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|December 3, 2012
Moments in ArtGetting on the Good List
by Lawrence Jeppson
After the 1973 Taiwan Independence Rally in Washington, D.C., that I wrote about in my previous column, I was certain that Kuomintang agents had added my name with that of artist Tsing-fang Chen and revolutionary leader Ming-min Peng to the list of enemies of the Chiang Kai-shek regime.
I figured I would never be allowed to visit Taiwan, but Chen, who had family back in Taiwan, knew that his life would be in jeopardy if he ever returned.
Our own government took note of these activities. I was interviewed by two men who represented themselves as reporters for the New York Times and quizzed me at length about my association with these particular Taiwanese — how had I met them, how long had I known them, what I was doing with them and for them. I am convinced they were not with the newspaper but agents for our own CIA.
The fact that I was a son-in-law of a United States senator might have caused them to raise an eyebrow. (I have a couple of humorous anecdotes about my earlier encounters with the CIA, but not for this column.)
After Chen exhibited at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, new shows did not come quickly, but he did get exhibits that I attended in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins and St. Paul at the University of Minnesota.
Dr. Kuo arranged for Chen to have an exhibition in Tokyo. Taking advantage of a Pan-Am ticket offer of buy one, get one free, Frances and I joined the Chens for this event. Luckily, the timing was the same as a retrospective of the art of Mary Cassatt in Nara, not far from Kyoto, for which I had procured the loan of a Cassatt portrait belonging to a collector in France. I wanted to see the show.
When Frances and I arrived in Japan, we became the guests of Dr. Kuo, who was appreciative of the work I had done in Washington. We were able to meet Japanese art dealers and visit Tokyo art museums. He even sent us on a tour that took us to Kyoto and Nara. And we participated in Chen’s show.
In the meantime, in Taiwan the old Generalissimo had died. Chiang’s son and heir took over the government, and the ex-pats began to hope. When the son died in 1988, a new KMT president began to reform the government, and four years later a change in the Criminal Code allowed citizens to advocate independence without being charged with sedition. Amnesty was granted to political prisoners, and the international blacklist was abolished.
In 1981, these reforms were still in the future. I was interested in exploring the art market in Asia. Taking advantage of Pan-Am’s BOGO, we booked our original ticket to extend to Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Taipei.
Risking Taipei gave us some worry. Since we were not spies, we let the Taiwanese government know we were coming. We were given a telephone number to call. Being Americans, we didn’t have the same fears as our ex-pat friends. But we could have been picked up and thoroughly interrogated.
We were picked up in a bullet-proof limousine.
Our host was not an intelligence officer but a ranking member of the Ministry of Education, who welcomed us warmly. We were shown the city and taken to the eye-popping, beautiful memorial to Chiang Kai-shek. That evening he took us to dinner at the Chinese restaurant in the Hilton Hotel.
The next day we were taken to museums and met the director of one of them. He snorted when he learned the Ministry of Education had taken us to an Americanized Chinese restaurant. He took us to what he considered the best authentic Chinese place in the city. Ironically, we had found this place ourselves two nights before.
In Taipei, as in Tokyo, we were treated royally, far better than we deserved. We concluded that the Taiwanese government wanted to woo us, to bring us to their side. Indeed, for several years I kept in contact with some of the people we met. (Did those watching us know we attended LDS services in Taipei?)
Recognition of Tsing-fang Chen’s art began to grow in Taiwan. A collection of his paintings circulated to several cultural centers located throughout the island, and Chen was able to return home without fear for his life. The biggest turning point came in 1990, when the Taiwan Museum of Art in Taipei assembled a collection of 100 of Chen’s Neo-Iconographical paintings. I think this was Chen’s largest such show up to that time.
I wrote an introduction to the big catalog, and for each of these 100 paintings I wrote an individual exegesis, a commentary and explanation of the icons used and possible meanings of the paintings.
Like my introduction, these commentaries were printed opposite their pictures in English and Chinese.
When America celebrated the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, Chen painted 100 different interpretations of the statue. He did the same to commemorate the birth of his favorite painter, Vincent Van Gogh; their exposition in Holland drew rave reviews. He painted a series on the Eiffel Tower and began another series based upon the centennial of Las Vegas, although this group was not completed. When the Olympics were held in Beijing, Chen went there and painted 100 magnificent interpretations of the games. The catalog is huge.
He did the same for the Shanghai World’s Fair; I wrote the introduction and some commentaries for the catalog.
Chen’s next big manifestation will be at next year’s Venice Biennalle, arguably the most important manifestation in world art. The Chens plan to list me as their curator for this show.
With the help of their son and daughter, Tsing-fang and his wife Lucia are an indomitable combination. She is a businesswoman of immense energy and intelligence. She manages and he paints. After moving to SoHo they purchased a five-story building and turned it into an art gallery and a cultural center. Lucia added a gallery in Taipei — and then galleries in Beijing and Shanghai.
Chen’s philosophy is too profound and complex to explore in these columns. In 1990, he summed it up in a huge suite of seven panels of acrylic on canvas totaling 9'2" high by 46'8" long, Towards the 21st Century, Symphony of World Culture, is a powerful amalgamation of dozens of the icons that mark his art.
For this Chen was honored as the first artist-painter to receive the Global Tolerance Ward from the Friends of the United Nations, who named him a Cultural Ambassador for Tolerance and Peace.
Chen has had more than 200 one-man exhibitions, has published more than 20 books, and has seen his art portrayed in more than 300 textbooks, art histories, and learned journals.
In Taiwan he is now considered a national treasure, a far cry from the days when he feared a visit back home might mean his imprisonment or death.
|Copyright © 2024 by Lawrence Jeppson
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