One defining moment of the Second World War was the twin bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which led to Japan’s surrender to the United States in 1945. The event was perceived through fatalistic lenses, as an inevitable catastrophe which nobody had control over. After the unimaginable destruction following the war, the strained diplomatic relations between Japan and America were rapidly re-established in the 1950s, and the subsequent internationalism spurred reactionary artistic ideas. A group of artists called the Gutai Group (1954-72) responded to the newfound liberation from totalitarianism by rejecting traditional art styles and ‘[doing] what no one has done before’ (quoting the founder, Jiro Yoshihara). Gutai, written as 具体, consists of the characters for ‘tool’ and ‘body’, and translates as ‘embodiment’ or ‘concreteness’. The group sought modernism and an authentic reflection of the post-war human condition, rejecting representative art, while championing individual expression.
One artist chose to get his feet wet – literally – in copious amounts of oil paint thrown onto canvases on the ground, which he glided across, and manipulated the paint into textural pieces, left to dry as relics of his performance. The performative works of Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008) are, for me, one of the most visceral representations of post-war psyche in Japan among the Gutai works. From the full-body execution of his paintings, to the reds and blacks that feature so strongly in his works, all elements reflect the physicality and bloodshed that accompanies war. In doing so, he developed his own technique of ‘feet painting’ and broke away from academic traditions.
History of Shiraga’s feet paintings
Before becoming a Gutai member, Shiraga was already experimenting with substituting the brush for his body as a painting tool. He started painting with his fingernails in 1953, and then with his feet the year after. In 1955, having joined the Gutai Group, the performative element of his feet paintings expanded as he took his canvas outside the studio and invited the press to watch while he performed. In the Shiraga Family Kimono Store, Shiraga would suspend himself from the ceiling and slide across his canvas below, aided by thick dollops of paint. Rejecting representational art and seeking to show ‘traces of action carried out with speed’, this process removed a certain degree of control from Shiraga, as his entire body weight caused him to swing across the canvas in a pendulum-like motion. This concept of physicality forms a significant part of his oeuvre.
An integral part of making his feet paintings is the collaborative process with his wife, Fujiko Uemura, who advised him on colours and performed alongside Shiraga, preparing oil paints. Most pertinent are her records of Shiraga’s dreams in the form of ‘dream notes’, which Shiraga would refer to for inspiration. A line from one notebook reads: “A man in white kimono, swiftly draws his sword. My sword gleams as I hurl it at him. It slashes his face, bright red blood gushes in every direction.” This visceral quality of his dreams manifests itself frequently in his works as a crimson lake of paint which Shiraga was particularly inclined to creating, stating that “[the colour] reeked of blood”, expressing the raw emotions in his striking works fuelled by post-war angst.
Take for example Torimono (1958). The reds and blacks create a brooding and solemn colour scheme, while the canvas presents diverse textures where Shiraga has manipulated the paint with his feet. We can observe smooth streaks of paint where he glided across the canvas, raised ridges where fresh paint disturbed older layers which had yet to dry, and thick mounds where paint coalesced, creating a painting almost sculptural in its depth. What stands out the most to me is how we are able to trace his movements across the canvas, the portions where he went back and forth, and the parts where his feet grazed the canvas.
Shiraga’s action paintings may bring to mind the works of Jackson Pollock, but I would like to explore the comparisons made between these two great artists. Critic Dore Ashton, who was a strong proponent of the Abstract Expressionists, dismissed Shiraga’s works as derivative of Pollock’s in 1958. While Shiraga was inspired by photographs of Pollock painting by Hans Namuth, he was more taken with the impulsive energy of Pollock’s approach, which he sought to utilise in his works. Their artistic products also differed in one aspect – borrowing an observation from Guggenheim curator Alexander Munroe, we may observe patterns of nature, lavender mist or ocean greyness, in Pollock’s works, but we can never observe ‘things’ in Shiraga’s. So while both took their canvases off the easel and rejected representation, their intentions differed, and dismissing Shiraga’s works as mere imitation overlooks the significance of his unique manipulation of paint and emotionally-charged intentions.
Today, Shiraga’s works have been shifted from their stage on the ground up on to gallery walls, but we should refrain from thinking of these canvases as static paintings, as it was the act of painting with his feet, rather than the finished painting itself, that fulfilled Shiraga’s objective. In Shiraga’s words: “Rather than painting and establishing a picture, and trying to make it remain, I got to the point where it didn’t matter whether it remained.” One may point out that, given Shiraga was working on canvases, does that not reveal his intention of making his paintings last? Actually, Shiraga’s pre-1957 paintings were executed on Japanese paper – an ephemeral material – before meeting Michel Tapié, who advised him to shift to canvas to appeal to western audiences. Hence, Shiraga’s intentions did not lie with creating lasting works or specific compositions, but with actions and expressions that embodied his post-war angst.
By using his body as an artmaking tool, Shiraga achieved a wide range of motion across the canvas on which he performed his choreographies. His avant-garde approach was symbolic of post-war angst and the aspirational spirit of post-war Japan as it advanced towards modernity and autonomy. Although he kept within the confines of his canvas while painting, his artistic practice pushed boundaries and formed a sensitive response to the age.
Hi there! I’m Constance Koh, a student ambassador for The Art Story. I’m currently an intercollegiate student at UCL and SOAS studying Asian, African and European art history, with an interest in genre paintings and contemporary Asian art (amongst many others, the list goes on!). I believe art has immense potential to move and connect people, and contributing to a collective effort to make art more accessible is why I’m here. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this little piece of work from me, and do keep a look out for more here on The Art Story!