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.
Ferocious, primal, yet charged with electrifying grace, Kazuo Shiraga's Chitaisei Honkōshin hails from the artist’s most celebrated Water Margin series in which he titled his paintings after heroes in the 14th century Chinese epic The Water Margin (Japanese translation c. 1757). The exhilarating canvas 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 crimson, lacerations of deep burgundy and electric turquoise converge at thrilling points of intersection. 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 the warrior Tong Meng’s star of destiny. Tong Meng, one of the Water Margin’s most ethical characters, was a hero of the 69th rank whose nickname was River Churning Clam. He was a salt trader who fought in the Liangshan navy, and was an excellent swimmer and boatman. It is perhaps because of the painting’s prominent blue section, evoking water quenching the churning red of the work’s lower register that Shiraga named it after Tong Meng. Executed with his feet by swinging his body from a rope hung from the ceiling, the sheer velocity of the painting confronts the viewer with a singular force that exceeds even that of the most gestural of Abstract Expressionist works. As Namiko Kunimoto 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” (Namiko Kunimoto, “Shiraga Kazuo: The Hero and Concrete Violence”, 2013, p. 163).
While Shoichi Hirai 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 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). 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.