When the avant-garde Gutai group emerged as an art movement in 1954, the group stood out for its striking originality--paintings executed using feet in lieu of brushes, an “Electric Dress” made with colorful light bulbs, to name a few.
The Gutai group was founded by artists in the Kansai area, and its pioneering practices took postwar Japan’s art scene by storm. The group disbanded in 1972.
Now, 40 years later, “Gutai: The Spirit of an Era” Exhibition is being showcased at The National Art Center, Tokyo. It is the first major retrospective on “Gutai” art in Tokyo. The exhibition runs through Sept. 10.
Gutai has remained hugely popular in the Kansai area. It has also reached overseas audiences through numerous retrospectives. However, Gutai has been markedly slow to catch on in Tokyo. No doubt, the current exhibition and related symposiums will provide clues as to deciphering the mixed reception of Gutai here in Japan and understanding its complicated appeal.
The Gutai group was founded by Jiro Yoshihara, an artist who first emerged before World War II. The group lived by his guiding principle to “never mimic others” and embraced unconventional forms of expression, demonstrating a bold, sometimes wild, creativity.
Kazuo Shiraga painted with his feet, hanging from a rope; Atsuko Tanaka wore the “Electric Dress” as performance art; Saburo Murakami, in his “paper breakthroughs,” would hurdle himself through paper screens; Sadamasa Motonaga dripped and drizzled paint onto the surface of his work.
From the early days, the group held exhibitions in Tokyo. But somehow their work never caught on in the capital city. Critics complained that Gutai art was “lacking in content,” pointing out that it lacked the ideology often featured in other avant-garde art of the period.
The difference may have stemmed from the fact that other postwar avant-garde art groups were often made up of same generation artists, whereas the Gutai was a group of young talent who came together under an absolute leader figure, Yoshihara, who was generations ahead of them. The artists revered Yoshihara, calling him “sensei,” their master. In fact, Gutai disbanded with the death of Yoshihara.
Shoichi Hirai is curator at the National Art Center, Tokyo, who organized the current exhibition, and Ming Tiampo, associate professor of Art History at Carleton University, is organizing a Gutai retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York to open in February. They spoke at a Gutai symposium and pointed out that Yoshihara was inspired by the Japanese literary movement Shirakabaha that sprung up in pre-war Japan. He brought the ideas of individuality and morality to Gutai--and thus, Yoshihara’s artists’ collective stood apart from other postwar groups.
Yoshihara actually screened every piece of Gutai art. Koichi Kawasaki organized Gutai retrospectives in 1992 and 1993, covering Gutai’s three periods, early, middle and late, as curator of the Ashiya City Museum of Art and History in Hyogo Prefecture.
“Maybe the whole Gutai movement should be considered the work of Jiro Yoshihara,” Kawasaki says. “While (Gutai) claimed that the goal was freedom, there was Yoshihara’s constant eye watching over--which must have been constricting.”
Michel Tapie was a French art critic, who originated the term “art informel” or abstract “unformed art.” Tapie was a great promoter of Gutai art who helped build its reputation overseas. He introduced Gutai works in Europe on numerous occasions, but these were limited to paintings, although Gutai embraced a multitude of art forms including outdoor installations and performances.
According to Tiampo, the exact reverse happened in the United States, where artist Allan Kaprow introduced Gutai, spotlighting the group’s performance art. Thus, in the United States, Gutai is considered, first and foremost, a performance arts troupe. So it turns out that Gutai, considered a wild bunch of free-thinking creators, was in fact, being constantly curated and shaped by aesthetes such as Yoshihara, Tapie and Kaprow.
In Japan, there has been a good representation of Gutai’s extreme exploits from the early period and paintings from its middle period. This current exhibition is an all-encompassing show. There is a representation of the late period featuring geometrical forms and expressions that embraced modern technology. The forthcoming Guggenheim exhibition’s take will be Gutai as a “Splendid Playground.”
Kawasaki commented on the mystique of Gutai. He said the art movement “was elevated to ‘myth’ status in a mere 20 years since it dissolved.” Now that 40 years have passed, it is high time for a full re-examination of the group to get the stories straight and investigate their somewhat lopsided appraisal and complicated mystique.
At the symposium, Hirai summed up the way forward: “From here on, it becomes important to rewrite the conceptual model of art history, not from a West-centered or a Tokyo-centered or even a Gutai-centered point of view--which has been very much the mainstream in the Kansai area--by getting a global view of the whole.”
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