Gutai and Shōzō Shimamoto
I saw art in the hole
One day in 1947 when I was studying at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Kansai Gakuin, I went to see the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, who was a relative of mine.
There I met Madam Osumi who is an artist with the Salon Shinseisaku. Her large canvases were on show in the engineering rooms. They were landscapes whose style was a mixture of Henri Rousseau and Marie Laurencin but with an added sweetness. They really struck me, like meeting a first love. I had the feeling it was just what I was looking for.
From that day on, my head was full of the works of Madam Osumi, and even though I did not really understand, I used my brush and oil technique in a more abstract style than that of the paintings of Madam Osumi. I took them for her to see. Later, having to return to Tokyo, she introduced me to another painter, Masako Masuda, but she also had to go to Tokyo after a while. Before leaving, she introduced me to Jiro Yoshihara saying, ‘Shimamoto, it seems to me that you really like abstract painting and in Kansai there is a brilliant painter in the abstract style.’
The way Yoshihara looked at abstract works was very different from anything I had heard from teachers at school, from painters or what I had read in books.
For example, when I took him work I had put a lot of effort into, he didn’t take my efforts into consideration. And despite the fact that I had never studied academic technique, he did not consider this to be a handicap. So what was his critical position? It can be summed up in one word: originality.
Yoshihara was the director of a publicly traded oil company, so he had no intention of taking students because he didn’t need to make a living by taking money from pupils. He allowed me to join his group of pupils on condition that I produce a work that had never before been painted by anyone anywhere in the world.
From then on, I would sometimes bring him some work I was doing, but the Master would just take a cursory glance, saying: ‘This looks like such and such a foreign artist’ etc. etc., and not even take a proper look. One day, after about a year, the Master said, ‘You promised me to paint a picture that had never been painted by anyone, but you still haven’t done one. You’d better give up on the idea of making a career as a painter.’ So I answered, without having any idea or expectation in mind, that the fol-lowing Sunday I would bring him one, and as soon as I got home I set to work.
At the time, I didn’t have any money to buy canvas, so, to make a surface, I stuck newspapers together with flour paste. I painted on a large scale (160×130) and for this reason I had to paste seven or eight sheets of newspaper together. During those few days it rained all the time and the glue wouldn’t dry. When I tried to paint using the wet newspapers as a surface, I made holes, but I didn’t have the time to start again. I was upset, but then I thought that perhaps no artist had ever yet created a work on canvas with holes in it. So I suddenly changed my insecure attitude and created a framework with holes.
The Master praised me in outspoken terms, saying I was a genius. This was in 1950. There is an Italian artist, Lucio Fontana, who also made holes in canvas. So many people tell me that I probably imitated Fontana, but my medium is newspaper, and if you look, you can see from the date that I experimented with these works before Fontana. Before the works with holes, between 1948 and the 1950’s, for example, I produced a very large (330×250) picture, painted all in red, and sent it to the Salon of Modern Art,
and I painted circles of different colours with a diameter of five feet on surfaces of more than ten yards in length. Nevertheless, in that period when I was making holes, I had a strong feeling of moving forward along a new path.
So I was delighted with the Master’s words, and for a month I locked myself in my room and produced works with lots of holes that I then brought to him. The Master gave them a glance and just told me that he had seen this stuff before.
I gave Gutai its name
The Master gave me enthusiastic praise for the works with holes, but when I showed them to other artists, noone was interested. In fact, the Master praised me, yet at the same time, he said ‘These are wonderful works, but don’t show them to anyone.’ I did not understand what he meant by that, so I showed them to artist friends and famous painters. But they were all uninterested and said, ‘it is not worth giving an opinion; these are just sketches.’ I told the Master, and he said, ‘They’ll certainly be of interest to foreign critics’, and we agreed to send some photos with some text.
At that time, printing techniques were not very advanced either. I went to a printer in Osaka, and bought linotype lead matrices, and installed them in a wooden box. I used pieces of photographs to make plates in relief, and, using the ink roller, I printed from a box-room in my house.
By around 1952, Yoshihara had about fifteen pupils. These pupils took care of all the publications, but as they were not professionals, they made mistakes. One day we decided to give a name to our group and also to the magazine. We discussed it carefully and at length, but in the end they voted for what I proposed, the name Gutai. Even today, we often talk about it with Shinichiro Yoshihara, the Master’s eldest son.
Yoshihara made no concessions regarding his pupils’ work, which had to be total-ly original, and this is why ten of his disciples went their own way. Yet thanks to the lively discussions that we had at that time, we were able to establish the foundations of the Gutai that would come later.
Gutai’s official name is Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai and is well known among the world of contemporary art. It also appeared in the French encyclopaedia. It appeared in Flash Art, and in the art history of the last hundred years there have been hundreds of artistic movements and groups, but Gutai is the only Japanese one to be mentioned. In 1986, when the Pompidou Centre in Paris organised Japanese Avant-garde Art, almost half of the exhibits were, for the first time, by Gutai. As a result there have been many ‘Gutai’ exhibitions in Rome, Madrid, Belgrade, Darmstadt, etc.
Some scholars say that the Japanese artists who have influenced Europeans most are Ukiyoe and Gutai. In addition, Akira Kanayama, Kazuo Shiraga, Fujiko Shiraga, Yasuo Washi-mi, Atsuko Tanaka, Saburo Murakami, Sadamasa Motonaga, Tsuruko Yamazaki, Toshio Yoshida, Jiro Yoshihara (deceased), Michio Yoshihara and I were invited to the Venice Biennale in 1993. All this is the result of the teaching of Yoshihara, which had a quasi-European breadth of vision with his ‘create what no one has ever done before’ philosophy.
Incidentally, the first Gutai magazines, with their primitive printing techniques, have become a rarity for collectors.
The film with the Emperor takes part in
In 1957 we decided to do an event using the stage. We had no intention of doing theatre or a concert; we just wanted to express the art of using the stage. A picture is by nature a static thing, whereas with the event that we had in mind, the work itself becomes the protagonist so that it changes like a story. In this way, the idea emerged that in order to express an art form that changes from moment to moment, it would be better to use a stage. First of all, it was an experiment that had never been done before, and we were very excited, so we thought about and planned the idea. Since then I have often exhibited art using the stage; once I did a work on film. It was an avant-garde film. But I had neithr a cinecamera nor the money to shoot in 35mm.
I had a friend who worked in the theatre, and when I was talking to him, he pro-posed recycling a 35 mm film, washing it in vinegar and painting over it. At that time there were no marker pens, so after mixing the colour with paint, we painted the images onto each frame. However, it was nothing like making a cartoon today, it was more like random scribbles.
As an experiment, I took two projectors together and thus duplicated the image on the screen. For the music too, I bought a tape recorder, which was a novelty at the time. So I recorded the sound of the short wave radio and used it as avant-garde music together with the images. In the Mainichi newspaper of 23rd November 1955, the local Hanshin section reported that ‘the noise of a chair being dragged or the rattling of a kettle, or the sound of running water have been recorded …’. These noises are now in the Pompidou Centre.
That film is now ruined, but I kept it and restored it in 16 mm. Only a few years ago, I loaned it to an avant-garde film magazine, This is Film. One of the editors, Kenichi Harada, told me that you could see the Emperor Hirohito in the movie. I was amazed.
The Gutai art movement eliminated all political and literary ideas from their work and focused only on the material. So what was all this about the Emperor? Looking carefully at the films I remembered that when I had washed them with vinegar, I’d done it quite roughly, so we were left with some news coverage regarding the Emperor. As I was using the double projectors at that time, I hadn’t noticed. Nobody at the Sankei Hall, including myself, who had seen the screening in 1957 had noticed anything.
If you walk, you know the works
1955 was the year of the outdoor experimental exhibition challenging the midsummer sun in a pine forest in the Ashiya Hyogo prefecture. This event was a sort of historical experiment appreciated worldwide today, and we repeated it at the Venice Biennale in ‘93. On that occasion, I set up a new form of art that the public could feel with their bodies as they walked over it. In fact, when the visitors walked on my work, they would sometimes sink or wobble. In this way, they could feel with their whole bodies the passing of time moving on as if to the rhythm of music.
It is said that you have to look at art with your eyes, hear music with the ears, appre-ciate food though taste, and odours by smell. However, my work does not belong to any of these categories and it is something to be experienced with the whole body, and no artist had ever come up with anything like this before.
The spirit of Gutai is not stylistic perfection. That is a matter of technique. Art mustn’t have rules and must expand without limits, entertaining no doubts and assimilating everything. This is how the viewpoint opens out. It is the work itself that teaches the artist about art, so the new artist experiences new art.
In the Gutai period, there was the idea that art was not to be understood by thinking.
Try walking on my work. It makes a tremendous noise, and so you stop thinking. If we want to understand art, first of all we have to abandon thoughts and jump into the sky.
That’s when we understand art – this was Gutai.