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Reading Art

By Yao Chien - 04. December 2020
Taiwan-born Chinese lyricist and producer Yao Chien opens up about his new-found interest in Old Master paintings that began with books.
#Food for Thought is a series in which tastemakers from different fields consider their knowledge in relation to Old Masters, asking how they might offer a fresh perspective in the way one engages with the art of the past.

Having spent more than two decades in the music industry as a lyricist and producer, I dare say that the leitmotif of my life is music. But upon reflection, I came to realize that the chorus of my life is in fact composed of music, literature and visual art. It is often in the company of books that I experience music during my free time, when I am liberated from the rational exercise in music I do for work. Since I learnt how to read as a child, the written word has been my tool of choice for comprehending the world we live in; it is also through the written word that I discovered the complexities of music and visual art. Many of my ideas have found expression in words – in the form of lyrics, books, and more.

Artworks in Yao Chien’s apartment, December 2020 © 姚謙

And so it seems that I have a predilection for acquiring knowledge through reading. Yet art has presented itself as an interesting alternative. Like music, visual art is capable of expressing ideas and feelings beyond the limits of language and texts, geography and time. In retrospect, my first experiences of art had been guided by a combination of my intuition and the modest knowledge I had absorbed from reading books. It is in the printed catalogues that I first became acquainted with various artists and their works. A turning point arrived for me at the age of thirty – when I acquired the first piece in my art collection, my “reading” of art entered a new chapter. No longer a curious spectator, I became compelled to learn about the context and read beyond the descriptive narratives of the image. This is particularly the case for European Old Master paintings, which I have grown particularly fond of in the last few years. Most noticeably, there has been an expansion in my reading list – in literature, history, science and philosophy especially – as I have gained the motivation to learn about the field. A literary journey without destination — that is, for me, a novel experience distinctively associated with Old Masters.

Nicolas Lancret, An Elegant Couple Singing by Candlelight © Yao Chien collection
A Corner of Yao Chien’s apartment in Taipei, December 2020 © 姚謙

I grew up in Taiwan where the art of the Impressionists – mirroring the Japanese taste – prevailed as the alternative painted genre to traditional Chinese ink. Before the turn of the century, Taiwan became the fertile ground for the cross-pollination of media culture and fine art as a result of the liberal media policies in the eighties and the return of foreign-educated talents. Taiwan was the beacon in the Chinese-speaking cultural sector: in the entertainment industry, fine art, publishing and more. Following the footsteps of its neighbor Japan, and taking advantage of Japanese initiatives to sponsor major international travelling exhibitions, Taiwanese institutions were sometimes able to negotiate an additional stop in Taipei en route to Asia. As I recall, the 2004 Barbizon exhibition [Forêt de Fontainebleau, National Museum of History, Taipei 17 July – 19 September 2004] and the 2015 Liechtenstein exhibition [Crown of the Alps: Masterworks from the Collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein, 17 April – 31 August 2015] both came to Taipei this way. We were delighted to be able to see such classical European artworks on our doorstep. 

Artworks in Yao Chien’s apartment in Taipei, August 2020 © 姚謙

For Taiwanese art lovers, Tokyo is a favorite destination for seeing exhibitions. The Japanese museums have a sophisticated approach to curating art that is much ahead of all its neighbors, and Taipei has certainly benefited from its proximity. Sometimes I wonder how much Japanese I had picked up purely from listening to music and looking at art visiting the country! There are many exhibitions in Taipei, however, few contribute significantly to the scholarship of Western art, let alone Old Masters (that would be a dream). Luckily, those who enjoy reading were able to fill the void with a plethora of printed materials, made accessible by the robust art publishing industry. Perhaps it is the lack of physical exhibitions that motivates me to fly abroad and see the original works after reading about them. For a while now, the world of Rubens has been a point of interest so two years ago, I made a pilgrimage to the Rubens exhibition in Tokyo with my restorer, who is based in Taipei. At the time she happened to be working on a painting related to a work exhibited. Learning about the artworks from a conservator’s perspective is a novel experience for me and quite unique to the Old Masters field.

Queue to see the Vermeer exhibition at the Ueno Royal Museum, Tokyo, Jan 2019

To make an analogy with literary genres, I often think that contemporary art is like internet key words, modern art is the essay, whereas Old Master paintings is like a long novel. No wonder collecting Old Masters is a solitary experience — in Taiwan it is impossible to find anyone to talk about it with. Many collectors, including myself, had deemed that Old Masters have a high entry point. This is not in fact the case. In my experience with the field, I have come to realise that the outward appearance is only the portal to an inner story, which I want to read over and over again. It is a fascinating world which I am delighted to have stumbled upon.

Translated by Yuan Fang


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Yao Chien, 2020 @ 姚謙
Yao Chien is a Chinese pop music lyricist and producer, associated with some of the biggest hits in the Chinese pop scene. He has served as general manager of Taiwan EMI, Virgin and Sony Records. He has published a number of  books including As Song, As Life《我們都是有歌的人》, If This Can Be The Song 《如果這可以是首歌》,  A Person’s Collection 《一個人的收藏》. Most recently he was the producer of documentaries My Dear Art and  Ah-Art.
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