The first major retrospective of pioneering Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008) in Tokyo shows rarely shown drawings and some 90 paintings.
TEXT: Julia Tarasjuk
PHOTOS: Courtesy of Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery
It is a rare pleasure to see the works of Kazuo Shiraga in his native Japan. After the Water Margin Hero Series exhibition held in the artist's hometown of Amagasaki in 2018 to mark the 10th anniversary of Shiraga's death, and a solo exhibition at Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo in 2019, the Japanese capital finally has its first major Kazuo Shiraga retrospective exhibition. at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery.
The Tokyo retrospective presents an unprecedented number of works from public and private Japanese collections throughout the artist's career. The exhibition features about 90 paintings, including early works, highlights from the Gutai period and later esoteric works, experimental sculptures, photo and video documentation of legendary performances, and their tools. Shiraga's rarely seen drawings and designs for the Gutai Gallery buildings are also on display. An impressive number of over 130 exhibits on display provide an amazing overview of Shiraga's activities.
Shiraga's artistic legacy traces its roots to post-war Japan, when people were energetic and there was excitement in the air, urging you to try new things. This emerging spirit that dominated the society led to the rise of new artistic movements, including one of the most famous and acclaimed groups, Gutai, of which Shiraga became one of the most prominent exponents.
The Gutai Art Association, the first group of radical artists in postwar Japan, was founded in Osaka in 1954 under the leadership of Jiro Yoshihara. Yoshihara's motto was simply to do what no one had done before and not to imitate others. The artists in the group who later rose to fame, such as Saburo Murakami, Sadamasa Motonaga and, of course, Shiraga, represented the free spirit of art and the raw and concrete (Gutaiin Japanese) Creativity. Yet few in the movement embodied Gutai's philosophy more dramatically than Shiraga, who developed a unique technique of pouring paint onto canvas and creating brushstrokes with his feet swinging on a rope suspended from the ceiling.
Shiraga was born in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture in 1924 into the family of a kimono shop owner. Training from him gave her access to the wonders of traditional Japanese art from an early age: calligraphy and antiquities, classical theater and film, ukiyo-e prints, and ancient Chinese literature. After studying traditional Japanese painting in Kyoto, Shiraga fulfilled his long-standing desire to explore Western painting. He moved away from the figurative style and took a more emotional direction. As a result, in the early 1950s, his work moved toward total abstraction, following the spirit of the times, to challenge conventional art forms. The Tokyo retrospective opens with a selection of previously unknown abstract works by Shiraga from this period, dating back to 1949, when the artist was just 25 years old.
Around 1952 Shiraga founded the Zero Society together with the artists Murakami and Akira Kanayama (cero-kai), which is based on the idea that art should be created out of nothing. Shiraga began to experiment with his fingers, using them to create distinctive patterns, as shown in some of the works on display. The finger technique eventually led him to lay the canvas flat to prevent paint from dripping. It made it impossible to reach the center of the canvas unless the artist stepped on it. And he did. Shiraga's legendary Foot Paintings (sometimes called Action Paintings, the term originally coined for the work of Jackson Pollock) emerged in the summer of 1954, and that same year the artist joined the Gutai movement. The primal energy of this new footwork explores both tension and a sense of power. Gliding across the canvas, Shiraga used his physical strength to achieve a certain state between conscious and unconscious, narrowing his pictorial focus to performance. It was a visual record, a memory of a specific action at a specific time. Shiraga did not stop exploring the possibilities of a pictorial practice that would document his practices on canvas.
Some of Shiraga's performances that flourished after he joined the Gutai group, as well as various innovative installations, including thered liquidThe 1956 beef liver piece highlights the artist's broader practice. Of particular interest to any Shiraga lover are some impressive wall sculptures from 1955-56. Crafted from urethane and wood, these pieces were intended to encourage direct action, touch, and spectator pressure activation. Another absolute masterpiece is thewild boar hunting(1963) from the collection of the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art. This brutal, yet quite fascinating work is widely considered to be one of Shiraga's strongest productions.
"The Water Margin Hero Series" is a vivid example of Shiraga's foot paintings. Most of these works were produced by the artist to be sent to Europe under an agreement with the French curator and true Japanophile Michel Tapié, but some were fortunately donated by Shiraga to the city of Amagasaki and are featured in the exhibition. With this series, Shiraga has deviated somewhat from Gutai's main tenet: to leave the work untitled. Yoshihara strongly opposed the notion that art should have a descriptive function. However, Shiraga titled this group of works with the names of the heroes.Water amount, a lengthy colloquial Chinese novel from the Ming dynasty of which the artist was a great admirer.
In the 1960s, Shiraga's search for spirituality led him into the esoteric. In 1971 he became a monk of the Tendai sect and in 1974, two years after Yoshihara's death and the dissolution of Gutai, he completed a 35-day Buddhist training. During this period of Shiraga's artistic and spiritual quest, he stopped painting in bare feet and instead used a long palette knife to create works reminiscent of esoteric mantras.
The palette knife method soon proved to limit his freedom of movement on the canvas, and Shiraga was soon back painting with his feet. Keeping his method of production sharp, he increased the overwhelming power of representing both the human body and the spirit, both literally and figuratively. Until his death, the artist dedicated himself to this unique, almost anthropological approach, which asked how the physical, spiritual and sensual essence of a human being can be united. Using very simple production methods—bare feet, a handmade wooden shoe with a cloth strap to attach it to the foot, string, and a metal paint can—Shiraga's innovative ideas brought the human act of creation back to life. its primary roots.
Kazuo Shiraga: una retrospectiva
January 11 — March 22, 2020
*The gallery is temporarily closed from February 29 to March 16
Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery
about the artist
Kazuo Shiraga was born in 1924 in Amagasaki, Japan. After studying Nihon-ga (Japanese style painting) in Kyoto and becoming increasingly frustrated with the stylistic and material constraints he found himself inNihon-ga, in which Shiraga participatedGendai Bijutsu Kondankai(Contemporary Art Discussion Group) with several other students and began experimenting with making oil paintings with his hands and fingers. Shiraga found that the viscosity of the ready-to-use oil paint was "freer" than the cumbersome and flimsy ink-based pigments he had used in painting school. In 1954, Shiraga joined the renowned Japanese avant-garde collective Gutai and was inspired by Gutai leader Jiro Yoshihara to further advance his material-driven and performative painting practice to "create something that had never been done before." ".
During his time as a member of Gutai, Shiraga simultaneously pursued oil painting and acting, often incorporating the two practices into performance painting pieces.challenging mud(1955), in which the artist manipulates the clay with his whole body as if it were thick and malleable paint, andlast generation sambaso(1957), in which he wore a spectacular red suit with elongated arms in the shape of wings, his movements creating touches of color on the black background of the stage. Shiraga continued this exploration of the relationship between body and material throughout his career and is best known for his large-scale paintings on foot, which he continued well into the 1980s.
julia tarasjukis an art consultant and art writer with over a decade of experience working with museums, galleries and independent art projects in Russia, the UK, France and Japan. In 2015 she launched the online magazine Museeum.com and is the platform's editor-in-chief. Julia currently resides in Tokyo, where she organizes customized art tours for various institutions, art councils and private collectors, and actively supports exchanges between the Japanese and international art scene. Julia is the author of the book “Art Tokyo”, published in Russia in 2018.
Julia Tarasyuk is an art historian and specialist in contemporary art with over a decade of experience working with museums, galleries and independent art projects in Russia, the UK, France and Japan. For the past five years, Ella Julia has been based in Tokyo, Japan, where she began her art consultancy with a focus on young and mid-career Japanese artists. In addition, she organizes bespoke art tours in Japan for various institutions and private collectors. Julia is the author of the book Art Tokyo, published in Russia in 2018, and writes regularly for international art magazines on contemporary art. With her projects, publications and recent exhibitions of hers, she actively supports the exchange between the Japanese and international art scene. www.juliatarasyuk.com
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