Feet first: Kazuo Shiraga and Gutai, the radical art movement that startled Japan

With the offer of a spectacular oil work by Kazuo Shiraga at Christie’s in Paris on 17 October, we look back on the collective of experimental performance and multimedia artists whose impact on contemporary art is only now being fully recognised

‘In 1954 the Gutai Bijutsu Kyōkai, or Gutai group, became Japan’s first post-war radical art movement,’ says Christie’s post-war and contemporary art specialist Paul Nyzam. ‘Their work encompassed painting, performance and happenings — much in line with avant-garde artistic developments in Europe — but passed largely under the radar in the West during the second half of the 20th century.’ 

In 2013, however, a comprehensive show of the Gutai group’s work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York served as a reminder of the group’s importance. 

‘Do what no one has done before!’

The Gutai group initially consisted of around 20 young artists who were brought together in the town of Ashiya, near Osaka, by Jiro Yoshihara, the scion of a family made wealthy by food oils. Their ambition was to fill a perceived cultural void left by the atrocities of the Second World War and the aftermath of the atomic bomb. 

The group’s manifesto dictated that each member should follow their own individual path, and, in the words of Yoshihara, ‘Do what no one has done before!’ Gutai translates loosely as ‘concreteness’, and reflects the group’s readiness to engage with a remarkable range of materials, from paint to tar, mud, glue, newspaper and water.

‘Shiraga wanted to create art in a way that no one had ever done before. His pioneering techniques and philosophy inspired many European and American artists such as Yves Klein and Georges Mathieu.’ 

Shiraga’s foot paintings

During the Gutai movement’s first phase, from 1954 to 1961, Kazuo Shiraga was seen as its predominant force. ‘Shiraga wanted to create art in a way that no one had ever done before,’ explains Nyzam. ‘His pioneering techniques and philosophy inspired many European and American artists, such as Yves Klein and Georges Mathieu.’

To create works such as Hokei and Chigakusei Tekkyoshi  (below), which is being sold at Christie’s in Paris on 17 October, he would suspend himself from harnesses above a canvas in front of an audience, ‘performing’ the painting’s creation with his feet. Despite the fact that this often caused him great pain, he believed that in using an untrained part of his body the work would be more spontaneous, and freed from academic tradition. 

From leaping through paper to sculpture from sawdust

Other members of the Gutai group were equally as inventive. Saburo Murakami would leap through large sheets of paper; Atsuko Tanaka used bells and light bulbs in her theatrical performances; Chiyu Uemae made sculptures from sawdust.

Chiyu Uemae (b. 1920), Untitled, 1964. Oil on canvas. 182 x 92 cm (71⅝ x 36¼ in). Sold for HK$2,200,000 on 30 May 2015 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Gutai’s founder, Yoshihara — a decade older, and perhaps more conservative than his younger followers — was a keen disciple of American post-war art, and painted in a manner similar to Abstract Expressionism. He once wrote to Jackson Pollock, suggesting that there were coincidences between the two artists’ paintings, but never received a response.

‘They collectively installed a vending machine inside an Osaka department store where visitors could purchase works of art created by an artist sitting inside the contraption’

Links with Art Informel

In the late 1950s Yoshihara decided to shift the focus of the group’s attention towards Art Informel, a highly gestural style of improvised Abstract Expressionism that was championed by the French critic and one-time Gutai supporter Michel Tapié.

Between 1962 and 1972, the group’s number swelled to 50, and a space dedicated to their work called the Gutai Pinacotheca was founded in Osaka. In addition to exhibiting the Gutai group, the gallery mounted shows by international artists such as Lucio Fontana, Guiseppe Capogrossi and Sam Francis. It was also visited by the artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, the musician John Cage and the British-born art critic and curator of the Guggenheim at the time, Lawrence Alloway.

The vending machine that dispensed art

During this decade the Gutai group’s focus also shifted again, this time to multimedia art. ‘They collectively installed a vending machine inside an Osaka department store where visitors could purchase works of art created by an artist sitting inside the contraption, thereby transforming the passive act of viewing art into an interaction. 

‘They also began experimenting with both industrial and natural “found materials”, such as electric lights, cellophane, smoke and water in order to push the boundaries of avant-garde art,’ says Nyzam.

Jiro Yoshihara (1905-1972), Untitled, 1971. Oil on canvas. 53 x 45.5 cm (20⅞ x 17⅞ in). Sold for HK$2,800,000 on 28 May 2016 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

For the 1970 World Expo: a firetruck that blew bubbles

The group’s crowning achievement however, came in 1970 when they were asked to participate in Japan’s World Expo in Osaka. There, they choreographed a  performance art ceremony which included men levitating on huge balloons and a fire truck blowing bubbles. The Expo, however, foreshadowed the group’s demise. Many of its major figures soon quit, while some of the younger artists in the group became disillusioned with their practices. The movement eventually petered out in 1972 after Yoshihara died.

Influence on other movements, from Arte Povera to Zero

Despite the fact that the members of the Gutai group produced daring works that formed bridges between art, the body, space and time, their work slipped into obscurity outside Japan for 40 years. 

Thanks to a new wave of scholars and curators they’re now being recognised for producing a lasting legacy that in its first phase anticipated Arte Povera and Fluxus, and in its second phase anticipated conceptual art, most notably the artists of the Zero movement, an international network of European artists who shared Gutai’s aspirations to transform and redefine art.

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