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Gutai: Decentering Modernism

Gutai: Decentering Modernism

by Ming Tiampo


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Gutai is the first book in English to examine Japan’s best-known modern art movement, a circle of postwar artists whose avant-garde paintings, performances, and installations foreshadowed many key developments in American and European experimental art.

Working with previously unpublished photographs and archival resources, Ming Tiampo considers Gutai’s pioneering transnational practice, spurred on by mid-century developments in mass media and travel that made the movement’s field of reception and influence global in scope. Using these lines of transmission to claim a place for Gutai among modernist art practices while tracing the impact of Japan on art in Europe and America, Tiampo demonstrates the fundamental transnationality of modernism. Ultimately, Tiampo offers a new conceptual model for writing a global history of art, making Gutai an important and original contribution to modern art history.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226801667
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/15/2011
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Ming Tiampo is associate professor of art history at Carleton University in Ottawa and curator of the AICA–award winning Electrifying Art: Atsuko Tanaka 1954-1965 and Under Each Other’s Spell: Gutai and New York.

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University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-80166-7

Chapter One

Gutai artists placed a premium on originality. In response to the leader Yoshihara Jiro's axiom "Create what has not been done before!" artists at the 1st Gutai Art Exhibition (1955) challenged the formats, materials, and boundaries of painting with innovative projects that explored space, time, and sound. Having previously painted with his feet (figure 1.1), Shiraga Kazuo stripped down to his underwear, leaped into a pile of kabetsuchi wall mud, rocks, sand, and gravel, and wrestled furiously with it. Challenging Mud (1955; figure 1.2) was tantamount to "painting" with his whole body rather than with his feet. Murakami Saburo tore through three kraft paper screens in At One Moment Opening Six Holes (figure 1.3), a work that evoked both the fusuma and shoji dividers of Japanese interiors and the fusuma as support for ink painting. Adding to the cacophony of Murakami's bursting through architectural and artistic tradition was the clanging of Tanaka Atsuko's Work (Bell). Whenever a visitor dared to follow the innocuous card that read, "Please feel free to push the button, Atsuko Tanaka," a series of alarmlike bells rang sequentially around the gallery space, creating what fellow member Motonaga Sadamasa described as "a unique [experience] in which a line is drawn clearly within one's inner vision."

Art critic Haryu Ichiro remembers the critical response to Gutai's attempt at originality as follows: "It was almost as if we met with a life form from Mars." In Tokyo, where progressive art audiences were attracted to Social Realist–inspired Reportage painting with its figurative, politically engaged response to wartime militarism and postwar corruption, Gutai faced perplexed and speechless critics, who for the most part ignored them. What little critical response there was characterized them as either frivolous or derivative. Gutai members Shiraga and Motonaga recall, for example, being accused of engaging in "publicity stunts" and "bourgeois play." Segi Shin'ichi, who saw Gutai as a kind of automatism, wrote that "although they boldly claim to be new, my view is that most of the techniques are recycled." Subsequent scholarship has tended to focus on Gutai artists' virtuosity, seeking to recover Gutai from assessments, both domestic and international, that dismissed the group as secondary versions of Automatism, Informel, or Happenings. To do so, they have tended to assert Gutai's originality and difference from these movements but have left intact the assumption that Gutai was just an exercise in modernist l'art pour l'art.

To decenter modernism, we must first decenter originality—its discursive production of value. While modernist invention was a considerable motivation for the group, Gutai's innovations were not just formalist play but were embedded within the complex historical roots of the discourse on originality in pre- and postwar Japan. This chapter thus approaches the problematic of originality in three stages. The first stage involves an examination of Yoshihara's formative years in prewar Japan, when modernist artists struggled against a concept of originality that was, through the process that I call cultural mercantilism, constructed to leave little room for the recognition of originality outside of Europe. The second stage is devoted to elucidating the strategies of originality that Gutai pursued under Yoshihara's leadership. To uncover the intellectual underpinnings of their quest, the third and final stage contextualizes their strategies of originality in postwar Japan. During the postwar years, as Gutai was emerging, originality became embedded in discourses of individualism as a resistance against the mass psychology that had dominated Japan during World War II. Gutai's strategies of originality, while playful, beautiful, and even madcap, were thus also a challenge to the notion that invention could happen only at the center and a statement about the political importance of developing the individual.

Originality and Transnational Modernism in the Taisho Era: Yoshihara's Formative Years

Born in 1905, Gutai leader Yoshihara Jiro's first exposure to modern art came when he was a teenager, through the Taisho-era art journal Shirakaba (1910–23). In his "Autobiography of My Heart," Yoshihara described how he became obsessed with Cézanne, Van Gogh, Renoir, and other Postimpressionist artists through books that he found in the school library and in particular through issues of Shirakaba.

Shirakaba (White Birch) was the site of articulation for a new kind of modern art that was emblematic of the 1910s and 1920s. Unlike their Meiji (1868–1912) predecessors, who generally still regarded oil painting as a Western import to Japan, Taisho (1912–26) artists sought to participate as equals in a modernist tradition that they saw as the result, in part, of an encounter between Japan and Europe.

In the decades following Japan's 1905 victory in the Russo-Japanese War, Japanese artists gradually began regarding themselves as peers of their Western counterparts. They perceived the modern art world as transnational, visiting exhibitions of European art that traveled to Japan from around 1910, reading imported books and magazines, traveling to Europe by the hundreds, and enabling European interest in Japanese art and culture. With more artists such as poet-sculptor Takamura Kotaro and Mavo leader Murayama Tomoyoshi leaving Japan to study in Europe, and with the cosmopolitan attitudes of the Surrealist International during the 1920s and 1930s, the cultural relationship between Japan and Europe developed increasingly into a dialogue. This atmosphere of international exchange was exemplified by exhibitions such as the Great Futurist Exhibition of 1922 in Berlin, which showcased works by artists from Italy, Germany, Russia, and Japan (including Murayama), as well as the 1936 collection L'échange surréaliste edited by Toba Shigeru, which contained writings and drawings submitted by French Surrealists to be published alongside works of their Japanese counterparts. Looking beyond one's borders became more than an exercise in dreamy projection or calculated advancement for artists and writers in both Europe and Japan, as they realized that intercultural exchange was a means of expanding their own creative paradigms.

The level of contact between the European and Japanese art worlds before World War II was high, enabled by transnational individuals such as the conductor Yamada Kosaku and the designer Saito Kazuo, who organized an exhibition of Der Sturm artists at the Hibiya Art Museum in Tokyo in 1914. These links were further advanced by the presence of collectors such as Matsukata Kojiro and Ohara Magosaburo, who assembled impressive collections of European modernist art. Their collections were made publicly available in shows such as Ohara's 1921 exhibition in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, and Matsukata's 1928 blockbuster at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, as well as in the permanent exhibition of Ohara's collection at the Ohara Museum of Art in Kurashiki after 1930. In fact, the imagined community of Taisho modernists even extended beyond Western Europe. Yoshihara, for example, nurtured a special interest in modernist illustrated books from Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, of which he had a large collection. The link between Japanese and Russian modernist artists was solidified by a two-year visit to Tokyo by the founder of Russian Futurism, David Burliuk, during which time he organized the First Exhibition of Russian Paintings in Japan. This show featured over three hundred modern paintings, including works by Kasimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. Such bodies of work were extremely important to Yoshihara's development as an artist. In particular, he commented that the Cézanne and the Van Gogh in the Matsukata collection "determined my passion for painting." Not unlike the Armory show of 1913 in New York or the circulation of Japanese prints in Europe through international expositions and art dealers such as Samuel Bing, these collections and exhibitions functioned as vectors of communication between the art worlds of Europe and Japan, allowing artists to imagine themselves as part of an international community of modernist painters.

As part of this community, Japanese artists sought not only to understand the intellectual culture of artists in Europe but also to make their own contributions to the discourse. Much of this activity took place within the pages of journals such as Shirakaba. The Shirakaba group's efforts to fully understand what was coming out of Europe can be seen in their translations of Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo in 1911, Gauguin's Noa Noa in 1912, and Matisse's "Notes of a Painter" in 1913. Going beyond mere absorption, artists such as group member Arishima Ikuma (1882–1974) made their own original contributions to the discourse. In 1910, Arishima wrote an article that interpreted Cézanne's work as a new modernist kind of literati painting (bunjinga). Art historian Alicia Volk argues that by the beginning of the Taisho period, Japanese artists had "initiated an indigenous modernist oil painting cognizant of its diverse roots." When, for example, the artist Arishima was told by a French acquaintance that "the Japanese could never understand Cézanne," he responded with a genealogical claim to the history of modernism that framed Japanese artists as legitimate interlocutors in and heirs to the discourse of modernism: "It is a fact that all modern painters have been influenced by Japanese painting so ... there are certain things about it that are relatively easy for us to understand." Painter Nagahara Kotaro went further, claiming that "Japanese painting is precisely the same thing as Impressionism.... I believe that the paintings of Cézanne and Gauguin have a highly Oriental quality."

In these statements Arishima and Nagahara contested an asymmetry of cultural exchange between Japan and France that had its roots in the 1858 Ansei treaties. This suite of unequal trade treaties, which Japan signed with Western powers after the United States forced open Japan's ports in 1854, made it clear that Japan was not on an equal footing with the West and therefore became the focus of Japanese anxiety regarding its position in the international community—politically, economically, and culturally. Even after the last of the Ansei conditions were renegotiated in 1911, the relationship of cultural dominance persisted.

For Europeans and Americans, Japan was perceived as a source of inspiration, not innovation. Despite the fact that many of the woodblock prints, textiles, and crafts that inspired Japonisme were of a recent vintage, it is striking that none of the objects that were treasured in Europe revealed traces of Japan's fast-paced modernization or its response to the encounter with the West. To take a major example, Claude Monet's famous collection of woodblock prints drew primarily from the Tokugawa period and eschewed representations of modern life and contact with the West such as Kobayashi Kiyochika's Fukuchi Gen'ichiro as a Missionary (1885; figure 1.4), which not only represented a figure in Western dress but also used Western technologies of depiction, such as perspective. Rather, Monet's collection contained poetic depictions of premodern life and nature, such as Hokusai's Great Wave over Kanagawa, which portrayed a premodern relationship between man and the sublimity of nature and used strategies of representation that were identifiably Japanese. In this way Japonisme justified what Said called a "fossilization of the Orient," or the construction of Japan as a distant, premodern land of unchanging traditions that culturally justified the West's treatment of Japan as less than a peer.

In sum, modernist discourse framed Japanese-European cultural trade as follows: Europe imported the raw materials of inspiration from Japan and exported to Japan the cultural products of modern European technology—modernism. I call this discursive turn cultural mercantilism, likening it to economic policy such as the Ansei treaties, which gave the European metropole cheap access to raw materials while at the same time allowing the export of metropolitan manufactured goods to captive markets that were prevented from developing industries of their own.

In economics, "the mercantile system" was defined by Adam Smith in his 1776 work The Wealth of Nations. Smith named mercantilism only to critique it, arguing that the dominant system of economic thought up to that time was based on mistaken assumptions about the nature of wealth. The adaptation of Smith's concept of mercantilism is useful in studying transnational cultural exchanges because this political economist, who was also a moral philosopher, condemned mercantilism, on the one hand, for its reliance on and perpetuation of colonialism and, on the other, for its bad economics. Morally, he denounced mercantilism as "a manifest violation of the most sacred rights of mankind." His economic justification for ending it was twofold: first, mercantilism did not recognize the importance of what he called "comparative advantage" or the economic benefit of playing to the strengths of different economies, and second, the cost of maintaining and protecting the colonies exceeded not just the profits made through mercantilism but the entire value of the goods annually exported to the colonies! In short, not only was mercantilism morally questionable, it was bad business. In an art-historical context, cultural mercantilism can be critiqued for similar reasons: first, it functions as an immoral exercise of power to exclude non-Western artists from the modernist narrative; second, it does not account for the "comparative advantage" of modernisms developed in multiple sites and the consequent production of originality through an interpoetics of distance, as discussed in chapter 2. Additionally, cultural mercantilism impoverishes the history of modernism, mistaking a part for the whole, a particular for a universal.

The concept of cultural mercantilism allows us to articulate precisely how cultural imperialism functions and to lay bare the structures that permit a double standard to persist with regards to originality: Europeans borrowing from Japan are considered inspired, whereas Japanese borrowing from Europe are seen as derivative. Even Van Gogh's three oil copies of Japanese prints—including The Flowering Plum Tree (After Hiroshige) (1887; figure 1.5), which Van Gogh traced from Ando Hiroshige's Plum Tree Teahouse in Kameido (1857)—are not received as emulative. Art historian Marijke de Groot comments thus regarding Van Gogh's Japonaiserie paintings: "There is no question of a slavish copy. It is more a personal transcription in which the colors are intensified and the focus has shifted to the landscape because Van Gogh has omitted the cartouches." Japonisme scholar Siegfried Wichmann goes even further: "It could be said that his copies appear more Japanese than their Japanese models"—the copy has taken the place of the original.

When it comes to Japanese modernists, the discourse of cultural mercantilism continues, though in reverse. Even when it is not a direct copy, Japanese painting is assumed to be inauthentic unless it has some hint of Japanese terroir. For example, a French colleague asked Neoclassical painter Kojima Zenzaburo, "Why do you Japanese try to imitate us, when you have such an exquisite tradition of art?" Impressionist Kojima Torajiro was advised by his teacher Jean Delvin, "Since you were born and raised in a country with a long history of art ... you have unique strengths. Yet you should be very careful, for if you explicitly only copy us Westerners, you will lose those unique strengths." Indeed, in cultural mercantilist discourses, the only way of asserting originality was to particularize the work, to set it in relation to the constructed universal of European modernism that, Naoki Sakai affirms, is ultimately a means of reifying the universal and confirming the center as origin.


Excerpted from GUTAI by MING TIAMPO Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Note to the Reader

1 Decentering Originality
Originality and Transnational Modernism in the Taishō Era: Yoshihara’s Formative Years
Gutai Strategies of Originality
Originality, Individualism, and Subjective Autonomy

2 The Interpoetics of Distance
Translation: Decentering Jackson Pollock
Recontextualization: Nengajō and Gutai Mail Art
Quantization: Gutai Portables

3 Lines of Flight: The Gutai Journal
Yoshihara’s Postwar Internationalism and the Gutai Journal
American Correspondences
European Correspondences

4 The Politics of Geography and Gutai Exhibitions
Tokyo/Ashiya/Osaka, 1955–1958
New York, 1958
Turin, 1959

5 International Contemporaneity and Gutai Exhibitions
Osaka, 1962
Amsterdam, 1965
Paris, 1965

6 New Directions in Gutai Exhibitions
15th Gutai Art Exhibition, 1965
Gutai Art for the Space Age, 1967
Expo ’70
Conclusion  Gutai’s Decentering Legacies

Appendix 1  Chronology
Appendix 2  Gutai Membership
Appendix 3  Yoshihara Jirō’s Magazine Collections


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