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FROM CHINA TO TAIWAN. Pioneers of abstraction

Pioneers of abstraction (1955-1985)

In 1930s traditional China, a nucleus of modernist painters were born, thanks to the teaching at the School of Fine Art in Hangzhou, where some of the professors had studied in Europe. Today, three artists who attended there, are now considered pioneers of Chinese abstract art.  They were Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), Chu Teh-Chun (1920-2014), who studied from 1935 to 1941, and Lee Chun-Shan (1912-1984) who taught from 1937 to 1946.

In 1949, eight years after the Japanese invasion (1937-1945) the defeat of Kuo-mintang and the seizure of power by Mao Zedong, more than a million Chinese left the continent to go to Taiwan, where the Chang Kai-Chek government had withdrawn. While Zao Wu-Ki left China a year earlier to settle in Paris, Chu Teh-Chun and Lee Chun-Shan moved to Taipei in 1949.

In 1950, fearing conflict with western China, the United States made the island an American protectorate. Through work displayed at the American Library in Taipei, artists discovered Western modern art, work filled with vitality from the New York school.

While the political regime of Chang Kai Chek focussed on maintaining Chinese tradition, these young exiled painters took an opposing view of such conservatism. The two most important Taiwanese avant-garde movements were born in 1956 and 1957. The Ton Fan group was founded by eight students of Lee Chun-Shan, and the Wuyeu group, also known as Fifth Moon, by some who had studied under Chu Teh-Chun.

In 1958, Zao Wou-Ki's stay in Hong Kong had a great impact on young Taiwanese artists who discovered, through the newspapers publishing his latest works that a compatriot who knew the modernity of Paris was following The Way of Abstraction.


Ton Fan group (1956-1971)

Ton Fan was created in 1956 by eight students of professor Lee Chun-Shan (1912-1984).  Their first exhibition was in November 1957 in the Taiwan Shin Sheng Daily News building in Taipei. The name, meaning Orient in Chinese, expressed a desire not to depart from oriental culture.

From the beginning, the group displayed a vanguard spirit by focusing exclusively on abstraction. The chronicler Ho Fan (1910-2002) described its members as horseback brigands to emphasize their intrepid spirit.

Europe had a strong influence on the group. Hsiao Chin, who had studied in Spain and settled in Milan, regularly sent articles from Europe which were published in the Taipei United Daily News. These writings, relating to European art news, were much anticipated on an island where such information was rare. He went on to organise group exhibitions in Europe and the United States, including New York, Stuttgart and Turin, as well as exhibitions by European artists such as Lucio Fontana, François Morellet, Piero Manzoni and Antoni Tapiès.

The group announced their dissolution after their fifteenth exhibition in 1971.  Its members continued their principles through the creation of the Lee Chun-Shan Foundation, whom they considered their spiritual guide.


Wuyeu (Fifth moon) group (1957-1972)

Wuyeu was founded in 1957 and exhibited for the first time on 10 May that year at Zhongshan Hall in Taipei. This exhibition was organized by Professor Liao Chi-Chun (1902-1976) and brought together six of his students from the Department of Arts of the Provincial University of Taiwan.

Following the example of the Salon de Mai, the famous Parisian event, they chose the name Wuyeu, which means May in Chinese, and then anglicised by naming it Fifth Moon. The idea was to form a perennial group, which held friendly meetings and artistic exchanges, and aimed to exhibit every year in May.

After the third exhibition in 1959, under the direction of Liu Kuo-Sung, the group decided to devote itself exclusively to abstraction. From 1961 onwards, it opened to integrate new painters from all over the island and artists such as Hu Chi-Chung and Fong Chung-Ray joined the group.

Liu Kuo-Sung, Chuang Che and Fong Chung-Ray theorized their art by writing numerous articles that raised tumultuous debates about modern painting in Taiwanese artistic circles. These new theories advocating abstraction largely influenced the aesthetic orientation of Taiwanese painters of later generations, especially in the evolution of modern ink.


Video interview with the artists Liu Kuo-Sung, Fong Chung-Ray, Hsiao Chin, Chuang Che.


Exhibition catalogue

At the end of the 1940s, in the troubled political context of the Chinese civil war and the subsequent seizure of power by Mao Zedong, over a million Chinese left the mainland to seek refuge in Taiwan. In the new world that opened to them, the artists gradually discovered the abstract art of the schools in New York and Paris.

Abstraction became a means for them to become part of the international modernist movement, while expressing their deep cultural roots. At the crossroads of the East and West, they created a unique art that led to the regeneration of 20th century Chinese painting.

Sabine Vazieux
FROM CHINA TO TAIWAN. Pioneers of Abstraction
Racine Editions
260 x 270 mm
272 p., 130 color illustrations
Bilingual edition (FR-EN)
ISBN: 978-2-39025-016-6

Available in all good bookstores, on and at the Museum of Ixelles.


Free opening: Wednesday June 14, 6:30 PM > 9:00 PM.
Parking Tulip & shuttle free during the opening. Parking Flagey accessible (fee required).



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