- Kazuo Shiraga
- oil on canvas
Private Asian collection
Annely Juda Fine Art, London
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Important Private Asian Collection
Kazuo Shiraga: Paintings Born Out of Fighting, Toyoshina, Azumino Municipal Museum of Modern Art, Amagazaki Cultural Center, Yokosuka Museum of Art, Japan, 2009, p. 170
In his seminal book, Assemblages, Environments and Happenings, the father of the “Happening” movement in the United States, artist Allan Kaprow, noted the pre-eminence of the Gutai group, recognising “the precedence of the Japanese in the making of [the] Happening type performance.”1 This hugely influential art group, founded in 1954 by renowned Japanese painter Yoshihara Jiro, was a post-war art movement that was in equal parts pioneering as it was radical, and was, amongst other things, responsible for influencing Yves Klein’s work and Kaprow’s movement; firmly endorsed by prominent French art critic and historian Michel Tapié; and earned the respect of a huge array of important post-war avant-garde artists such as Georges Mathieu. One of the most important members of the Gutai group—who was described by Michel Tapié as “one of the two or three strongest personalities amongst the young painters of the Orient”2—was Shiraga Kazuo. Shiraga, whose spellbinding, energetic canvases enthralled the entire world of Abstract art and beyond, was an artist who revolutionised the very modes of artistic expression, experimenting with performance art, sculptures and even with mud as a medium. His most favoured and significant artistic contributions however, were his foot-paintings, such as the exquisite and rare work Saigō (Lot 1051) currently on offer, which was produced at the height of Shiraga’s maturation as an artist.
Born in 1924, Shiraga Kazuo has long been lauded as one of the most notable members of the Gutai Art group, of which he was a member since 1955. Amongst his Gutai peers, Shiraga was also the artist who received the most exposure intended by Yoshihara’s vision of internationalism, and by 1965, a mere ten years after his initial participation in Gutai, Shiraga’s repertoire of exhibitions already included locations such as Tokyo, New York, Paris, Turin, Amsterdam and Capetown.
Gutai, meaning “Embodiment” or “Concrete”, was an art movement that was active in western Japan from 1954 to 1972, comprising of 59 members over 18 years. Led by senior “maestro” Yoshihara Jiro, whose Surrealist, Abstractionist works were already well known even before the war, the group sought to expound utopian ideas of internationalism and individualism—to, according to Yoshihara, “Do what no one has done before!”3 Of course, the Gutai group was deeply venerated during its time, as well as beyond it. The distribution of its manifesto to European and North American critics, artists and curators led to its discovery in the West by Michel Tapié, the advocate for Art Informel, who met with Yoshihara in 1957, and who was also responsible for bringing back Gutai works to New York. This connection to the West however, has oftentimes been the reason behind the simplification of its genre; somtimes confused with Abstraction, Arte Povera, or worse yet, understood as “reproductions” of Nouveau réalisme art of the likes of Yves Klein. However this was far from the case, especially when it concerns Shiraga Kazuo.
In reflection on the importance of individualism, in an article named “The Establishment of the Individual”, Shiraga maintained that “without establishing psychic individualism, we cannot establish any worthwhile culture for the whole. In politics, Totalitarianism fails; in culture, that which is unfree and akin to Totalitarianism must be purged.”4
When we turn to Shiraga’s art, one can see the extent to which this rigid rejection of “Totalitarianism” has been applied. Preceding Yves Klein’s body paintings of “living brushes” by at least five years, Shiraga’s unique foot-paintings often drew inspiration from literature or philosophical ideals. The current work, Saigō, which was painted in 2000 and which is highly rare due to the paucity of works Shiraga produced after the turn of the millennium, can be translated as “sin”, and can be related to bad karma or an act of sin. Considering Shiraga’s brief few years of recluse as a Buddhist monk, it is not unlikely that the work is a deep meditation on life and the agency one has in one’s destiny.
Aside from a philosophical interpretation, Saigō, along with all of Shiraga’s foot-paintings, are principally concerned with matters to do with physicality and bodily expressions. First and foremost, each painting can be read as the result of a physical exertion; the physical remnants of a performance. For the artist, the body was to be in line with media, which in turn allowed the “artist and the material to shake hands with one another.5 This physicality and presence of the individual within a work of art were also counterbalanced by the theme of violence in Shiraga’s art, which was in response to the war and impact of man. This outlook can similarly be seen in works by other postwar artists of the West such as Jackson Pollock, whose works juxtaposed the fundamentality and physicality of painting with the destructive potential of human beings.
More pertinent to a reading of the present piece however, is a reconsideration of physicality and violence, paired with masculinity. Each of Shiraga’s paintings pulse with vigour and health, and are outpourings of his strength; but more importantly, each painting represents the artist’s machismo in a traditional sense, perhaps not far from the way one would consider a traditional Samurai’s manhood and power. As Shiraga once said, “”I want to paint as though rushing around a battlefield, exerting myself to collapse from exhaustion.” The bold red and pink colours in the current lot on offer undoubtedly capture this sense of virility. The blood-like hues in the paints used immediately bring to mind scenes from the battlefield, and the darker strokes that dissect the piece resemble a warrior’s adept navigation through a field of combat.
The rare incorporation of the colour pink in such an arresting piece of work, bursting with such vivacity, can be considered by some at odds with its painter, a man who was seventy-six years of age at the time of painting. However, far from the truth, Shiraga was an artist who was still full of vitality even in his later years; and perhaps Saigō merely offers us a glimpse into his personal reflections on mortality, and on a life filled with such talent.
Despite the stunning beauty of his works, Shiraga is an artist whose influence has only recently been unearthed and revisited. Before this point, much of his art, as well as those by his Gutai peers, were considered merely along the binary axes of Paris pre-1945 and New York post-1945, leaving no room to interpret the group’s uniqueness on its own. With the maturation of art history and the growing attention paid to a philosophy of art that is not simply polarised into the simplified notion of “East versus West”, artists such as Shiraga Kazuo will finally be recognised rightfully as one of the strongest artists not only of the Orient as Michel Tapié identified, but of the entire world.
1 Allan Kaprow, Assemblage, Environments, and Happenings, H. N. Abrams, 1966, p.212
2 Kazuo Shiraga (Galerie Georg Nothelfer), p.34
3 Yoshihara Jirō, “Gutai Gurūpu no 10 nen: sono ichi” [10 years of the Gutai Group: part one], Bijutsu Jyānaru 38 (March 1963), unpaginated
4 Shiraga Kazuo, “Kotai no kokuritsu,” [The establishment of the individual] Gutai 4 (July 1956), unpaginated
5 Yoshihara Jirō “Gutai bijutsu sengen” [Gutai Art Manifesto], Geijutsu Shinchō 7 (December 1956): 202-4