Gutai, the Daring Japanese Post-War Movement

01.08.2019

Courtesy of Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka

Although the Gutai movement is still relatively unknown, it is considered the very essence of contemporary art. Jiro Yoshihara, born in Osaka in 1905, is known as the founder of and theorist behind this movement. In 1956, he published a manifesto on Gutai art, which he personified until the end of his life. It was art critic Michel Tapié, however, who, in 1958, revealed the true richness of the movement by exporting it to France and across Europe.

‘Gutai’ comes from the word ‘gu’, meaning ‘instrument’, and ‘tai’, meaning ‘tool’. ‘Gutaiteki’ means ‘concrete’, in opposition to the abstract and, more precisely, abstract art. Gutai originates from the Kansai region in Japan, an area known for its traditionalism. Yoshihara wished to open Japanese art to new and innovative techniques, so created the first Gutai art association in 1954, the only rule being ‘not to copy others’. The association was made up of around thirty artists, most of whom were male, including Shozo Shimamoto, Tsuruko Yamazaki, Shiraga Kazuo and Toshio Yoshida.

Gutai art therefore incarnates the renewal of Japanese art, which experienced a particularly deadly period, seeing the Second World War and the Hiroshima bombing. It attaches considerable importance to materials and performance. Artistic style and gestures are totally rethought, with the techniques used by the artists characterised by constant innovation.

‘The first members of the movement put the body, material and the elements at the forefront. For example, Murakami Saburo attached paper to wooden frames placed upright and then walked through it. Shiraga Kazuo produced a painting with his feet, hanging from the end of a rope. And Motonaga Sadamasa created his works from rings of smoke’, explains Culture Box.

Gutai art can therefore be described as ephemeral. Like Dadaism in Europe, Gutai marked a real revolution in the artistic world. At the crossroads between abstraction, surrealism and the Dada movement, it takes a new approach to contemporary art, and has provided considerable inspiration for the performance and audience-focused events created by artists such as Marina Abramovic and Orlan.

This overflow of creative freedom was heavily criticised at first. But very soon, its eclectic nature seduced even the toughest art critics. Through painting, sculpture, photography and performance, the Gutai movement is attractive thanks to its pioneering character, which is still inspiring artists today.

Last July, the Musée Soulages paid homage to the movement by dedicating its second exhibition to it in Rodez. This exhibition showcased the large body of work of Jiro Yoshihara. This artist, who died in 1972, took with him a large part of the movement, as only a few of the members continued working after his death.

Courtesy of Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka

Courtesy of Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka

Courtesy of Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka