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Gutai – Japanese Avant-Garde

By Melanie Damani, Art Consultant, Hottinger Art

(I/III Series on Avant-Garde Painting)

Portrait of Yoshihara Jiro (Source: Osaka City Museum of Modern Art, 2019)

The Gutai Art Association was formed in 1954 by Yoshihara Jiro, Kanayma Akira, Murakami Saburo, Shiraga Kazuo and Shozo Shimamoto in Osakaby, Japan. The direct translation of this term means ‘embodiment’ or ‘concrete’. The Gutai movement, particularly in the 1950s represents one of the most important moments of post-war Japanese culture. The goal of the Association was to create a new diverse body of work which would include dynamic abstract paintings, thickly impasted or splattered with paint, as well as physical performances using the whole body in direct engagement with materials.

Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008), UNTITLED, 1957 (Source: Unit London, 2019)

These artists’ approach brought them to outdoor and theatrical settings and eventually, they became the leading edge of avant-garde art. From its beginning, publications were at the heart of the Gutai movement. The Association released the first issue of its bulletin Gutai in January 1955, and in October of the same year organized the First Gutai Art Exhibition, in Tokyo. The Gutai bulletin was distributed worldwide to advertise Gutai’s activities, and reached artists such as Jackson Pollock. The French art critic Michel Tapié collaborated early on with the Association to promote this abstract painting on a larger scale outside Japan.

Saburo Murakami (1925-1996), AT ONE MOMENT OPENING SIX HOLES, 1st Gutai Art Exhibition,Tokyo, 1955 (Source: Widewalls, 2019)

Later on, two waves of new members of the association such as Mukai Shuji, Maekawa Tsuyoshi, Nasaka Yuko, and then Imai Norio, Takasaki Motonao, Horio Sadaharu, made the Gutai style evolved to include geometrical painting and the use of industrial materials. The group exhibition at Expo 70 in Osaka, represented the apogee of Gutai before the Association got disbanded after Yoshihara Jiro’s death in 1972.

Motonao Takasaki (1923-2017) APPARATUS, 1968 (Source: Artnet, 2018)

You can find out more about Gutai by visiting the Osaka City Museum of Modern Art website here.

Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008)


Kazuo Shiraga was born in 1924 in Amagasaki, Japan. He studied Nihon-ga, Japanese-style painting, in Kyoto. At the very beginning of his career, he participated in Gendai Bijutsu Kondankai (Contemporary Art Discussion Group), experimented in hands and fingers making oil painting. Later in 1954, Shiraga joined the Gutai Association and was inspired by Jiro Yoshihara, to push his art to a more performative, material-driven painting practice.

CHIYOSEI MOCHAKUTEN, 1960 (Source: Lévy Gorvy, 2019)

During his time as a member of Gutai, Shiraga continued painting with oil but also developed towards performance art, even combining the two such as his piece CHALLINGING MUD (1955), in which the artist used his entire body to manipulate mud. Shiraga continued this exploration of the relationship between body and material over the course of his career. The artist is best known for the large-scale foot paintings he created when he had reached eighty years old. The themes of Shiraga’s foot paintings revolves around Chinese mythology, Japanese history, and Buddhism.

Shiraga is currently the most renowned artist of the Gutai Association. According to Artprice, the artist’s geographic distribution over the past 10 years has reached 32.1% in France. The rest of his collectors are located in Hong Kong (27%), United States (14%), and Japan (11%). He is represented by important galleries such as Lévy Gorvy or White Stone. Finally, his auction price record was reached in June 2018 at Sotheby’s for EUR 8,731,400 (incl. Premium) for this work TAKAO (1959), but on average his works sell for between $10 to $50,000.

Market Insight

Japanese Avant-Garde has been re-discovered by the Western society in the past decade. There are several Gutai artists who have not yet gained the same international recognition as Shiraga. As a result, they are still underpriced.

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