Action & Reaction Painting
Executed in 1960, Chikisei Sesuisho (Lot 3027), is one of the earliest pieces by Kazuo Shiraga exhibited in the Italian art scene. The character, after whom the work is named, is known in Chinese as Shan Tinggui, and he is one of the 108 Liangshan heroes in the famous Chinese classical work, The Water Margin. Its renowned provenance and important literature references and exhibition history record documents the course of cross-cultural interaction between the East Asia and Europe in the Post-War era, as well as the acceptance of Japanese avant-garde artists into the European art scene in the 1960s.
Chikisei Sesuisho was formerly in the collection of famous Italian artist Lucio Fontana who founded the Spatialism (Spazialismo) movement in 1947. Fontana was well-known for his slashed unpainted canvas; these particular works displayed an affinity between the rawness of the surface and the primordial character of the gesture itself. The same gesture that negated the canvas as a purely pictorial vehicle also released its sculptural potential—an undeniably significate development in Post-War Art.
Half a world apart, Shiraga in Japan and Fontana in Italy, were brought together by Michel Tapié, a tremendously influential European art critic. Chikisei Sesuisho serves as visual evidence of the exchange of ideas amongst artists in Japan, Europe, and the United States during the 1960s. This communication was facilitated by Tapié and Jiro Yoshihara, the founder of the Gutai Art Association. Tapié was also the first Western critic to pursue serious study and critique of the avant-garde Japanese artists in Gutai. His intense interest in the group developed when he received the “Gutai” journal publication that the group distributed from Osaka, Japan. In 1957, Tapié personally visited Osaka to meet with the Gutai artists and gain a deeper understanding of their creative concepts.
In the 1950s, at a time when international communication was much more difficult than it is today, the Gutai Art Association sought to attract like-minded artists across the world pursuing similar concepts through the dispatch of their Gutai Journal. Georges Mathieu, Lucio Fontana and Jackson Pollock were all artists that responded after receiving these publications.
Interpretation of gesture: Kazuo Shiraga and Lucio Fontana
With different cultural backgrounds, both Shiraga and Fontana explored new artistic expression through contemplating and researching “gesture.” In 1948, Fontana proposed that: “Art dies, but is saved by gesture.”(1) A gesture such as slashing a canvas both destroys and creates—it negates the canvas’s ability to fulfil its original intent, while simultaneously opening the door to sculptural possibilities.
Action & Reaction
Shiraga explored the idea of gesture in painting from a completely unique perspective, taking to heart Newton’s Third Law of Motion which states, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
The statement propounds that with every interaction, there is a pair of forces acting in opposition on the two interacting objects. When Shiraga steps onto one of his canvases, holding a rope affixed to the ceiling, the rope counteracts the movement of his body and feet which he uses to push paint across the canvas’s surface. In this way, Shiraga confronts the Laws of Motion in a power struggle not unlike two opponents in a wrestling match. In this context, however, the artist is fighting against himself, using the rope to create both the action and reaction. The roots of this concept can be traced back to Shiraga’s early art performance in 1955 Challenging Mud.
Shiraga’s explorations of physical motion is different from the work of Western action painters such as Georges Mathieu and Jackson Pollack. While the work of Mathieu and Pollack embody spontaneous energy enacted upon a canvas, Shiraga’s paintings successfully transfer and document both the force of his own actions, as well as the effect of the opposing force back on him that is yet unrealized by most viewers. Through this intervention emerges visual evidence of the intangible forces of nature. The traces of oil paint with complicated texture on canvas is unexplainable by past painting theory.
Shiraga fully engaged with the canvas by stepping onto its surface, painting with his feet to subvert conventional painting method and mainstream standards; in this way he deconstructed theories of the past, establishing his own ground-breaking canon. Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies believed that all great artists challenged mainstream ideas held by the society of the time; Tàpies, therefore, greatly appreciated Shiraga’s innovative mode of expression, once proclaiming: “Thus Shiraga is presenting as art something that appears negative to the ordinary way of thinking.” (2)
The birth of a new type of art
In the 1950s, artists who yearned for reform set up various art societies in the Kansai region of Japan. Among these groups were Zero-kai (Zero Society), co-founded by the then 28-year old Shiraga in 1952; Contemporary Art Panel (Genbi) in 1952-1957, of which Jiro Yoshihara was a member; and finally, the Gutai Art Association which was founded by Jiro Yoshihara along with 17 young artists in 1954. In 1955, Zero-kai merged with Gutai. In 1956, Yoshihara expressed his direction clearly in the preface of the first published issue of the Gutai journal:
“We hope to form closer ties with every artistic genre, including children’s art, literature, music, dance, film, and theatre, and to receive cooperation on every level to foster a new type of art.” (3)
Aesthetic of physical momentum and mental force
Shiraga succeeded in bridging various artistic genres, combining elements of drama, dance, and painting together to create new form of art. A canvas lying on the ground became a stage on which he could perform. The canvas was transformed into a free space in which he was liberated from traditional practices and the constraints of convention. Shiraga’s true self was released through his free-spirited method of painting which expressed the materiality of oil paint to its fullest extent, spreading, mixing, and piling the paint using his own body. A strong intensity and venerable energy thus permeates Shiraga’s works. This energy is not merely reliant upon bodily action and physicality, but rather the mental force and emotion of the human soul. Just as Jiro Yoshihara proclaimed in the first issue of Gutai, "It is our desire to embody the fact that our spirit is free". (4)
Although free physical momentum is an important element of Shiraga’s works, it is not as if his innovative images were generated in an entirely unconscious state. On the contrary, his compositions were conceived in the struggle between unconscious and conscious actions. The artist once described this creative process as “60% physical desire and 40% looking at the painting and making a decision.” (5) Shiraga once recounted how, “From about 1956, I stopped thinking so much about that. I mean, I decided it was okay if [a painting] had a sense of composition, and then I also started using colour. And after I started using a variety of colours, I just got used to the idea that a work could contain an artistic composition, or that people might see it in that way.” (6)
In the late 1950s, Shiraga gradually established his artistic concept, developing a system of logic behind his own artistic language. He had strengthened his method of composition, mastery of contrasting colours, and overall technique. No longer only using his feet to slide paint across a canvas’s surface, Shiraga also began to employ a splashing technique which resulted in an increasingly intricate visual effect. In the mid-1960s, he began using a wooden rod to enhance the movement of the paint as well.
Water Margin series - the first series by Kazuo Shiraga
Lot XX is named after Chikisei Sesuisho, also known as Shan Tinggui, who was ranked 44th out of the 108 Liangshan heros in the Chinese classical novel Water Margin. Originally a general, he specialised in water based attacks, which earned him the nickname “General of the Sacred Water.” Because ink is aligned with water in the Chinese philosophy of the five elements, Shan is dressed all in black and is armed with a black-shafted spear. He comes into opposition with Wei Dingguo, the 45th ranked hero. Wei Dingguo, also originally a general, specializes in fire-based weapons and is therefore known as the "General of the Holy Fire.” In Water Margin, the 66th chapter describes how the “General of the Sacred Water” and the “General of the Holy Fire” work together to defeat the outlaws, however afterwards Shan Tinggui and his Black Army are forced to surrender to the outlaws in Liangshan and ultimately join them. Along with Guan Sheng, a former imperial general who leads the outlaw band, Shan Tinggui manages to persuade Wei Dingguo and his Red Army to defect and join them as well.
As a teenager, Shiraga read his father's collection of Water Margin novels and was very interested in the rich variety of characters and storylines, devouring the volumes through his adulthood, during which he still carefully kept the series on a shelves in his collection. Shiraga also read other works of Classical Chinese literature such as Records of the Grand Historian, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West. Water Margin was Shiraga’s first series of work which he began in 1958; it was also his first series of paintings showcased in Europe.
Shiraga renders the story vividly, with dynamic lines and an unrestrained application of paint that is both harmonious and discordant, as if conveying to viewers the tangle of emotion that comes along with war and the struggle for peace. Accompanied by the azure dragon representing Guan Sheng, the Black Army’s invincible momentum is tangible alongside the besieged Red Army. The chaos of the battlefield and the three army’s troops are deftly represented by the mixing of the pigment, and the rendered and splashed the strokes which convey that the “General of the Sacred Water from Ling Zhou,” our hero Shan Tinggui, will emerge victorious.
Shiraga escapes the shackles of the human form, instead using his body to push, blend, and mix ultramarine, Prussian blue, and Alizarin Crimson across the white surface of the canvas. Thick swatches of bright red paint run through the middle of the composition, while in the bottom right appears a verdigris splash of paint—these contrasting colours produce a vibrant kinetic energy. The conspicuous and striking visual effects are similar to the 18th century Ukiyo-e series titled One Hundred and Eighty Heroes from the Chinese Tale by Kuniyoshi Utagawa, which was based on Water Margin. Utagawa’s distinctive lines and contrasting colours vividly portray the characters in the novels (Figure 1 & 2). Shiraga retains the essence of traditional Japanese art, while employing new artistic vocabulary to describe the avant-garde spirit in the Post-War era.
Kazuo Shiraga’s works are widely collected by museums across Europe, the United States, and Asia, including Musee National d'Art Moderne-Centre Georges Pompidou, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Walker Art Centre in the United States.
1. As Fontana wrote in 1948 ('Lucio Fontana 1899-1968: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1977, p. 19.
2. Dominique Lévy & Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Kazuo Shiraga, New York, 2015, p. 154.
3. “On the Occasion of Publication,” Gutai No. 1, January 1955.
5. Kazuo Shiraga and Ichiro Hariu (dialogue), "Kamigata action dangi" (Conversation on action from the Kyoto-Osaka area), Shiraga Kazuo "12 nen no sakuhin kara (Tokyo Gallery, 1973), unpaged.
6. Tokutaro Yamamura and Shinichiro Osaki," Shiraga Kazuoshi intabyu "(Interview with Kazuo Shiraga), Gutai shiryoshu: Document Gutai 1954- 1972 (Ashiya City Culture Foundation, 1993), 382.