Kazuo Shiraga was a distinguished Japanese avant-garde artist noted for his unusual method: using his own body to apply paint to the canvas. Revolutionary in the 1950s, this technique now seems to anticipate later international developments in performance art and conceptual art.
Born in Hyogo Prefecture in Western Japan, Shiraga initially studied Japanese-style painting at the Kyoto City Specialist School of Arts (now the Kyoto City University of Arts). After graduating in 1948, however, he gravitated towards Western styles, taking up oil painting. In the aftermath of Japan’s wartime defeat, the time was ripe for iconoclasm, and in 1952 he became a founder member, along with Akira Kanayama, Saburo Murakami and Keiko Tanaka, of the “Zero Group”, so named because of the artists’ belief that every work of art is created from nothing. By 1955, he and his fellow Zero Group artists had joined a more significant avant-garde movement: the Gutai Art Association, led by Osaka-based artist Jiro Yoshihara, who encouraged his fellows “to create paintings of a kind that nobody has ever seen before”. The word “gutai” means “concrete” or “embodiment”, and the movement sought to avoid both social engagement and pure abstraction, seeking instead “to combine human creative ability with the characteristics of the material”.
Shiraga’s contribution to this movement rested in his uniquely physical involvement in the creation of his artworks. The medium for much of his early work was clay, and at the first Gutai exhibition in 1955, he presented a famous performance entitled Challenge to the Mud, in which he writhed in and wrestled with a truckload of clay and cement until overcome by exhaustion. Subsequently, he began to use his own body as a substitute for a brush, painting directly with his hands, head and feet. His most characteristic technique, first displayed at the second Gutai exhibition in 1956, entailed pouring paint onto a canvas on the floor, and making strokes with his feet while hanging and swinging from ropes suspended from the ceiling. Thus, his work incorporated the choreography and random motions of his body into the design, a fact which gave his work its distinctive visual dynamism and its characteristic bold arcs and slashes of colour. Shiraga commented that he hoped that the finished painting would display “traces of action carried out with speed”.
During the Sixties Shiraga occasionally experimented with new techniques and new implements, for instance, painting with wooden boards, and creating a number of fan-shaped objects in paper. Otherwise, however, his technique and style changed little through his 50-year career. Indeed, despite the physical demands of the process, he continued to paint with his feet into old age. Nor was his artistic career interrupted by his decision to become a Buddhist monk in 1971.
Shiraga was generally considered the most distinguished artist to emerge from the Gutai Art Association, and in his later years, as his reputation grew, he was the subject of various exhibitions both in Japan and in European countries. In late 2007, only months before his death, he was honoured with a substantial exhibition in Britain, at the Annely Juda Fine Art Gallery in London. He is survived by his wife Fujiko, also an artist and former member of the Gutai group.
Kazuo Shiraga, artist, was born in 1924. He died on April 8, 2008, aged 83