The Spirit of Gutai

Header image: Untitled (2008) by Sadaharu Horio

The Gutai Group was a post-war artistic group in western Japan, founded by the painter Jiro Yoshihara. After World War II, Japan was in a process of renewal. Against the martial culture of the time, as well as an atmosphere of alienation, a group of artists sought to break down all barriers between art, everyday life, and the ordinary public. The spirit of young democracy and a growing belief of individual freedom inspired them.

 

The name “Gutai” means “concreteness,” and it seizes the direct engagement its members had with their materials, and the relationship between body and matter in pursuit of originality. Gutai ideology decreed that its members follow individual visions rather than rules, and was a pioneer of performance-based work. Yoshihara’s motto, “never imitate others”, was the beating heart of the movement.

Jiro Yoshihara, the founder of the Gutai Group, came from a wealthy family of vegetable oil wholesalers. Although he lacked a formal art education, Yoshihara was an avid painter who became one of the leaders of the avant-garde art movement of the 1930’s. After World War II, Yoshihara focused his style on abstract art, and eventually formed the Gutai Group in 1954, which he was a part of until his death in 1972. The first artists to join the Gutai group were all young, either former students of Yoshihara or other artists he had met at one of numerous cultural events around Ashiya.

Woman Crossing Arm (1949) by Jiro Yoshihara
Woman Crossing Arm (1949) by Jiro Yoshihara

Some highly influential Gutai artists include Kazuo Shiraga, who produced performance paintings that were created in front of an audience, with the artist suspended from the ceiling, dragging his feet through paint onto his canvas. Shiraga chose this method to lead to more spontaneous results. Other artists, such as Atsuko Tanaka, used materials like bells and light bulbs in her performances, and Saburo Murakami leapt through masses of paper to create different designs. These artists were some of the most important to the group in its first phase.

Towards the late 1950s, Yoshihara steered the group more towards the Art Informel movement. For this second phase of the Gutai group, their number rose to 50 members, and the Gutai Pinacotheca was founded. The Gutai Pinacotheca was an exhibition space where both Gutai art exhibitions and shows of other foreign notable artists were held. It was an important gateway for Western modern art to be introduced to Japanese art, and specifically, to Gutai art.

Untitled (1966) by Sadamasa Motonaga
Untitled (1966) by Sadamasa Motonaga

Gutai’s crowning achievement was their role as representatives of Japan’s artistic mainstream at Expo ’70. There they curated various on-site exhibitions of their works and choreographed a massive and incredible performance art ceremony. It was at this time that millions of people were
exposed to Gutai art. However, the moment of their greatest inf luence was also their downfall. Some of their younger members had become disillusioned by the event, and after the death of Yoshihara Jiro in 1972, the group disbanded.

Peach of Jyoga (2008) by Keiko Moriuchi
Peach of Jyoga (2008) by Keiko Moriuchi

The Gutai Group may have only lasted for 18 years, but their legacy to contemporary art is unquestionable. In its first phase, the Gutai group anticipated Arte Povera, and Fluxus and during its second phase, Conceptual Art, particularly the artists of the Zero movement, who shared
the same ambitions to redefine and transform art. The group’s love for and promotion of pure creative freedom is one of the reasons why Gutai
is now acknowledged as one of the most influential movements in contemporary art.

A Taste of Gutai: Lito and Kim Camacho Collection was exhibited at the Ayala Museum from 5 February to 10 April, 2016 under the Collectors Series program.