Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai

After World War II, a devastated Japan processed the impact of the atomic bomb and faced a cultural void. It was in this atmosphere of existential alienation that the Gutai Art Association (Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai) – a group of about twenty young artists, rallying around the charismatic painter Jiro Yoshihara – emerged in the mid-1950s to challenge convention. Although keenly aware of Japan’s artistic traditions, the Gutai artists attempted to distance themselves from the sense of defeat and impotence that pervaded their country, and to overcome the past completely with ‘art that has never existed before’. They burst out of the expected confines of painting with daring works that demonstrated a freewheeling relationship between art, body, space and time. Dismissed by Japanese critics as spectacle makers, the Gutai artists nevertheless produced a profound legacy of aesthetic experimentation, influencing Western critics and anticipating Abstract Expressionism, Arte Povera, Fluxus, and Conceptual Art.

The Gutai Art Association was formed by Jiro Yoshihara in July 1954, in the Ashiya region of Japan. Exhorting younger artists with such slogans as, ‘Don’t imitate others!’ and ‘Engage in the newness!’. Yoshihara challenged Gutai’s members to discard traditional artistic practices and to seek not only fresh means of expression but the origins of artistic creation itself. The Gutai artists responded with performance, installation, flower arrangement, and music, often in public places. In seeking to define this constantly changing body of work, Yoshihara penned The Gutai Art Manifesto in 1956, proclaiming ‘the novel beauty to be found in works of art and architecture of the past which have changed their appearance due to the damage of time or destruction by disasters in the course of the centuries…that beauty which material assumes when it is freed from artificial make-up and reveals its original characteristics.’ Yoshihara concluded the Manifesto by stating, ‘Our work is the result of investigating the possibilities of calling the material to life. We shall hope that there is always a fresh spirit in our Gutai exhibitions and that the discovery of new life will call forth a tremendous scream in the material itself’.

In working toward the goals outlined by Yoshihara, the Gutai group realized that the elements needed to make unprecedented art were in fact to be found in unexpectedly familiar places. Kazuo Shiraga wallowed in mud; Saburo Murakami leapt through expanses of paper; and Atsuko Tanaka employed bells and lightbulbs in theatrical performances. In tandem with such efforts, however, Gutai artists continued to struggle with the expected materials and physical parameters of classic painting techniques, and to explore abstraction as a means to escape its intellectual and creative confines.


The Gutai's Manifesto translated can be read in:


(Source of the text:

1 - Jiro Yoshihara, Please Draw Freely, 1956: Paint and marker on wood (approximately 200 x 450 x 3cm).

2 - Shuji Mukai, Work, 1963: Mixed media on canvas (93 x 71 cm, 36 5/8 x 28 in).

3 - Yasuo Sumi, Magi 913, 2008: Acrylic on canvas (160 x 130 cm).

4 - Atsuko Tanaka, Untitled (1), 1956: Crayon on paper (110 x 77 cm).

5 - Tsuruko Yamazaki, Ink on postcard, 1962 (14,8 x 10 cm).

6 - Atsuko Tanaka, Work, 1963: synthetic resin and enamel on canvas (159 × 129 cm).

7 - Atsuko Tanaka writing. Image from the 16mm film Round on Sand, 1968.

8 - Akira Kanayama haging his remote-controlled painting, 1957.

10 and 11 - Kazuo Shiraga, Challenging Mud, 1955.

12 - Saburo Murakami, At One Moment Opening Six Holes, Tokyo, 1955.

(Various sources)