KAZUO SHIRAGA (1924-2008)
KAZUO SHIRAGA (1924-2008)


KAZUO SHIRAGA (1924-2008)
signed in Japanese (lower right); signed, dated and titled in Japanese (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
91 x 73 cm. (35 7/8 x 28 3/4 in.)
Executed in 1986
Private collection, Japan (acquired in the 1980s)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
The work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity by Japan Art Dealers Association, dated 19 July 2017.
Azumino Municipal Museum of Modern Art, Kazuo Shiraga: Painting Born out of Fighting, exh. cat., Toyoshina, Japan, 2009 (listed, p. 193).
Amagasaki, Japan, Amagasaki City Central Public Center, Amagasaki Art Association Exhibition, December 1987.

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Lot Essay

Few artists have integrated their own bodies into the practice of their art as much as Kazuo Shiraga. As the most influential member of Gutai, the post-war avant-garde art movement in Japan, he used his body as a tool for creation in his early performance works as well as in painting, which was done directly with his hands or fingers, or with his feet by hanging his body from the ceiling, instead of a paint brush. His creative methods were physically demanding and required significant mental focus and bodily strength. In Challenging Mud, an important performance work in 1955, he plunged half-naked into a pile of muddy earth, mixed with gravel, plaster and cement, struggling in it as if fighting an intense battle, until he was exhausted and his body covered with cuts. In another performance work, Please Come In, he stood in a narrow conical structure formed from 11 red-painted logs, again baring his upper body, and swung at the wood with a large axe. He chopped and cut until the inner surface of the wood was covered with axe marks, employing his physical energy in an almost violent modality for a new translation of the act of 'painting.' The wood chips that fell as a result of Shiraga's actions formed a record of the interaction between material and spirit. For Shiraga, mental and physical actions were interconnected. They were a display of strength and courage, and a means for the individual to engage in heroic resistance. That year, in My View, Shiraga wrote, 'I want to paint as though rushing around a battlefield, exerting myself until I collapse from exhaustion.'

Shiraga's painting represents the physical evidence as well as theoretical manifestations. It embodies a strong sense of physical contact, while displaying the artist's desire to use his body to convey ideas about psychic individualism and expressing consciousness. Some resonance can be found between his creative work and that of others from the same era, such as action painter Jackson Pollock, or the performance art of Allan Kaprow. But Shiraga studied and accepted traditions from both Japan and the West, and then went on to either overthrow or to transcend them in certain ways as he sought a radically new kind of creative approach, one that truly originated with the individual and which could free itself of past traditions. He did not let himself get mired in the aesthetics of formalism or breakthroughs of a purely technical nature, but instead chose to place his body, without reservation, at the very center of the creative process. He made his physical being a tool by which art could give life to matter. In the Gutai journal he wrote that, “Although I am neither a doctor nor a physiologist, I have long been obsessed with how art, as the expression of seisin (the spirit), is contingent upon nikutai (the body).” In this point he also echoes Japan's post-war embrace of the body the individual's liberation from collectivism and reflects the spirit of an artist who was in the vanguard in portraying his era.

Throughout his life Shiraga focused on the body in space with the attentiveness of a religious adherent, and he continued to explore the relationships between materiality, body, and spirit. In 1971 he became a Buddhist monk at the Enryakuji-Temple at Hieizan Mountain, and received a Buddhist name, Sodo Shiraga. He was a member of the Tendai order, which emphasizes the realization of enlightenment through physical experience. His style after that point became more lyrical, more spiritual, though his works maintained their same high level of energy and vitality. In particular, works from the 1971-1978 period featuring Tantric Buddhist deities show the artist subtly transforming his devotional frame of mind into visual imagery. The name of Shiraga's 1974 Fudo Gomagu means 'fire ritual and offering of provision for the Immovable King of Brightness.' Its inspiration derives from the Tantric homa ritual, in which devotees place various items in a burning fire. The ritual serves as an offering to the deity in order to exorcise evil, pray for good fortune, bring protection, and clarify the soul. The Immovable King is an incarnation of the celestial buddha Mahavairocana, whose fierce and angry face banishes evil. The bright aura of flame in the painting symbolizes the power to burn away the troubles of one's life. Shiraga's dense smears of red, orange, yellow, and white pigment leap and intertwine, like flames shooting out from the mysterious violet-blue background. These traces of the artist's bodily movements, dancing across the canvas, expand its space outward in four dimensions, embodying within itself a sense of the passion and mystery of life.

Shiraga loved this painting and kept it in his own possession until a friend of his acquired it from him for the newly refurbished clinic in 1992, and the painting was deemed as a blessing for the future of the clinic and all of its visitors. He hoped in particular to offer a prayer for the protection and health of new mothers and babies at the clinic, a fact that gives the work a special depth of meaning. It is said that it was originally larger in size, but that Shiraga trimmed it to showcase what he thought were its most exciting elements, and that he himself chose this frame so as to better highlight its threedimensional visual qualities.

The rich gestural quality of the sinuous lines and the intermixing of their colours demonstrate the wonderful flexibility of his technique as well as how, at a deeper level, his practice of highly physical methods extends from the physical to the spiritual plane. The intense colour of Fudo Gomagu and its unparalleled creative power show Shiraga reaching yet another great peak in his creative development.

Shiraga remained consistent in using his abundant, explosive creative energy to explore the body and physical materials, but he also had a strong interest in Japanese history, Chinese mythology, and Buddhism. The subject of his 1986 Ranmaru seems to be Mori Ranmaru, the famous Japanese general of the Warring States Era. Known for being talented and exceptionally good looking, he was loyal and devoted to the daimyo Oda Nobunaga, fought beside him, and was also his lover. According to records, it was Mori who first notified Oda Nobunaga during the Honnoji Temple Incident, and the two both died in the flames of the burning temple.
The color contrasts in Ranmaru between the warm, fresh yellow at the center and the dense streaks of red, brown, black, and greygreen suggest the collision and merging of two separate energies. Within the round, arcing movement of the composition, wild lines burst forth but gradually combine into an integral whole within the layers of a softer, enveloping image like a flower bud. Together they convey a sense of the powerful, primitive, but beautiful movement of life. The rhythmic twisting and surging produce an infectious power and appeal, joining together in a kind of dance in which body and spirit converge.

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