'My completed work is not for someone to appreciate. It should have the impact of a blow.' -- Kazuo Shiraga
Paint and paintbrush are the two crucial tools for painters. This seemingly obvious combination applies to most painters across art history, but Kazuo Shiraga, who pioneered in disrupting this formula, and substituting himself as an art tool. His artworks explore originality, gestural abstraction and the beauty of spontaneity.
Kazuo Shiraga is the leading voice of the Gutai artist group (1954-1972) active in Hanshin region of Japan. The avant-garde Gutai artists constantly strive to 'do what no-one has done before' and provoke new thinking in art during the post-war period. The rebellious Shiraga daringly deconstructs artistic theories of the past and utilises his body, fingers and feet as instruments of expression. He became internationally prominent after French critic Michel Tapié promoted the artworks of the Gutai in Europe and the US.
Aya No. 5, 1954 (Lot 445) was created in an important year when Shiraga exhibited his first feet paintings in Osaka, which later became his signature oeuvre. Shiraga's early paintings are significantly rare and collected by museums. In the collection of Ashiya City Museum of Art and History, there is a Shiraga painting from the Aya series that was created in the same year (Fig. 1). Shiraga said, 'I don't look at the canvas while acting on it. My body moves kind of in relation to the canvas.' He brushes paint with his feet and travels along the canvas, while holding onto a suspended rope affixed to the ceiling. This expressive bodily act charged his artworks with kinetic energy. The artist seemingly utilises this technique in Aya No. 5, 1954 (Lot 445) to accentuate a turbulent texture with an alternative contrast of red and green waving against a dark background. The thickness of the paint juxtaposes against the flat background surface and creates the depth of the ripples. The fluctuating abstract pattern prompts various narratives to mind, such as the interruption on a calm water surface or the symbolic lines of life or death in an electrocardiogram. In comparison to a later work Untitled, 1969 (Lot 444), the mixed-colour patches executed in curvy strokes against a flat yellow background, also captivates the energetic flow of the artist's bodily movement.
MEDIUMS - PAPER, CANVAS, AND MUD
For artistic training, Shiraga first studied traditional Japanese painting at the Kyoto Institute of Painting, then oil painting at the Osaka Municipal Institute of Art. The artist creates with various mediums that generate different feelings for the same execution method. His dynamic strokes have artistic reminiscence of both Eastern and Western practices. The oil on paper (Lot 446) captivates a juxtaposition between positive and negative spaces taken from the Eastern traditions of ink calligraphy. In comparison to the cursive script of Tang dynasty calligrapher Huai Su (Fig. 2), Shiraga's curvy strokes also liberates a forceful flow with an additional explosive touch. On the other hand, the two oil on canvases (Lot 444 and 445) are entirely covered with thick paint in the Western style of Abstract Expressionism. The texture on the Shiraga painting has similarities with the abstract paintings of Hans Hofmann (Fig. 3) and Gerhard Richter (Fig. 4). Richter creates by layering numerous strata of paint, and drags a rubber squeegee across the surface to reveal the previous layer. By giving up the use of the common artist tool, Shiraga liberates the constraint of past artistic traditions and constructs a new form of art that combines drama, dance and painting.
In 1955, Shiraga conducted a performative work Challenging Mud in 1955 (Fig. 5) and established 'painting' as a performative act. The artist's body functioned as a paintbrush and he 'painted' by rolling across the mud to create textural form. The unexpected elements that occur during his 'moment to moment' acts are automatically recorded into the artworks. Similar in composition, the juxtaposed high-speed strokes of black, white and red washes in Untitled,1965 (Lot 446) fill the central composition with a concentrated blast of chaotic matter.
SHADES OF RED
Besides remaining faithful to the artistic practice of body painting throughout his artistic career, Shiraga also favours the use of colour red to achieve different compositional effects. In Aya No. 5, 1954 (Lot 445), the cinnabar red highlights the bumpy rripples; alternatively, the wash of crimson red in the background of Untitled, 1965 (Lot 446) gives volume and layering to the dynamic black and white strokes above; on the contrary, the multiple shades of scarlet, carnelian and blood red in Untitled, 1969 (Lot 444) contrast with the other bright colours and together captivate the flow of Shiraga's lively strokes. In 1944, Shiraga experienced the horrors of war at the age of 20 and was summoned to serve the army, although he was lucky enough not to be deployed abroad. In Japanese culture, the colour red represents strength, passion, self-sacrifice and blood. Moreover, the reasons behind Shiraga's preference for using red in his provocative body paintings, after his traumatic experience of World War II, is left vacant for one's interpretation.