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Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008)
Property From An Important Private Asian Collection
Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008)


Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008)
signed in Japanese (lower right); titled, dated and signed in Japanese (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
161.7 x 128.2 cm. (63 5/8 x 50 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1992
Important Private Collection, Asia
Azumino Municipal Museum of Modern Art, Kazuo Shiraga: Painting Born Out of Fighting, Toyoshina, Japan, 2009 (illustrated, plate 352, p.166).
Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, Hy?go Prefectural Museum of Art, 2 June - 22 July 2001.

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Lot Essay

Baoji, in Shaanxi Province, is a well-known historical city in China with deep cultural roots, a city that Kazuo Shiraga made the subject of his 1992 painting, Hokei ('Baoji' in Japanese) (Lot 65). Shiraga hailed from Amagasaki, in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, which itself had a unique historical background: Amagasaki had prospered as a trade center between Kyoto and Osaka since the Heian period (8th-12th centuries), and in the Edo period (17th-19th centuries) developed its own flourishing local culture, combining Osaka's popularity and Kyoto's sophistication. As a result, when Shiraga was born into a house of merchants in Amagasaki, he grew up amid rich colours, antiques, classical literature, bunraku (puppet theater), and even ukiyo-e art. It was during this childhood period that Shiraga developed his interest in Chinese literature and culture.
Several themes served as major sources of inspiration during Shiraga's creative career: the classical Chinese novels Water Margin and Records of the Three Kingdoms, Japanese wars, and Esoteric Buddhism. He had especially enjoyed Water Margin since childhood, being particularly attracted by the idea of its secular characters echoing the constellations. Shiraga had a penchant for borrowing names of characters from literature, which was convenient for naming his own works; that, combined with another penchant from early in his careermaking a signature blood-red colour a central element of his paintings-gave birth to his Water Margin Series of the 1960s. The subject of Shiraga's 1959 Tenyusei Hyoshito is one of the 'five tiger generals' of Liangshan (where Water Margin took place), Li Chong, who was commander of the 800,000-strong Imperial guards. The intense contrasts of the opposing red and black tones of the painting directly reflect the military prowess of the general and his simple, upright, loyal character (Fig. 1).
Shiraga's art continued developing over the next 40 years, his techniques for painting with body and feet maturing even as he gained greater control over the oil medium. During his experiments he also evolved a method for spreading oil pigments flat with a wooden plank, resulting in smooth, glossy textures and unusual colour effects (Fig. 2). In the 1970s, Shiraga undertook training in Buddhist disciplines at Enryakuji temple, and later interpreted the meaning of esoteric Buddhism through his brushwork and the oil medium. As mentioned in the opening essay, the members of the Gutai group sought a kind of strong, steady psychological state. During this period of time, Shiraga practiced a ritual of chanting or incantation before painting, steadying his mind, and the resulting works displayed a new kind of harmony and peace. In his Dattan, dating from 1976, Shiraga no longer employs the fierce or violent crimson of earlier paintings, but replaces them with fresh, resplendent reds applied with ease and verve (Fig. 3). From this point on, the foot paintings for which Shiraga is best known acquired deeper levels of meaning and psychological significance, as he explored not just painting techniques and materials, but embarked on a course of self-discovery through his chosen subjects.
Shiraga's paintings in the 1980s seem based on the same kind of formulation, and still display Shiraga's unique personal application of energy and control. Nevertheless, they began shedding some of their previous concern with themes and subjects, becoming more solidly grounded in a personal and subjective motility. In this period, though he revisits the Chinese theme of the Records of the Three Kingdoms, Shiraga's surging creativity yields conceptual sparks of a very different kind. In his Kanuncho, power erupts from his fast-moving yet flowing and natural black lines, while diluted oils spray outward from the center, creating an image that suggests a stern test of strength and resolve (Fig. 4). It is an image that, compared with the more direct formulation of the earlier Water Margin Series paintings, reveals deeper levels of thought and personal subjectivity; Shiraga's total involvement, both physically and mentally, is clear. In its subjective conception, its autonomous, self-generating nature, and its independent feeland in the complex admixing of these featuresthis work is no longer a cultural statement, but has entered the realm of personal experience where the artist contemplates the nature of self-definition.
By the end of the '80s, Shiraga became less concerned with series of works based on particular themes. Once this concern with thematic subjects waned, his work took on greater diversity and richness, as he struggled against the shackles of physical media by subjective and psychological means. Shiraga's output in 1992 was relatively small, mostly works whose palettes are dominated by a single colour (Fig. 5). Hokei, however, is an exception. Aside from the city's cultural significance, as mentioned earlier, Baoji also boasts an important historical site: located beyond its southern outskirts is the Sanguan pass, one of the four major mountain passes in China. Its rugged topography and the narrowness of the pass itself gave it the ancient name of "the Sichuan/Shaanxi throat," and the pass had great military and strategic significance (Figs. 6 & 7). During the Three Kingdoms period, an army under the command of Cao Cao crossed the pass in the western expedition against Zhang Lu. As Chen Shou wrote in Three Kingdoms, 'In the spring, in the Sixth Year of Jianxing, Zhuge Liang once again passed through the Sanguan Pass, laying siege to Chencang, but was repelled by Cao Zhen....'
Given Shiraga's love and understanding of Chinese culture, and in particular for the Records of the Three Kingdoms, he found natural inspiration in the city of Baoji and its deep historical roots. In Hokei he allows his pigments to spread freely along the paths of his body movements. Thick, heavy streaks of crimson, sun yellow, and snowy white work in complement in the lower middle of the canvas, then spread toward each of its four sides. The deliberate unevenness of the mix of colours evokes the struggles and standoffs between the major powers, and they are inseparably tangled by virtue of the fluid, plastic, and extensible qualities of the oils. Yet they are equally matched, each refusing to yield to the others. The three colours, against the tension of the black background, ignite in a dramatic and incredible display of power. The inky black background evokes the page in history when, at the end of the Eastern Han, power came to be equally divided among the Wei, Shu, and Wu rulers; its rich and colourful history is captured in the turbidity, the arcing lines and flying pigments, and the sense of speed and action in this painting. From the united energies of his mind and body, Shiraga imparts to his canvas all he knows of the heroic deeds of the era, its historical figures and popular legends, and the literature and folk art surrounding those events.
The artistic value of Shiraga's Hokei can be found, in one respect, in its subjectivity, in the artist's process of transforming his subjective perception of history into art. Added to that is Shiraga's foot painting technique, unique to this artist and developed by him, coupled with well-grounded compositional ideas. As he works, subjugating his mind and body to conscious cooperation, Shiraga displays a mature control over pictorial elements, guided by complex, rational control over its execution. But all told, what this work most represents is simply one of the finest expressions of Kazuo Shiraga's genius, his eye for beauty, and his superb intuition.

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