Sainsbury Institute’s October 2020 Third Thursday Lecture welcomed a fascinating talk entitled, “Please Draw Freely: Gutai Individualism in the Shadow of Totalitarianism,” by Dr Ming Tiampo, Professor of Art History and co-director of the Centre for Transnational Cultural Analysis at Carleton University. The talk introduced the Gutai art group as a major agent in shaping a new democratic world in post-WWII Japan. Founded in 1954, the art group championed the idea of creating what its founder Yoshihara Jirō coined as “no one has done before.” As a result, their zeal for innovation and originality produced a range of works: painting, installation, performance, participatory art, experimental film, cybernetics, to name a few.
Yoshihara’s exemplary Please Draw Freely (1956) invites the viewer’s participation in creating a work of art (see the image). The playful interactive gesture of the artwork spoke to the ethical position of Gutai in cultivating creativity in an individual. For Gutai, art practice and art education were the two pillars for building a new democratic society of citizens capable of thinking critically. From this perspective, the art group dedicated their practice to teaching art to young children and writing article for children’s magazine Kirin (giraffe). They generated a safe space for free expression and supported the freedom of an individual, thus both functioning against the totalitarianism of wartime period and intervening within postwar Japan (Tiampo).
The democratizing nature of the Gutai group is proclaimed in their Manifesto:
“In Gutai Art, the human spirit and matter shake hands with each other while keeping their distance. Matter never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates matter. When matter remains intact and exposes its characteristics, it starts telling a story and even cries out.”
Yoshihara Jirō., (December 1956). Gutai bijutsu sengen (Gutai Art Manifesto)1.
In this statement, Gutai expressed the idea of a harmonious co-existence of the spiritual and material, of an individual and art. What is art for Gutai? Tiampo suggested that the group tests the definition of art by targeting the notion of a painting as they stretched it beyond paint and canvas. According to the speaker, the pressing question of the Gutai’s innovation was how to incorporate time and space into the painting surface. She brought an example of Yamazaki Tsuruko’s Work (Red Cube) (1956), which the artist created for the Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition in 1956 (see the image). The interior of the red cube expanded the concept of a two-dimensional painting into a three-dimensional space while the exterior became a theatrical site of spectatorship. In this regard, Yamazaki positioned herself against the corporeally focused work of Murakami Saburo’s Passing Through (1956) and Shiraga Kazuo’s Challenging Mud (1955), or to quote Tiampo’s reference of Nakajima Izumi, “against the masculinist discourses of freedom articulated through the body” (see Nakajima I.,(2019). Anti-action nippon sengo kaiga to josei gaka, Tokyo: Seiunsha).
According to the presenter, the critique of corporeality targets the methodology of Abstract Expressionism, particularly that of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) as well. Interestingly, the reception of the Gutai’s work has been misunderstood as derivative of Abstract Expressionism by the North American art criticism. Tiampo explained this tendency as being due to the perpetuating Euro-American-centric narrative of modernism that situates Japanese artists on the periphery and silences transnational artistic dialogues. Tiampo’s framework disrupts such account of modernism and offers a more inclusive approach, urging us to look from multiple perspectives when assessing global modernism.
Robert and Lisa Saisbury Fellow, Saisbury Instituite
1. Geijutsu Shinchō 7 (12), pp. 202–04. Translated from the English by Tomii Reiko (2012). In From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents, New York: Museum of Modern Art; Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, pp.89-90.
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