Pioneering painter's legacy lives on decades after his tragic death

Pioneering painter's legacy lives on decades after his tragic death
Chen Cheng-po painted "Chiayi Street Scene" in 1934.
PHOTO: Nikkei Asian Review

CHIAYI, Taiwan - Chen Cheng-po, one of Taiwan's first Western-style painters, was born in 1895, the year Japanese forces occupied the island. In the upheaval of 1947, two years after the Japanese relinquished control, he was shot dead in Chiayi, the hometown he had lovingly depicted.

Today, his paintings are recognized for breaking new ground with a blend of artistic styles. Thousands of artworks and personal effects are now being compiled and registered in a project at Academia Sinica's Institute of Taiwan History.

The Portuguese called Taiwan Ilha Formosa, or beautiful island. One of Chen's best-known paintings, titled "Chiayi Street Scene," depicts the sawmill town in the morning sun. The vivid contrast between light and shadow is characteristic of the tropics.

In the painting, a rickshaw carries a woman with a parasol past a three-story concrete department store -- the town's tallest building. In the shade, a stooping man appears to be looking in the window of the Niitaka photography studio. Climbers out to conquer nearby Jade Mountain, or Yushan, would stop there to have their pictures taken. The Japanese called the mountain Niitakayama, or New High Mountain, since it is higher than Mount Fuji. If you look closely, you can see a mountain logo on the studio's sign.

"Chen Cheng-po's paintings should be called 'environment paintings' rather than 'landscapes,'" said Hsiao Chong-ray, a Taiwanese art historian. "He did not just depict what he saw, he tried to accurately convey Taiwan's nature, traditions and present [state]," Hsiao added, pointing to examples such as "Chiayi Street Scene" and "Downtown Chiayi."

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