Shiraga’s Passion: On Heroism and Art
Like the heroic status of the characters in The Water Margin, Shiraga’s art relies on violence to achieve its full salience:[…] For Shiraga, individual passion was not enough; heroic strength was the path to artistic victory. – Kunimoto Namiko
Ferocious, provocatively primal, yet charged with electrifying grace, Shiraga Kazuo’s Chiansei Kinhyoshi hails from the artist’s most celebrated Water Margin series in which he titled around a dozen paintings after heroes in the 14th century Chinese epic The Water Margin (Japanese translation c. 1757). The exhilarating canvas, supremely outstanding in both composition and palette, was chosen by French critic Michel Tapié to be exhibited at Shiraga’s landmark inaugural solo exhibition in Europe at the Galerie Stadler in Paris in 1962. The stunning masterpiece heaves and writhes with savage tactility and fiery turbulence, exuding the astounding raw vigour and potent visceral violence that defines Shiraga’s oeuvre. Against background swipes of mustard yellow, beastly lacerations of red, orange and burgundy converge at thrilling points of intersection, complemented by masterful arcs of snow white, deep blue and a sublime accent of electric turquoise. The young Gutai master’s legendary feet-generated strokes thrash out a triumphant path of expression via impassioned collisions of body and paint: like no other artist before him, Shiraga’s performative abstractions are vehemently inspirited with movement—“not just the movement of his body […] but also the assertion of matter itself” (Ming Tiampo, “Not just beauty, but something horrible”, in exh. cat. Body and Matter: The Art of Kazuo Shiraga and Satoru Hoshino, New York, 2015, pp. 21-22).
Shiraga’s Water Margin series was his first series of work showcased in Europe; as his work gained an international audience, the artist gave his canvases Japanese names at the advice of Stadler and Tapié. He began the series in 1959 and completed the last painting in 2001; although he titled each painting after a hero from the legend, each work was not named nor identified as part of the series until it was completed – after its unique character had been fully revealed. In the Water Margin legend, 108 bandits rebelled against a corrupt emperor, fighting for justice in a thrilling and violent plot. The present work is named after Yang Lin, the 51st of the 108 heroes who ranked as “Dark Star” of the 72 Earthly Fiends and was nicknamed “Multi-coloured Leopard” (Chiansei Kinhyoshi in Japanese). Chiansei Kinhyoshi excelled in martial arts and carried an iron spear; when comparing Shiraga’s painting to Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s woodblock print depiction, Shiraga’s painting – albeit being fully abstract – heightens and intensifies the authoritative vigour and fierce vitality of the unruly outlaw. Executed with his feet by swinging his body from a rope hung from the ceiling, the sheer brutal ferocity of the painting powerfully confronts the viewer with a singular vicious force – one that exceeds even that of the most gestural of Abstract Expressionist works. As Kunimoto Namiko observes, Shiraga’s Water Margin paintings “disavow their dependence on American abstract expressionism through a nominal allegiance with an Asian past that is simultaneously represented and occluded through the violence inherent in the bodily manifestation of the composition” (Kunimoto Namiko, “Shiraga Kazuo: The Hero and Concrete Violence”, 2013, p. 163).
While Hirai Shoichi attributes Shiraga’s interest in The Water Margin to exposure to the text at school (Ibid., p. 162), Kunimoto probes into the deeper significance of the legendary narrative for Shiraga and his art, observing that: “Shiraga’s compositions and his role as an artist were negotiated through narratives of the hero, where the hero’s status is defined by his bravery, noble deeds and physical prowess” (Ibid., p. 158). While his abstractions are not allegorical, “the indexical traces of his own body may mark a subtle metaphorical relationship to the hero[es] of the tale” (Ibid., p. 162). According to Kunimoto, Shiraga’s forays into the conjunction between heroism and art began during his early performance works, including the now canonical performance Challenging Mud (1955), in which Shiraga – dressed in a loincloth – threw himself into a heaped mass of stone, cement, sand and gravel and engaged in a violent battle with matter. In another performance, Dozo (1955), Shiraga built an outdoor structure made of ten red poles twenty-three feet tall in Ashiya. Kunimoto writes: “Armed and exposing his body […] Shiraga stood inside his tepee-like abode and began to hack at the red columns with broad swings of his axe. With each hit, wood chipped away, leaving white scars etched into the poles, endangering both the artist and the handful of nearby viewers” (Ibid., p. 158).
Kunimoto observes that such violent aggression “reveal[ed] and question[ed] the parameters of the masculine subject in postwar Japan” (Ibid., p 160). The contextual backdrop of Japan’s history as both victim and aggressor in the Second World War remained prominent throughout Shiraga’s life and career, reflecting in the undisputed role of violence and aggression in his art. Writing in 1955 for Gutai 4 journal, Shiraga noted: “I didn’t understand the meaning of Dozo when making it at the time. But the work filled my heart. The axe represented the burning strength of my passions”. Such impassioned violence is crucial to a proper understanding of Shiraga’s parallel oeuvre of foot-paintings. While Yves Klein also utilized the body as paintbrush in his Anthropometries works half a decade later, Shiraga’s fully acrobatic foot-painting methods utilized his irreducible corporeality to battle with and awaken the raw vitality of matter itself. Such aggressively uninhibited actions allowed the artist to immerse himself within his canvas as opposed to pouring or painting from above: by merging body with matter in a meteoric cathartic synthesis, Shiraga set himself apart from the mere gesturality of Jackson Pollock and other Western Abstract Expressionists and forged an epochal revolutionary oeuvre in the contemporary art canon.
Kunimoto continues: “Like the heroic status of the characters in The Water Margin, Shiraga’s art relies on violence to achieve its full salience”. Shiraga’s unprecedented paradigm epitomized the mission of the post-war Gutai artists who, literally uniting ‘instrument’ (gu) with ‘body’ (tai), rose fearlessly from the rubble of post-Hiroshima Japan to advocate a reinvigorating philosophy of ‘concreteness’ in their war-torn country. By engaging with, and transcending, violence, Shiraga was able to “wrestl[e] with the demons that haunted him and his generation, at the same time opening the possibility of hope for the years ahead” (Ming Tiampo, op. cit., 2015, p. 23). The present work was created in 1962, a critical year during which Shiraga’s international career took flight. Following Tapié and painter Georges Mathieu’s visit to Osaka in 1957, the Galerie Stadler in Paris showed Shiraga’s paintings in a 1959 group show and in 1962 hosted the artist’s first solo exhibition outside Japan (at which the present painting was exhibited). In 1963 Shiraga participated in the Exposition d’art modern in Grand Palais, Paris, and in 1965 onwards in historic museum exhibitions such as Nul at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1965) and New Japanese Painting and Sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1965) and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1967). Today the significance of Shiraga’s ground-breaking work is beginning to be understood by scholars and curators worldwide, and the extraordinary artist’s work is recognised as one of the leading voices of his generation.