The Theatre of Colour – Lorenzo Mango

Art is action

To speak of the theatre of colour, in the case of Shozo Shimamoto, is not only to use a delightful metaphor to name a way of doing painting; it is rather a way of addressing his work in the light of a problem of criticism that we can summarise as the question of genres in modern art. It is a subject that in many ways has already been fully defined from the historical point of view. Yet, from others, it is still largely to be discussed. It is a given, in fact, that the entire course of the twentieth century, and the second half in particular, was marked by a whole series of artistic experiments which have transformed the destruction of the institutional borders of linguistic codes into their expressive terrain. This has become apparent through two main phenomena: hybridation and shifting. The former consists of the contamination of signs traditionally belonging to different linguistic fields, while the second refers to an expressive medium actually “invading the pitch” of another.

There is, however, another given that characterises the redefinition or, to use an expression of Rosemberg’s, the de-definition of genres, i.e., the fact that the process of hybridation and shifting are largely characterised by a phenomenon of theatralisation, meaning that the loss of consistency of the specific is substantially translated in the substitution of an event for a subject. It is the condition of performance and performativeness that significantly denotes the notion of twentieth-century art, and leads to talk of the theatralisation of the arts, in the sense that, while preserving their original connotations, they have been translated into a form of writing that acts concretely within a given space using a given time.

This is a key concept and, at the same time, a key problem. If, in fact, the process of translation and loss of the specific in an artistic action that tends to make an event of its linguistic material, risking the body along with space and time, is evident, it is not so easy to speak in terms of theatre, or at least of theatricality. If, in fact, we look carefully at the codified notion of theatre, it certainly cannot be described as writing time and space through the body, but as a phenomenon of dramatised narration, that uses body, space and time, but from a representative point of view. But is it convincing to speak of the theatralisation of the arts, and if so, why? Because it was the theatre, first and foremost, which reviewed and redesigned its ambit of appurtenance, not because of the loss of what is specific to it, but on the contrary, in the name of the conquest of a specificity which should not be confused with its main dramaturgical and literary characteristic, typical of the western tradition. The theoretical work of figures such as Gordon Craig or Artaud in the first half of the twentieth century generates the idea of a linguistic basis for the theatre that consists in writing for the stage. And, in 1965, on the basis of those convictions, John Cage affirmed: “I would simply say that theatre is something which engages both the eye and the ear. The two public senses are seeing and hearing; the senses of taste, touch and odor are more proper to intimate, nonpublic, situations. The reason I want to make my definition of theatre that simple is one could view everyday life as theatre”, adding not long afterwards: “If you’re in a room and a record is playing and the window is open and there’s some breeze and a curtain is blowing, that’s sufficient, it seems to me, to produce a theatrical experience”[1]. Cage’s words create a radical movement of the aesthetic categories that define the theatre as a language tracing it to the writing of a physical act that happens concretely, and not necessarily representatively, before a spectator. Theatre is what happens materially, not what simulates happening in narrative.

This conceptual shift, or as we might call it, an actual revolution of the notion of theatre, is what makes possible the phenomenon of theatralisation of the twentieth-century arts. We might say that the arts tend towards the theatre in so far as the theatre rethinks itself. It is a conceptually rather complex and structured given that helps us, however, to understand the breakup and redefinition of genres and, in particular, the theatralisation of the arts, and especially performance. Are we saying that all the arts that practise the element of performativeness become theatre? No, even if Michael Kirby, seeking a “quick” systematisation of the happening writes about it, in 1965, as a new theatrical genre[2]. An interesting observation because it helps us to move within a somewhat intricate intertwining of problems. In any case, the question of the identity of artistic performative phenomena cannot be confused with a sort of taxonomic obsession, but regards the readability of these phenomena, their possible interpretation, in the relational dialectic that binds them to other phenomena deemed canonically similar. It is a given that in a large number of cases, albeit characterised by linguistic hybridation processes, performative events end up being catalogued by the critics only in the context of “belonging” of the artist (even if this context is denied). Thus, little space is dedicated to Hermann Nitsch’s Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries in theatrical studies and, vice versa, the performative deeds typifying a certain season of the experimental theatre remain confined within the limits of theatrical studies.

The case of Shozo Shimamoto is emblematic from this point of view, also because he was among the first, in the fifties, to betray painting for the sake of something else, for the sake of a pictorial event. A betrayal which does not directly deny its genre, but questions it, treating it as a problem and not as a given fact. In this case, then, the critical question we have posed, has a particular meaning that it will be interesting to investigate, but first it is necessary to reconstruct the facts and context where the acts took place, to obtain the appropriate terms of reference.

The Japan of the late forties and the early fifties is the scenario in which Shimamoto started out. A particularly difficult and problematic scenario. Emerging devastated from the war, Japan was beginning its struggle to rethink its identity. Centuries-old certainties, jealously preserved thanks to its political and cultural isolation, began to undergo a crisis, and at the same time, contact with a world different from its own, and in particular the west, meant an acceleration in the processes of transformation and social reconstruction. It was the start of a journey, experienced as a laceration; the shock of the war was still too strong, but also represented an opening up of its horizons.

From the artistic point of view, the situation was, in many ways, the same. In fact, a deep laceration which, thanks to a comparison with contemporary western art, set in motion new processes that represented a strong discontinuation of the national tradition, whose institutional role it rejected, but not some of the basic founding principles, especially from the philosophical point of view. In this way an interesting comparison between rejection and rereading, between laceration and recomposition, a comparison that opens up, as we shall see, extremely important and vital scenarios.

There are two phenomena that in the fifties, while from profoundly different perspectives and in different ways, well exemplify this dialectic process between crisis and beginning: the Butoh dance and Gutai.

At the end of the fifties, Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijkata started to experiment with a form of shocking and innovative dance. Performance was based on the bodies of actors covered in a whitish layer of earth that transformed them into spectral figures. Their movements were stiff, their bodies contracted. There was a rejection of rhythm, of expressive freedom. Hands, feet, limbs acted as signals in code, deforming any form of naturalness. The effect was one of a grotesque naturalness that fully reflected the feeling for theatre that animates Japanese culture. Their catalogue of gestures came into being, in fact, like a sort of deformation of the codes of classical Japanese theatre, which formed a hybrid with motives originating in the west. They took Artaud and Genet among their points of reference. The impact was strong, an extreme provocation in the face of a fossilised society such as that of Japan.

Butoh represents, then, a type of cultural short circuit, giving life to one of the first important experiments of the linguistic de-territorialisation of modern dance. Gutai presents similar features, even if their genesis and approach are profoundly different. It came into being in 1954, bringing together a series of currents running through Japanese art at the time, and which had grouped themselves from the late forties to the early fifties, into two movements: the Zero Group and Genbi, a contemporary art discussion group. They were two groups of young artists who had started up a radical process of rethinking the artistic, and especially, the pictorial tradition, referring to informal practice, but also forcing it into a direction of cancellation and zeroing (the Zero Group is naturally of remarkable importance from this point of view). On the other hand, behind the young Japanese artists of the fifties, there were also a number of movements, notably, the Association of Free Artists and the Association of Art and Culture, who had been working even in the thirties to introduce into the Japanese context elements of innovation, largely based on contact with the European avant-garde.

It would not, however, be appropriate, in the case of these pictorial movements, to speak of a rethinking of the national tradition in the light of the modernism of the avant-garde, as in Butoh’s case, because in Japanese history there lacks, in a technical and historical sense, something that identifies visual art – painting, as a specific, circumscribed field, in the way we are used to considering it in the west. Thus, the adventure of the modern Japanese painters began, firstly with the European and, generally speaking, western avant-garde, past or recent, and then in association with something that in our conception of genres is, basically, something other than painting (or at least it is something difficult to categorise): the art of calligraphy.

A central figure in this process is Jiro Yoshihara, a painter, but above all cultural animator who founded Gutai in 1954, rallying the vitality of the young Japanese painters. Shimamoto was among the founders of the group. It was actually he who came up with the name Gutai, which means ‘concreteness’, in clear opposition to ‘abstraction’ (we recall the expression ‘concrete music’ to identify some of the more radical forms of experiment with sound). The group’s headquarters was at his home. Yoshihara was a remarkably up-to-date intellectual. He was a generation older than his youthful companions, and knew the informal European currents very well, and the early twentieth-century avant-garde movements even better. His “slogan” was to go beyond Mondrian, a way of hailing the need to surpass minimalist, abstract design rationalism, of which the Dutch master was the leading exponent. He aimed to explore unknown territory, to experiment with linguistic solutions that would reinvent the parameters of artistic codes. “Create what has never been created before” he would say, in a clearly avant-garde spirit, to his young companions.

Gutai came into being, then, as a radical and absolute movement of pure invention, aiming to “reinvent art”, interweaving a dialogue and also a dialectical contraposition with the western tradition, both the most ancient and the most recent. In his Gutai Manifesto of 1956 (it is significant that he wrote a “manifesto” of poetics, in the wake of the European avant-garde), Yoshihara sustained the need to avoid confusion with Dadaism and, before that, cites the Renaissance as a historical term of reference. Shimamoto does the same, if not more so, in his most important theoretical writing, For a Banishment of Paintbrushes in 1957. “When I began to use colouring substances I didn’t know much about the paintbrushes used in the Renaissance” and adds  “Poussin and Leonardo da Vinci were those who bothered least with colour as a substance, almost defeating its materialness”[3]. He goes on to quote Rembrandt, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Utrillo, and Manet, pointing out how, in his reasoning, the “History of art” coincides with the History of Western Art. Behind his choice, as in that of Yoshihara, there were, so to speak, strategic reasons, in the sense that the texts mentioned above were published in the Gutai bulletin that was distributed at international level and was intended to be a bridge towards the Western World to make the work of the group known there. But there are also, and I should say, above all, more concrete reasons: the Gutai revolution was conceived in relation to the conquests of the western avant-garde. Alongside this relationship, however, Yoshihara cultivated another, with calligraphy and, in particular with the Bokuju-Kai avant-garde movement. The young members of the group were involved in this, and Shimamoto especially, an admirer of Nantenbo, the great master bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who, while following the dictates of tradition, interpreted it in a personal way, using a script composed of large signs executed in a free and impulsive way.

A determining factor in this frame of reference and exchange was his encounter with Pollock’s action painting, mentioned, not by chance in the Gutai Manifesto, as an example of an experimenter able to question and surpass the conquests of the avant-garde. In Pollock, Yoshihara finds the expression of a concept which forms the basis of his aesthetic vision: art is action. A similar concept, the centrality if not the absolutisation of the event, while being a condition to a certain degree familiar in Japanese culture through Zen, finds a clear definition in Pollock’s experience. Pollock plays, in the art of the second half of the twentieth century, a role similar to that of Duchamp in the first half of the century: a sort of “cultural catalyst” who brings together a certain working climate and defines it as the idea of art. His dripping, albeit a pictorial technique, also takes on an independent configuration. Hans Namuth, the photographer who immortalised him at work in a series of extraordinary images in 1950, recalls that his movements, while he was painting, really seemed like those of a dance. The act of painting appears detached, independent of the result it aims to reach: an event is made. But it is still a private event, whose vision is stolen by an exceptional witness like Namuth. But the conceptual die, – art is action – is cast.

A second, determining factor in this direction is represented by an episode which in its own way has become legendary both because of its originality and its eccentricity, being carried out as it was outside the usual artistic circles. It was the summer of 1952, in a college in North Carolina. At Black Mountain College, John Cage, one of the teachers working on new, experimental teaching strategies, came up with something so special and so far removed from codified artistic models as to be defined solely as an event. Black Mountain College had opened in the thirties, and represented a project for an interdisciplinary school of art, whose teaching was (at a level that I would describe as institutional) a sort of crossing over of codes and languages. On the other hand, straight after the closure of the Bauhaus in 1933, with the rise to power of Hitler, Josef Alber and his wife Anni moved there, with their totalising project that involved the individual arts in the name of a total work of art, typical of the school founded by Gropius. It was at the Bauhaus too, that theatre courses run by Schlemmer, gave rise to the invention of new stage experiments, with music, choreography and painting and, again thanks to the theatre department, parties with a strong performance element were held. Then, in the summer of 1952, John Cage, interpreting in a particularly extreme and radical way the ideals of the school, presented a special event that involved Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Mary Caroline Richards and students from the school. It was a random montage of a series of actions springing from the free invention of the participants and mounted together as a type of paradoxical collage. It was, in effect, the first happening. The work overflows into the event before finally losing itself in it completely.

Gutai represents the third fundamental opening up of art as event. The open air exhibitions held in Ashiya in 1955 and in 1956 were the occasion for real environmental installations to be set up, largely based on interaction with space and the visitor, in order to betray the contemplative dimension of the work and replace it with the active experience of the moment of fruition, bringing space and time into play as true writing. Even more oriented towards performance were the “Gutai Art on the Stage” evenings, which took place in Osaka in 1957 and 1958. On that occasion, in fact, the Gutai artists performed a series of stage actions, like a type of actual early stage writing, “to grapple with a particular space, the stage and its functions, with the problems of acoustic, lighting, the time dimension”[4].

Some years later, in 1959, thanks to Allan Kaprow, the happening would turn the event into a true linguistic code.

Painting as writing for the theatre

This outline, incomplete and excessively minimal, of some of the artistic vicissitudes linked to the notion of art as event serve to understand how the phenomenon of the theatralisation of art in the fifties developed and how Gutai was a determining factor in this phase. Along with a series of particularly important events, a number of essential terms associated with them came into use: art and action, dance and painting, work and event. These are terms that help us clarify a certain borderline between the languages – Menna called them a vague terrain, meaning a conceptually shifted place, as well as one open to an infinite horizon of the possible – where painting and theatrical activity meet, creating a “something” with a problematic identity. And it is here that we have to look for Shimamoto’s theatre of colour, as an action of language, and not as a metaphor of painting.

Shimamoto was among the young people closest to Yoshihara. Towards the end of the forties, personally interpreting the spirit of free invention of the master, he began to experiment with linguistic and technical solutions to break with the codified models of painting. In this way, he created “holes”, works made up of the superimposition of sheets of paper, mostly covered with an off-white layer of material, upon which the artist worked, rubbing on it until tears appeared that would be left open as holes in the surface. These are works with the clear intent of going beyond form, to treat the surface as a physical reality and to think of the pictorial act already as an event. Shimamoto’s “holes” are the result of real hand-to-hand combat with matter, but also, symbolically, hand-to-hand combat with an artistic code, which in turn becomes worn and cracked. The work has its inception the moment the surface no longer resists the stimulation to which it is subjected. The result is not, if not only in part, limited, premeditated; what determines it is a set of factors that Shimamoto simply allows to happen. The picture itself is a happening, even if still firmly set within its frame.

It has been said that when Yoshihara founded Gutai, Shimamoto was probably the person closest to him. The idea of “concreteness” at the basis of the poetics of the group translates, in him, into a new experimental dimension. Going beyond the “holes”, it is as though Shimamoto extracted, from that technique and the logic associated with it, the dimension of the event, which to some degree is made absolute, in the sense that it is detached from a final result, different from the self, like the work, again, in the series of holes. He was given the opportunity to try out this new dimension by the Gutai activities mentioned above. The specific environmental situation in which he worked, in fact, gave him the chance, if not actually the need, to invent new forms of expression.

In the first of the open-air Gutai exhibitions, the “Experimental Outdoor Modern Art Exhibition”, held in the Ashiya Public Park in 1955, Shimamoto exhibited a huge metal plate full of holes. It seemed like a development of his previous work, but in reality it was something profoundly different. Rather than the exhibition of a work it was, in fact, an environmental intervention, an installation within the natural space of a visibly strong sign whose function is to encourage spectator reaction. The intent to supersede the showing of the work was even more explicit in the second edition of the event, the following year, when Shimamoto presented a strange wooden gangway with an emblematic title: Please, walk here. The invitation to the visitor is explicit. The object had not been made to be contemplated but to be used: if anyone stood on the planking floor, it would move, disturbing the balance. This work of Shimamoto’s is a rereading of a children’s game. And not by chance, the world of children – and “the art of children” have always been identified by the artist as one of his points of reference. Children, with their unconditioned inventive freedom, and Nantenbo, the great and unorthodox calligrapher whose smears, fading, and drips Shimamoto very much appreciated. All this shows the ephemeral nature, the “moment” typifying and qualifying the act of writing. Not so much the sign, but, as we would say in an inappropriate Western language, his “dirtying”. The gangway, even more than the metal plate with its holes clearly shows Shimamoto’s intent. The specific aim is to create a micro-event which touches on the daily dimension, but detached from it, also because it decontextualises, à la Duchamp, the purpose of the object and the expectations of the user.

The game with objects and with the reactions of spectators is developed during the two editions of “Gutai on the Stage”. The idea of the event was that in the open-air exhibitions nature, in some spontaneously performative way, measured itself and assessed itself more directly against the theatre. What was said above holds also here. The problem is not the comparison between pictorial activity (as we call it, for the sake of convenience, albeit inappropriately) and the “model of the theatre”, but to introduce in a way that would be free, inventive and above all unfettered by any representative purpose, a number of elements which may be deemed fundamental to the theatre: space time body presence – on condition that its statutes be drawn up again from scratch. This is what Gutai does, inventing a theatre, and not applying its visual suitability to theatre, or in effect, a pre-existing concept of theatre. Gutai on the Stage, precisely when it thematises its relationship with the theatre not only creates a particularly innovative theatrical result, but determines something we might define a new basis for the language of the theatre. It connects, in this, to that extraordinary thing that is the twentieth-century “theatre of painters”, beginning with Prampolini, Schlemmer, and Kandinsky, and finishing (so to speak) with Kaprow, Nitsch, and Gutai itself, but also, even if in a different way, with Julian Beck, Tadeusz Kantor and Bob Wilson, where the painters concur in a decisive way in the theatrical revolution of the twentieth century. The two Gutai evenings are extremely important in this context. If they introduce in an extreme way the idea of art as action and event, they are also a way of rethinking the language of the theatre as a physical event occupying a space-time, as writing for the theatre, as indeed would be affirmed some years later.

The two evenings consisted in putting on – in futurist or Bauhaus style – a series of short performance events, each one in a very different style. What characterised them all, however, was a type of sudden “apparition” which, in the case of a performance action by Kazuo Shiraga in 1957, made a direct reference to the theatre, cited in a form of traditional dance, reinterpreted and rethought in a modern and vaguely parodying way, like Atsuko Tanaka’s game with “Stage Clothes”. Shimamoto, however, chose for that first edition of “Gutai on the Stage”, a more abstract approach, producing an action where he accentuated the theatrical dimension of what he had experimented with up to then. The stage was immersed in darkness (a typical feature of modern theatre, a type of modern inaugural state of the stage spectacle). At a certain point, white glass globes illuminated by a ray of light were lowered from above. The artist, armed with sticks, struck them, breaking them up. At this point, two large tubes of white glass were lowered and Shimamoto also struck these with his sticks and they, as they smashed, released four thousand little ping pong balls: a sudden mass of small bodies in motion producing an unusual, and very intense sound. Light and dark, image and sound in action. Shimamoto managed, in a striking event, to sound the most original, primary and innovative notes of a new conception of theatre. The theatrical act also had a perceptual intensity and aggressiveness that acted like an emotional pressure on the spectators. Something very different from the playful and childish dimension of the gangway with its Please, walk here.

This is one reason why, in those years, Shimamoto began to develop in other directions. For the 1956 Gutai open-air exhibition, he presented a work where he shot coloured paint onto a canvas from a rudimentary cannon built by himself. It is less distant from the pictorial dimension than previous ones, but was nonetheless innovative and particularly interesting and important for the future development of his work. Shooting paint onto canvas means many things, many of which are summarised in the text For the Banishment of Paintbrushes of the following year. Shimamoto’s idea is to bring colour back to the dimension of matter, to the physicality of a chromatic thing perceived as such, and not as a representative vehicle (the “masked colour” of painting starting from the great renaissance tradition). This idea is very close to the informal European practice, but adopts, for several reasons, a personal connotation. First of all Shimamoto chooses to use a mechanical means that distances the artist from the chromatic matter and introduces chance, a pivotal element, if understood correctly, of Zen philosophy. There is, then, a rejection of the personalisation of chromatic expression, which, however, is typical of the informal. Associated to this is the fact that the work, left to flutter in the park like something natural preventing its contemplation, is the result of a physical act, of a gesture, albeit a mechanical gesture. A gesture which has in itself something aggressive, something violent. The cannon is there to declare the shock of a war that has not yet been won. It is a weapon, but a weapon whose purpose has been turned upside down. A weapon for peace, as he was to call an event held in Naples in 2006. Furthermore, from 1999, Shimamoto set up a project called Peace Test which consists in a cement platform upon which the artist performs a colour action, on condition that Japan has not been involved in a war. Therefore the choice of the cannon represents a way of establishing painting as a pictorial event and of indicating the “violent” act of art as a vital act as opposed to the violent act of war.

In the same year, this idea was taken up for the first time in an artistic gesture which was to become a technique, indeed the technique of Shimamoto’s. The artist spread a long canvas in front of himself and struck it with bottles full of coloured paint which, upon contact with the floor and with suitably placed rocks, broke, spraying coloured paint all over the surface. The result was a true chromatic explosion: rich, lively, full of a vitality and a cheerfulness of its own, blended with a certain tragic tone. On the surface, together with the galaxies of marks and coloured stains, fragments of glass remained, almost leaving a visible trace of the pictorial deed, adding a further tone of matter to the materiality of the chromatic paste.

The bottle crash, the name Shimamoto gave to his technique, is a development and, I would say, a maturation of the cannon experience. A more incisive solution from the point of view of the results and more flexible in application. It allows, in fact, more internally complex solutions of “pictorial writing” within which to make the dimension of chance, always very present, interact, but there is also a degree of premeditation. If it is the gesture in itself that counts, as in the case of the cannon or the theatrical event of 1957, now it is the way in which the gesture is carried out that takes on importance, the way in which the bottles are chosen and smashed. To remain in the field of the lexis of theatre, we could say that the interpretation, and not only the immediate performance begins to become significant.

The various possibilities which the bottle crash offers, and the way in which Shimamoto investigates and experiments are evident if we follow his development through the years, and we do not limit our exegesis to the technical aspect – fundamental, but not unique, in characterising his work. Our thesis becomes evident if we compare the first bottle crash of the fifties with what Shimamoto was doing in the nineties, including an important and incisive series of performative actions in Italy. The pictorial actions of the fifties were primarily private acts, insofar as they represent a way of producing pictures with no independent theatrical purpose. On the other hand, however, in view of their incisiveness, both from the point of view of perception and the emotions, they were photographed right from the start, so belonging halfway between the private technique of the painter and a public event. This was due to a whole series of factors: the inherent theatricality of the gesture in itself, but also the way Shimamoto achieved it (at least as far as can be seen from the photographs) and the clothing he wears, with a hood and large glasses, which becomes a sort of personal stage costume.

Despite all these elements of theatricalisation, the fact remains, however, that the original bottle crash is, and remains, fundamentally a pictorial act, whose purpose is the creation of a picture. It contains in itself, furthermore, that background of the sublimation of violence, through a strong and, to some degree aggressive gesture, typical of the sensitivity of Shimamoto in those years. The bottle crash actions of the last decades have, however, a profoundly different configuration, in terms of the relationship between the event and the work and the emotional dimension associated with the action. They are, in fact, true acts of theatre-making with their foundations in the bottle crash, envisaging the production of pictures as their result, but with such complexity of scene writing, such a degree of autonomy as a representative event, such a “publicness” as a social act as to consider the theatre a linguistic specific and no longer a general atmosphere associated with a spectacle. A theatre, however, which does not simulate representative convention, but relies wholly on scene writing. From the particular point of view that we mentioned at the beginning of our discussion: the twentieth-century theatre of painters.

In Shimamoto’s case, the term should be taken in its literal sense, in the sense that his skill was his ability to translate his particular way of painting, his technique, into something that is still that technique and that painting but is also something else. In 2006, Shimamoto created A Weapon for Peace, a great theatrical pictorial event in Piazza Dante in Naples. An enormous painted canvas covered a part of the square, directly in front of the Convitto Vittorio Emanuele (a State boarding school). In the centre there was a grand piano, and in front of the entrance to the school there was a long tube of white canvas. Shimamoto “entered the scene” down the tube, animating it like a sort of strange primordial organism. When he emerged into the light of the square, it was like a birth, a greeting to the public and the beginning the actual pictorial action in the very place where the theatrical one had already clearly begun. The artist was suspended in a harness from a crane and raised up perpendicular to the canvas. Charlemagne Palestine, one of the greatest exponents of serial music, began to play a piano at the side of the stage area, a “double” of the one that dominated the centre of the canvas. Shimamoto rose above the crowd simulating a flight, looked down, and greeted the people. From the roof of the school, he was handed strange spheres made up of numerous plastic cups full of coloured paint. The aerial bombardment began. The spheres crashed to the ground, exploded, and began to paint the surface, along with the piano whose lid shattered under the strength of the blows. The action went on in a slow, celebratory ritual. Palestine’s music intensified; Shimamoto did not throw his coloured spheres with violence; the altitude was enough to give them a potentially destructive creative force – he just let them fall. But he did not do it in an indifferent, merely functional way. He lifted them up, exhibiting them with a sort of celebrative ostentation, and then entrusted them to gravity. There was something of the ceremonial, of the sacral in the gesture that harked back to the theatrical dimension, not only because we were in the presence of a spectacularly organised event, but because it recalled the public act as a social rite. A secular rite, but rich in spiritual antecedents.

This double theatrical condition, the articulation of the act into a more complex event from the point of view of the spectacle and the sacrality of a collective celebration, are present in all the Italian performance events, sometimes fused together, sometimes, to some degree, isolated. This is also true of the 2008 action under the porticos of the Ducal Palace in Genoa. The apparatus used was reduced to the minimum, with just a musician to accompany the action. Shimamoto considers music to be a basic component of his work, and in fact, he has been experimenting with sound since the fifties. Apart from the music, there is nothing else except a huge white canvas laid out on the ground, the space where the real action will take place with some bottles and glasses full of paint. The bottles and glasses are already positioned on the canvas not only because the painting requires it, but also because in this way they write the space at a recognisably scenographic level. Shimamoto walks through this small forest of colours. When he wants to act, an assistant gives him – like the student of a master calligrapher – the bottle or the glass he seems to need, and the action begins. This bottle-throwing, the bottle crash has nothing to do with what we see in the photographs of the fifties. Shimamoto raises the bottle in two hands, shows it to the public and only then throws it, with a gentler action and in a gentler way than before. His pictorial act now appears more pacified. Rich in energy, of course, but a soft, delicate energy. It is the act of a celebrant who entrusts art with a message of peace more than ever before.

This new, not only technical way of conceiving the bottle crash, emerges above all with the throwing of the plastic cups, because of the lightness of the supporting material of course, but also because of the more measured, contained gesture in some sense “aimed” at specific areas of the canvas. That of Shimamoto becomes a dance while he throws the cups which, with their uncertain trajectory through the air, leave behind a wake of colour that remains as if suspended for a moment in mid-air before expanding, exploding, to the ground. The idea of a sign of colour, of a colour writing is, in this case, expressed literally. Before being a sign on the surface, the paint is a sign in the air. A sign of the action, then, before being a sign of painting.

Increasingly, the dynamic of Shimamoto’s action is becoming defined as an authentic theatre of colour, meaning it introduces the language of the stage as much as that of painting. In the 2008 action at the Certosa di Capri and Punta Campanella, the theatrical dynamic appears even stronger.

In Capri, the strongest sign of theatralisation is represented by space. Shimamoto makes use of the long canvas along the walkways of the cloister, emphasising the architectural layout of the venue. The action becomes an itinerant act carried out by the artist “writing” pathways of colour, with his bottle crash along which he meets performers with cellos actively involved within the pictorial action. In Punta Campanella, on the other hand, Shimamoto’s stage dialogue and his “throwing” is with a group of dancers in wedding dresses, with their heads hidden inside spheres made up of plastic cups. They share the space (with the extraordinary natural landscape forming the background and the square canvas serving as a stage) with a red Winged Victory of Samothrace and a yellow Venus de Milo; props, but also protagonists. The gesture of throwing the paint is, in this case, more insistently addressed to the interlocutors, animate and inanimate, of the action. While the girls dance (truly living costumes that propend to the dematerialisation of the body), Shimamoto accompanies them and touches them with the paint, turning them into animated pictures.

In what terms can we describe these performative actions? What modern identity of artistic genre can we refer to? They are doubtless the result of a particularly detailed and sophisticated action painting, but they are also, absolutely, theatre, in the modern sense, of course, but precise and technical. I would speak, in the case of Shimamoto, of a painting which becomes dramaturgy, in the sense that the linguistic given from which it originates, the expressive grammar, is that of painting. Painting, however, as the constitution of a representative fact. There is, in fact, an organisation of the spectacle based on putting together different signs organised in a constructive and formal order (a dramaturgy). There is a dialectic relationship between different arts; there is an equally strong dialectic with other subjects involved in the action (the dancers at Punta Campanella but also the musicians on Capri). There is a specific and authorial use of space and time, and lastly, there is also the use of stage effects, the crane in Piazza Dante being the clearest example.

Painting that becomes dramaturgy and therefore theatre is what has led us to speak of a theatre of colour, a term whose meaning is useful to make a last, concluding reflection. The term, in fact, enters sometimes explicitly, and at other time implicitly into the vicissitudes of contemporary theatre. It was used, in fact, at the very beginning of the twentieth century, by Achille Ricciardi, an important experimental and too often neglected figure (also on account of his very premature death). We cannot go into great detail here about his theories, other than what can prove useful to our discussion. Ricciardi wanted to propose a total revision of Wagner’s work, questioning his holy trinity of music, poetry and dance. He considered, in fact, that music and poetry inevitably collided, limiting, rather than increasing, their range. He hypothesised, then, that the depth of meaning that Wagner entrusted to music should instead have been entrusted to colour, able to adhere better to the verbal, succeeding in requalifying its symbolic and spiritual antecedents. He wrote this in 1906, trying, in 1920, with the help of Prampolini, a stage experiment with, as often happens in these cases, less successful results than expected[5].

In 1913, even without referring to it as a theatre of colour in such explicit terms as Ricciardi used, Kandinsky wrote a colour-tone drama, The Yellow Sound, that represents an extraordinary idea of a theatre of visual movement, relying largely on colour, which more conventionally appeared on backdrops, but also in light, costumes and makeup. The Yellow Sound is, in many ways, an actual dramatisation of colour. Kandinsky, despite wishing to do so, never managed to stage it (due to the advent of the war, after which he neglected it), but also here there is a theoretical text that helps to understand his theatrical intent. In Über Bühnenkomposition (On stagecraft), in fact, Kandinsky discusses the conditions for a possible and necessary reform of the theatre. In his case too it is crucial to start from the Gesamtkunstwerk and then supersede it. This time, however, it is not music that is set apart, but poetry, so that the total ideal work of art is made up of movement, sound and colour[6].

In both cases, what emerges is the urge, typical of the twentieth century, to overcome the Wagnerian synthesis of languages in a visual direction. It is a phenomenon – that involves figures of the stature of Appia and Craig – too wide-ranging and complex to discuss here, but in conclusion, to whom we can usefully refer, in any case, because I believe that the case of Shimamoto is fully part of it. His theatre of colour, aspiring to a totality of artistic practice but also of human experience, represents one of the most intense and lively forms of the modern Gesamtkunstwerk, corresponding perfectly to the idea of a total work of art, where painting and theatre, the vital and the artistic acts come together, where, as Angelo Trimarco says, “the soul and form converge, language and life, silence and the word, expectation and hope”[7].

Lorenzo Mango

[1] Michael Kirby and Richard Schechner, An Interview with John Cage, in “The Tulane Drama Review”, n. 2, winter 1965, p. 50 and 51 (now also in Happenings and Other Acts, edited by Marielle Sandford, London and New York, Routledge, p. 51).

[2] Michael Kirby, Happenings. An Illustrated Anthology, New York, Dutton, 1965.

[3] Shozo Shimamoto, For the Banishment of Paintbrushes, in Achille Bonito Oliva, Shozo Shimamoto. Samurai, acrobata dello sguardo, Milano, Skira, 2008, p. 52.

[4] Jiro Yoshihara, Gutai Art on Stage, in Gutai. Dipingere con il tempo e lo spazio, catalogue of the exhibition held at the Museo Cantonale d’Arte in Lugano, 23 October 2010, Milano, Silvana editore, 2010, p. 234.

[5] See  Achille Ricciardi, Il teatro del colore di Achille Ricciardi, ed. Silvana Sinisi, Rome, Abete, 1976.

[6] Vasilij Kandinskij, Il suono giallo e altre composizioni sceniche, Milan, Abscondita, 2002.

[7] Angelo Trimarco, Opera d’arte totale, Rome, Sossella, 2001, p. 22.