Lot 1057
  • 1057

Shiraga Kazuo

16,000,000 - 22,000,000 HKD
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  • Shiraga Kazuo
  • Jyumanhassenbongomaku
  • oil on canvas
  • 130 by 162.3 cm.; 51⅛ by 63⅞ in.
signed in Japanese; signed and titled and dated 1977 in Japanese on the reverse, framed


Private Asian Collection (Acquired directly from the artist)
Acquired by the present owner from the above


This work is generally in good condition. Having examined the work under ultraviolet light, there appears to be no evidence of restoration.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

A Weightless Marvel
Shiraga Kazuo 

At the 1st Gutai Art Exhibition held at the Ohara Kaikan Hall, Osaka in 1955, a young Shiraga Kazuo pushed and thrashed in a dense pile of mud mixed with cement to perform Challenging Mud, an exalted feat at the heart of any discussion of Shiraga’s art. The artist’s strong desire to connect with media in such a blatant way was unorthodox: raw, visceral, and at the time, never before seen by an audience unaccustomed to performance art.  To a Gutai member who shared his mentor’s beliefs in seizing “materiality”, however, Challenging Mud was perhaps the finest iteration of the group’s philosophy. The unhindered force and motion that Shiraga first publically displayed in 1955 were but the first large-scale glimpses of his personal style, one that was entirely founded upon momentum and energy. In the following Gutai Art Exhibition in 1956, Shiraga laid down an eight-metre long sheet of paper, using his feet to create loose, liberated strokes. This, his first thrashings in mud, and his endless experimentations in bodily art, together represent the genesis of an entire collection of artistic development. The hitherto never before seen work, Jyumanhassenbongomaku (Lot 1057) is a fine distillation of Shiraga’s style, encapsulating the artist’s life in all its vibrancy, velocity and valour, and is a valid remnant of “performance art” itself.


Shiraga’s rise to fame and mastery of the medium of oil had humble beginnings. Coming of age in post-war Japan, the artist was unable to enrol at the prestigious Tokyo School of Fine Art, which specialised in, among other styles, yoga (Western painting), and instead entered the Kyoto Municipal Special School, which taught Nihonga (traditional Japanese style painting). The artist would later recall the strict rudiments of Nihonga practice, viewing it as “unfree” and “inconvenient”. In trying to rid himself of such “constrictions”, Shiraga turned to oil, which he preferred as a means of expression, viewing it as malleable and unencumbering. Opting for the slickness of paint, Shiraga’s first paintings in the early fifties were markings or scratchings that he created using his fingers or fingernails. Beginning with these early works, Shiraga’s art form can be seen as an escalation in the exercise of abjuring the brush, and is a process of maturation that takes its final form in his foot paintings.


The artist first joined Zero-kai in 1952, a group that he established with likeminded artists such as Murakami Saburo and childhood friend Kanayama Akira. Zero artists believed that concept outweighed content, and laboriously explored with various materials, alternating between everyday objects, as well as “materials” of a different kind, such as the concepts of chance and time. Though the first major “public” showcase of his foot paintings were to come in 1956 at the 2nd Gutai Art Exhibition, Shiraga began toying with the concept of “freeing” himself from the paintbrush two years prior, and in fact began formal experimentation with his foot paintings as early as 1954. Though in a modest location, his foot paintings were first displayed in that same year, at Zero-kai’s group exhibition organised at a Sogo Department Store in Osaka. This would also be the same year that Yoshihara Jiro extended the momentous invitation for the Zero-kai members to join the Gutai group.


When reflecting on his transition to foot paintings, Shiraga notes the ease with which he made the change in the early fifties, emphasising the spontaneity of the movement. Looking back on the three-decade long transformation in 1985, Shiraga stated, “Not that I was thinking about it, but it just happened to be like that. That’s the best explanation.”1 Later on, the artist would reaffirm the motif of “liberation” and freedom in discovering the art of painting by feet, noting at the beginning of the new millennium, “This act of painting with my feet feels very important to me. It felt as though the scales dropped from my eyes. I felt cheered, happy, and exhilarated.”2


There is certainly a sense of elation and verve in Jyumanhassenbongomaku. Composed with vivacious reds amidst slashes of electric blues and yellows, the work is exemplary of Shiraga’s uninhibited grandeur. The piece preserves the wave-like quality of the artist’s foot paintings, which were created by spreading tubes of paint onto a canvas placed on the ground. One can see the undulating patterns that the artist has created in the work, or perhaps where he has deliberately left the oil thin, or alternatively where the paint takes on a thick, viscous quality. Jyumanhassenbongomaku is an inquiry into the flexibility of oil, a medium which Shiraga deftly plied to suit his artistic probes. This method of creation was heavily ritualistic, involving a dancing movement of sorts that the artist achieved by suspending himself from the ceiling of his studio and swinging onto the canvas.


Given the heavily action-based method of creation inherent to Shiraga’s works, it is unsurprising that many have extended comparisons between him and Jackson Pollock or Yves Klein. To affix a congenital relationship between Shiraga’s style and those of Pollock and Klein would however be a misrepresentation. Though Pollock’s influence in the Gutai group was strong, it is worthy to note that figures such as Allan Kaprow lamented Pollock’s tragic death, as well as the end of painting through him: “He created some magnificent paintings. But he also destroyed painting.”3 In stark contrast, Shiraga was focused on the regeneration of painting, and his oeuvre is a continuous perfection, rather than a rejection, of oil painting. Jyumanhassenbongomaku is a spirited example of this, with vitality bursting forth from the canvas, even after more than three decades. And while it would be easy to compare Shiraga and Klein, both of whom experimented with bodily art—most notably the former began work with his fingers, fingernails, hands, and later feet, the latter created the Anthropometry series at the end of the fifties using the bodies of female models—the Gutai artist predated the Nouveau-réaliste in this respect by at least four years. The most pertinent similarity between the three, however, would be their adherence to “action”. Whether this was a formal or informal association, prescribed or ascribed, it is impossible to negate the strength of action, movement, and energy in their works.


Harold Rosenberg coined the term “Action Painting” in his 1952 essay "The American Action Painters, and before Shiraga categorised his work as such in an essay entitled “A Path to Action Painting” in 1989, he called it simply “Action Only” in 1955. Aside from the obvious characteristics Shiraga’s oeuvre shares with Action Painting lies the simple adherence to “action” itself, or, in the case of Jyumanhassenbongomaku, a literal interpretation of the word.


Jyumanhassenbongomaku refers to the Esoteric Buddhist Homa ritual which involves burning offerings of wood carved with prayers to various deities. This action is performed to eliminate negative energies and thoughts, and is a sacred ritual linked with purification and protection from negativity. That Shiraga intended for this painting to be hung in his friend and doctor’s house is a particularly salient detail. Both individuals came from the same province of Amagasaki, and while the doctor was converting his own house, Jyumanhassenbongomaku was commissioned to match the yellow walls and floors of the lobby. The doctor was a well-respected member of the community, who treated the underprivileged with equal attention and care. For Shiraga to have been commissioned for this work was a great honour. Coupled with the facts that Shiraga became a Tendai monk in 1971 as well as took a brief hiatus from painting, Jyumanhassenbongomaku becomes all the more sacred.  


According to Shiraga himself, the works he produced after his consecration as a monk were guided by sutra chanting, and to produce the works, the artist “entrusted” the will of his painting to the deity Fudo (a guardian deity). Feeling at ease, Shiraga would leap anew onto his canvas, his feet gliding through paint, the work’s surface covered with the imprints of his dance. When one turns to Jyumanhassenbongomaku, one may even detect the fiery halo that is often depicted in many statues or paintings of Fudo, or even yet, the flames that engulf each Homa offering. The work is a literal reproduction of its own title, a medallion of strength and protection. That it held such an important place in its original owner’s heart is all the more endearing.


Shiraga once compared his art to the act of sliding over virgin snow. Stepping onto unchartered ground and making his mark is an important aspect of the artist’s oeuvre, one that shows the artist’s personal style and individual beliefs. Jyumanhassenbongomaku is a piece that captures the artist’s ritualistic dance and is an embodiment of action itself. With its strong colour palette and sentimental history, the work is a mature rendering of Shiraga’s ruminations on force and momentum. The artist’s relinquishment of the paint brush paves the way for unforeseen fervour, an astonishing show of innovation that has not diminished since his first days as an artist.

1 “Shiraga Kazuo-shi intabyu: 1985.7.10” [An interview with Shiraga Kazuo, 10 July 1985], conducted by Yamamura Kazuo and Osaki Shin’ichiro, in Gutai shiryo-shu/ Docyment Gutai, 1954-1972  (Ashiya: Ashiya City Culture Foundation, 1993), 379-87. Translated by Tomii Reiko

2 Shiraga Kazuo, “Shojoyuki no ue o kasso suru/ Sliding over Virgin Snow” in Akushon peinta Shiraga Kazuo-ten/ Kazuo Shiraga [an action painter], exh. cat. (Kobe: Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, 2001), 11, 13. Translated by Tomii Reiko

3 Allan Kaprow, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock”, 1958, p.2