genuine spirit and not just
physical truths, using a complicated palette of colors to portray images
as close as possible to reality. In other words, the record life as art
with as much objectivity as possible. To these artists, realism is way of
This school can be traced back to the days of French Gustave
Courbet and Jean-Francois Millet. In the nineteenth century, Japanese
artists such as Kuroda Seiki (黑田清輝) and Okada Saburo (岡田三郎)
brought the art's influence to Japan, and, by opening the Tokyo School of
Fine Arts, set the foundation for this kind of art in Japan.
For Taiwanese who dreamt of becoming painters in the days of the
Japanese occupation, Tokyo's School of Fine Arts was a goal almost beyond
hope. Only a handful of extremely talented and wealthy students were
These lucky once, including Li Mei-shu (李梅樹 1902-1983), Lee
Shi-chao (李石樵 1908-), Lao Chih-chuan (廖繼春 1901-1976), Chen
Cheng-po (陳澄波 1985-1947) and Chen Jhi-chi (陳植棋 1905-1931),
eventually became the pioneers of modern painting in Taiwan. Their
influence is still evident to this day.
Among these Taiwanese masters, Li is arguably the most
Born to a rich family in Sanshia, Li had developed an early
interest in painting. After graduating from Taipei Teacher's College, He
soon became an elementary teacher and spent his free hours painting.
Later, His family arranged his marriage for him and the obedient
Li and no choice. Fortunately, being in the family's good graces paid off.
In 1927, when he was selected to display his works in the 1st Taiwan Fine
Arts Exhibition, his family went all out to support him.
His brother, Lio Chin-gan (劉清港), provided the financial
support that made it possible for him to board the ship to Japan, with his
brushes and a photo of Lio, which he kept with him for the rest of his
In the early 30's, Li returned to Taiwan and gained fame in a
very short time. His style was, through his Japanese teachers, influenced
by realism, naturalism and impressionism.
Since the Tokyo School of Fine Arts had a tradition of students'
sketches to decide if they would be admitted, Li had a solid foundation on
which to base his future works. And like many young painters, he created a
number of still lifes, conversation pieces and self-portraits.
Upon returning to Taiwan, he painted in his studio in Sanshia and
almost exhausted himself painting night and day. By this time, he was
already a regular participant in major exhibitions. In 1937, he was
honored with the "Taiwan-Japan Culture Award" and in 1939, his
Girl in The Red Dress was selected for the 3rd Japanese Cultural
Li has a fondness for warm colors, particularly red, when
presenting oriental women under the soft glow of a lamplight. Many figures
in his painting have primitive or meek visages.
Later, as World War II escalated, many artists were drafted to
serve in the army. Li managed to survive the war but after that, he had
few chances to participate in exhibitions in either Japan or Taiwan.
During this stage in his art, his female figures were less
somber. They had broader shoulders and vibrant faces. Changes in his life
had a major impact on the way he looked at the world, and these
mother-of-earth images were his praises to life.
Coming from one of the wealthiest families in Sanhsai, Li became
involved in local politics in the latter years of the Japanese occupation.
Apart from his daily duties, Li found time to make sketches of the people
However, his pursuit of art also interested him in another
prolonged task. "My father devoted most of the second half of his
life to the reconstruction of the Sanhsai Tsushih Temple (三峽祖師廟),
said his son Li Chin-kuan (李景光).
Immigrants from China started to settle in Sanhsai late in the
Ming Dynasty period. Most of them were from Anxi County, Fujian Province.
They made Sanhsai one of the most prosperous towns in northern Taiwan and
set the cultural background of the area.
The Tsushih Temple has long been a community center for the
people of Sanhsai. The temple was first built in 1769. It was rebuilt in
1833 after an earthquake struck the region months before. In 1895, when
war broke out between China and Japan, and the Japanese destroyed the
temple. It was again rebuilt in 1899.
During World War II, Taiwan was still under Japanese occupation,
and Sanhsai was one of the towns frequently hit by American bombers, and
the temple was once again severely damaged. Soon after the Retrocession,
local people invited artist Li Mei-shu, who also a political figure and a
Sanhsai native, to take charge of refurbishing the dilapidated temple. In
late 1947 Li formally took over as chief designer and planner for the
third renovation of the temple.
Li Mei-shu financed the project and recruited the best craftsmen
he could find in Taiwan and also invited people from Fujian Province.
Working side-by-side with craftsmen, his goal was to rebuild the temple
with an emphasis on oriental aesthetics, making it a price of art and a
legacy that will outlive his era.
It was also during this time that he began to create bigger
paintings. In the Gloaming (1948), with his daughters and niece as models,
he captures, as a critic commented, the dry dusty air glowing red with the
light from the setting sun. Li's demand for perfection made the
reconstruction project of the Tsushih Temple extraordinarily
time-consuming. When Li passed Away in 1983, his architectural masterpiece
was still unfinished.
Since then, the project has been tossed back and forth between
authorities. Without its heavyweight leader, the project was called to
halt by people who were and are still against it. Local laws also
aggravate the situation.
"Once these areas are tagged by government as, say,
historical sites, it's against the law to further 'develop' them,"
explained Li Chin-kuan. "Besides, traditionally, Tsushih Temple is
run by big families in Sanshia, so any temple project must be approved by
all its board members, which makes it almost impossible to resume
construction," he added.
What's worse is that skilled craftsmen are disappearing.
According to Li Chin-kuan, only a handful of the big team from his
father's era are still alive. Some stayed at home, jobless, while others
were forced to take jobs in other construction sites or become betel nut
Local press would publicize the situation sporadically to get
people's attention, says Li, but most of time, this sort of publicity
doesn't last long.
For the past few decades, economic development has been the focus
in Taiwan and this overemphasis has taken its toll on some of Taiwan's
cultural treasures. Now thank god, the government and private sectors are
making and effort to thoroughly plan development without trampling over
Taiwan's cultural heritage. However, it may not be enough to preserve old
towns like Sanshia.
Li Chin-kuan is currently running the Li Mei-shu Memorial Gallery
in Sanshia. During my trip to the museum, he spent most of the time
talking about his father's unfinished job and his devotion to his art.
"My father never sold his paintings," recalled Li Chi-kuan.
"But when he taught at school, he sold some of them to obtain money
to aid his students."
Most of Li Mei-shu's paintings are owned by his Memorial Gallery,
though some have been acquired by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Only a few
pieces are held by private collectors.
The Memorial Gallery sits quietly in one of the low buildings in
Sanshia, within a five-minute walk of Li Mei-shus's beloved Tsushih
Temple. Sanshia's maze of old streets is also a mere five-minute walk from
Tsushin Temple, the old streets and Li Mei-shu represent the
memory of Sanshia's glory. All these sites are usually crowded on
weekends. But couples, art lovers, and curious tourists of all ages can
find a nostalgic retreat among all these lovely sites.
Note: You are strongly suggested to take a bus, especially on the
weekend, to Sanshia. Most tourist maps highlight these sites. A Website in
Chinese, English and Japanese provided by the gallery would also help. Log
on to: www.limeishu.org