MoNTUE – An Artistic Vision

MoNTUE Building Exterior

The exterior of MoNTUE invites visual interaction with passers-by.

A Symbol of Resistance

In a city like Taipei it is immensely difficult to resist the commercial pressures surrounding us. We are bombarded by relentless advertising, dependent on shops for survival, and locked into a system in which money dictates more of our decisions than perhaps it should. Many of Taiwan’s educational institutions, while sheltered to some extent from the turbulence of an economic system beyond their control by government support, are increasingly subject to the same stark forces governing the logic of The Market. In this context, the opening of the Museum of National Taipei University of Education (MoNTUE) represents an heroic act of resistance against Mammon‘s magnetic power and a loud display of support for a conception of wealth that attaches as much significance to spiritual enrichment as material gain and thrives on art, culture, and learning. To put it another way: the site on which MoNTUE recently opened very nearly became just another 7-Eleven.

MoNTUE - Relief of Saint Joachim from Reims Cathedral

One of the ‘Metro 11′ donated to MoNTUE by the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Relief of Saint Joachim from Reims Cathedral, France, dating from 1250 – 1270 A.D.

MoNTUE’s story begins in 2004, when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to dispose of some of its substantial collection of plaster cast sculptures, many of which it had been unable to put on public display due to a lack of space.  Professor Lin Mun-lee, who was at the time director of the National Palace Museum, heard about this through her ex-colleague at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Yulin Lee, whereupon she began looking for funding to help transfer these works from New York to Taipei. The success of Yulin Lee’s coordination and Professor Lin’s fundraising efforts resulted in the first occasion the Met had ever made a donation to an institution in Taiwan. The artworks – numbering some hundred pieces in all and including the cast of a work by Michelangelo – needed a home, and Professor Lin looked to the National Taipei University of Education, where she had been the founding director of the Fine Arts Department, for a potential solution. Six years on, following a struggle within the university between those who wanted to use the space now occupied by MoNTUE as a commercial, cash generating enterprise, and those like Professor Lin, who firmly believed that the long-term value of an art gallery and museum would far outweigh short-term financial gains, the Met’s donation now has a worthy new home in the heart of Taipei. The opening of MoNTUE may well represent the beginning of an exciting new chapter for Taiwan’s art world, as historic European artworks, the likes of which were previously only accessible through books and air travel, are put on display in the heart of the island’s largest city.  These include the ‘Metro 11′, eleven works which are now on permanent display in the building, among which are sculptures from the facades of Reims and Chartres Cathedrals in France, Antoine Louis Barye’s powerful ‘Lion Crushing a Serpent’ whose bronze original stands in the Louvre, and two incredible 15th century wood carvings take from the pew ends of St. Olav’s Church in the Faeroe Islands.

MoNTUE's Main Exhibition Space

MoNTUE’s main exhibition space offers unique opportunities for creative curating.

Deconstructing A Divide

With generous help from the university itself, commercial foundations, and the government, MoNTUE opened on September 25th this year. For almost a year prior to that, Japanese architect Keisuke Toyoda was hard at work transforming the newly built structure into a state-of-the-art gallery space. The site where MoNTUE is located was previously occupied by the university’s campus wall and as such was a barrier to interaction between the institution an the city. Breaking this boundary down and replacing it with an open, inviting structure which bridges the arbitrary divide between the university and the urban fabric surrounding it was part of the philosophy guiding the gallery’s design. The result of this is that while MoNTUE has successfully transformed the physical nature of this part of central Taipei, whether the gallery is able to fulfill its goal of becoming a ‘public living room’ and commencing a genuine interaction with non-student residents of the city remains to be seen.

MoNTUE Lee Mei-shu 'Woman Resting on the Chair' Taipei

Lee Mei-shu ‘Woman Resting on the Chair’. Part of MoNTUE’s current exhibition.

True to MoNTUE’s goals Toyoda, a founding partner of Noiz Architects, has succeeded in creating a gallery which encourages interaction between outside and inside, the building and the viewer, the artworks and the city, and as such has dissolved many of the traditional boundaries constituted by less thoughtful architecture. While sections of the gallery contain traditional display space, many of the paintings and sculptures currently on show are framed, not by white walls, but by MoNTUE’s large windows and the trees or traffic behind them. Most of the building’s street-facing facade is glass, with the gallery’s contents open and visible to passers-by. When juxtaposed with, for example, even a relatively modern gallery building such as the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM), whose imposing concrete walls conceal and take a protective approach to its contents, the outcome of MoNTUE’s accessible architectural vision becomes immediately apparent. Visitors here never really leave the city behind, its light and sounds continually accompanying their tour. Ensuring that gallery entrance remains free is another important part of this guiding philosophy and by doing so Professor Lin and Lan Kung-hsu – MoNTUE’s executive director – aim to make this a cultural and educational resource which benefits Taipei’s residents.

MoNTUE Taipei sketch.

MoNTUE encourages visitors to sketch ideas and impressions.

Cutting-Edge Curating

In conversation with Joyce Lai and Nova Huang, two of the gallery’s three full-time management staff, TFAM, as Taipei’s biggest art institution, is understandably a name that keeps coming up, mainly in relation to how MoNTUE might be able to complement or indeed offer a different approach to exhibiting. An example they use to outline MoNTUE’s creative approach to curating is the current exhibition, Still the Vanguard of Education, the Forefront of Art.  TFAM has held a number of exhibitions about Taiwan’s first generation of modern painters – the subject of this show – but MoNTUE hope to present this narrative in a new format, thus revealing aspects of the works that previously remained hidden or under-exposed. The gallery’s next exhibition – its ‘Grand Opening’ – which is planned to open in April 2013 and will be curated by a National Taipei University of Education academic, Lin Chi-Ming, will use a plaster cast of one of Michelangelo’s sculptures as a departure point from which to explore the artist’s impact on contemporary art.  The aim in doing so is to reveal parallels between works that would otherwise be separated by time and art-historical categories.  Exhibiting in this fashion will inevitably require some high profile loans from other international art institutions, which TFAM has already done with some degree of success, and thanks to the experience and reputation of Professor Lin, as well as the gallery’s world-class facilities, MoNTUE is confident about being able to secure important loans from other galleries around the world.  Moreover, MoNTUE and the Met plan to continue their collaboration, with curator visits from New York and lecture series.  This all means that Taiwan’s art-lovers are in for a treat.

Lion Crushing a Serpent MoNTUE

Lion Crushing a Serpent, Antoine Louis Barye (1832-1835). MoNTUE’s plaster cast of the original.

With plans to show three to four exhibitions each year, MoNTUE’s focus is evidently on quality and providing the environment for sustained engagement with the works on display. Free access naturally allows for a slower, more relaxed way for Taipei residents to interact with an exhibition’s works and the vision in mind is one of visitors dropping in to the gallery during their lunch break or on their way home from work, taking a second, third, or fourth glance at the artwork which sparked their imagination last time, and discovering a sculpture that somehow escaped their attention on a previous visit. Guests are invited to take notes, draw sketches, or leave drawings for future visitors. This provides a counterpoint to commercially-oriented galleries, of which Taipei has no shortage, whose business models are built around the quick turnover of artist exhibitions and can be stressful, intimidating spaces for the uninitiated.

MoNTUE Chen Cheng-Po, 'My Family'

‘My Family’, Chen Cheng-Po. From MoNTUE’s current exhibition.

To return to the theme with which this article began, when we mentioned the commercial pressures that surround us in the present, we might now also bring the past, and future, into the equation.  MoNTUE’s unique claim to attention is firstly its directors’ awareness of the university’s historical role as Taiwan’s first institute of higher education, and thus a place in which the island’s first generation of modern painters was nurtured.  This is undoubtedly a heritage worth celebrating, exploring, and revealing.  Perhaps more importantly, Professor Lin and those who supported her quest to establish MoNTUE advocate a brave, optimistic view of the future.  This is a vision of the future that deserves to be supported; a Taipei where art is accessible, open, and a vital part of the urban fabric.  MoNTUE is itself an artistic statement, a manifesto for a certain kind of city, and we like it.

MoNTUE’s current exhibition, Still the Vanguard of Education, the Forefront of Art, pays homage to the university’s place in Taiwanese history as the island’s first modern institution of higher education and its important role in nurturing the island’s first generation of modern painters. On show are an eclectic range of works by graduates of the university together with works by their teachers at Tokyo University of the Arts, 18 of which are on exhibition loan from that institution. The exhibition runs until January 13th, 2013 and entry is free.


No.134, Section 2, Heping East Road, Da’an District, Taipei


MRT Stations:Zhongxiao DunhuaSun Yat Sen Memorial HallTaipei City Hall

Open: Monday – Friday 11.00 am – 10.00 pm; Saturday – Sunday 11.00 am – 11.00 pm.

show map
  • MoNTUE Building Exterior
  • Relief of Saint Joachim from Reims Cathedral
  • MoNTUE's Main Exhibition Space
  • Lee Mei-shu 'Woman Resting on the Chair'
  • Left Sketches - MoNTUE
  • Lion Crushing a Serpent
  • Chen Cheng-Po, 'My Family'
  • MoNTUE Main Exhibition Hall

Wen Stone – A Taiwanese Treasure

The Wen Stone exhibition runs at the National Taiwan Museum until February 24th, 2013.

Taiwan’s Gems – Wen Stone Exhibition is currently occupying the whole of the National Taiwan Museum‘s third floor, and invites visitors to “feast their eyes on the natural majesty and historical glory of Wen stone and to explore the mysterious formation, mineral composition, of the rare gemstone unique to Taiwan”. The mysterious gemstone has been highly sought after for centuries, but especially so since the beginning of its commercial exploitation in the early 1900s, when the Japanese established a processing plant for Wen Stone on Penghu. The exhibition was organised by the Ministry of Culture and Penghu County Government with the intention of revealing more about the geological conditions behind Wen Stone’s formation, and its history as an object of both research and desire.

Fine examples of Sanxia Wen Stone carved as seals.

The Background

Wen Stone has only ever been found in Taiwan and Sicily, but Taiwanese Wen Stone differs from its Sicilian cousin in the prevalence of concentric patterns – the result of unique geological pressures acting on the surface of the earth here over millions of years. Nestling in basalt cavities or vesicles, the gemstone is both rare and incredibly beautiful, and has been coveted for its unique appearance for centuries. Penghu’s islands – whose bedrock is made up predominantly of basalt – have long been noted as the source of the most spectacular examples of Wen Stone, many of which are on display in this exhibition. Indeed, the stone was a source of such local pride that in 1767 Penghu’s newly-built academy (now the Confucius Temple) was named the Wen Stone Academy. The name was both descriptive – much of the structure was built with Wen Stone – and symbolic: the Wen Stone Academy’s purpose was to cultivate students who were as rare and brilliant as the gemstone itself. More recently Wen Stone has been identified in the Sanxia area of north-central Taiwan, and Taiwan’s Gems also sheds further light on this latest find.

The exhibition features a number of basalt items inlaid with Wen Stone, like this elegant pot.

The Science

After years of painstaking research on specimens from the Penghu archipelago, Wen Stone was mistaken in 1909 for aragonite by Japanese mineralogist Yohachiro Okamoto, who is perhaps best-known for his discovery of another of Taiwan’s unique rocks, the radium-containing mineral Hokutolite (or Beitou Stone) . More recent research has since proven that the stone is in fact an agglomeration of secondary minerals, of which aragonite is an important component, but which also includes calcite, dolomite, quartz, and chlorite among others.

Wen Stone develops over ten million years in the bubbles, or vesicles, formed by volcanic magma as it rapidly cools. Minerals are then formed in the vesicles through the interaction between sea or groundwater and the basalt through which it drains. These minerals then become subject to different levels of temperature, pressure, and acidity, and develop into secondary minerals when the resulting liquid concentration becomes over-saturated. Wen Stone’s ‘eyes’ come into being through the alternating growth and crystallisation of minerals of different colours. Taiwan’s Gems includes some very informative information boards detailing this process through written explanations and diagrams, though the content’s heavy reliance on geological terminology can be overwhelming at times.

Taiwan’s Gems is nicely laid-out among the rafters on the Museum’s third floor.

The Splendour

For visitors less familiar with, or uninterested in, the nitty gritty geological details, the real attraction of Wen Stone lies in the multicoloured veins running through the rock and occasionally forming ‘eyes’ – concentric circles whose perfect dimensions and vivid colours are awe-inspiring to behold. Many visitors may initially require a suspension of disbelief as the fact that these intricate patterns and hypnotic circles are formed as an accident of nature is slowly absorbed.

The exhibition’s display cases contain some exquisitely carved examples of the stone, including pieces which reflect Wen Stone’s natural development by setting the gemstone in basalt, providing a stunning contrast between the basalt’s inky black hues and the playful light tones and geometric playfulness of the Wen Stone. Indeed, Taiwan’s Gems features pieces from some sixty-four different private collections, indicating both the breadth of the display and the comprehensive nature of the exhibition. While the information boards hint at the gemstone’s substantial commercial value as a collectible item, they stop short of giving exact estimates, perhaps to avoid encouraging the wrong kind of attention.

Penghu Wen Stone displays beautiful concentric circles, called ‘eyes’, which are captivating.

Taiwan’s Gems is very well structured, comprehensive, and accessible to both English and Chinese speakers. It ticks most boxes when it comes to quality of lighting and the guiding narrative, however the display pieces would benefit from more informative labeling regarding details such as the craftsman or workshop behind the piece, the date of its processing, and the story (if any) behind the artwork. In the curators’ defence, there is a fine line to tread between creating a rounded exhibition covering both Wen Stone’s geological development and the gemstone’s role as object of desire, and focusing too narrowly on the more decorative and artistic aspects of the stone, and Taiwan’s Gems should therefore be considered a great success: the heroes here are, as they should be, nature and the Wen Stone itself, rather than the individual craftsmen who have shaped it for human consumption.

By Matt Bowden, for Love Taipei

Taiwan’s Gems – Wen Stone Exhibition runs at the National Taiwan Museum until February 24th, 2013. Entry to the exhibition is included in the NTD20 ticket price for the Museum.

National Taiwan Museum
Open Tuesday – Sunday, 9am – 5pm.
Full-price entry: NTD20
Address: No.2, Xiang Yang Road, inside 2-28 Peace Park, Zhongzheng District, Taipei
Nearest MRT: NTU Hospital
Tel: (02)2382 2566
  • Basalt Pot Inlaid With Wen Stone
  • National Taiwan Museum
  • Wen Stone Chops
  • Wen Stone Close-up
  • Wen Stone Exhibition Layout