Abstraction came into vogue during a reinvigorated period of the 1950s and ’60s, following on from its introduction by experimental Japanese artists of the 1910s, who were influenced by European importations of Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism.
As a painterly idiom, abstraction could claim for itself the status of being avant-garde, and traditional orders of Japanese art such as nihonga (Japanese-style painting) and calligraphy approached it hesitantly. The late 1930s nihonga exhibiting organization, the Rekitei Art Association, proved to be the major exception. In the early postwar years, however, abstraction was pursued in ever more broad forms, and this is the focus of “Insho and Informel/ ‘Gutai’/’Bokusho’ — Avant-Garde after World War II,” currently showing in Kyoto.
Hisao Domoto (b. 1928) trained in the nihonga genre of his famed uncle, Insho Domoto, and quickly elevated through the ranks. However, he became dissatisfied with the limitations of that style of painting and so left for Paris in 1955. Apparently, he took his nihonga pigments with him, but the dry Parisian atmosphere made it difficult to use them. So he switched to oil paints and soon became one of the central figures of the Art Informel movement, having his first solo show in 1957 at the Stadler Gallery — the centrally important Informel exhibition space. Hisao’s abstractions maintain a compositional discipline, though they convulse through the meshing of dynamic brushstrokes, thick and viscous. His painterly control, of which “Painting” (1957) with its tempestuously dark palette and rich textures is representative, stood out in contrast to American Abstract Expressionism of the time.
Championed by the French Informel critic Michel Tapié, Domoto grew to be famous in both Europe and Japan. He introduced Tapié to the Japanese art group Gutai, represented here by Jiro Yoshihara (1905-72) and Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008). Tapié proclaimed Gutai a kindred spirit to Informel, and when he came to Japan in 1957 with Informel painter Georges Mathieu, Gutai artists came to greet him at Osaka Station with flowers. Gutai’s work was initially deeply experimental, pursuing happenings and performances and featuring often outlandish sculptural installations. After meeting Tapié, however, Gutai artists essentially became a group of painters, realizing that for international display and sales they would need to conform to a standardizing art industry.
Shiraga’s “Untitled” (1963) had its paint applied by the painter’s feet, though finger scrapings can be observed. The glutinous coagulations of paint present problems for conservators as Shiraga worked on the paintings while they were laid flat on the ground; hung vertically the globs of paint wrestle with gravity. Yoshihara’s “Work” (1967) is done in heavy impasto and the surface is pockmarked and smeared with thin paint. The thick surface textures were a hallmark of European Informel, Gutai and to some degree Abstract Expressionism in America, and Tapié heralded it all as the first truly international art movement.
In the calligraphy world from around 1945, the lexical foundation that served a communicative role for millennia became subject to fissuring. Morita Shiryu (1912-98) is taken as the representative practitioner of bokusho (ink images) in the present exhibition. He thought the abandonment of the lexical basis of calligraphy to be universalizing and that it rose to the challenges presented by the black-and-white abstractions of American painters such as Franz Kline.
The character for “so” in “So” (“Deep Blue”) becomes almost visually unrecognizable, though it retains enough of the direction of the brush to suggest the stroke order with which viewers may retrace its governing character structure. Appending a title to an artwork — as is the art world convention — however, returns Morita’s abstractions to their lexical basis that ostensibly he was attempting to dissolve.
The focus of this exhibition centers on the abstractions of Hisao Domoto’s uncle Insho (1891-1975)that began from the mid-’50s, though the works on show are less the geometrical abstractions of that time than his more elegantly lyrical ones of the early ’60s. The shift from hard-edged abstraction to a kind of lyrical calligraphy is again ostensibly at the suggestion of Tapié who, on his 1957 visit, saw Insho’s traditional screen paintings of gourds at Kyoto’s Toji Temple and subsequently sought out the artist. Exhorting that the world was enamored with Japanese calligraphy and the spirit of Zen, Insho’s work became more calligraphic and he gave his abstractions Buddhist titles. “Locus of Universe” (1960), for example, has a centrally organizing calligraphic form reminiscent of the kanji for kotobuki (felicitations). Developing a concept called “Shin Zokei” (“New Modeling”), Insho created curdling and gelatinizing surface textures consonant with the international Informel mandate.
A fundamental difference between the European- and American-leaning abstractions in Japanese art and those abstractions built upon more traditional foundations — such as Insho’s careful preparatory drawings, Morita’s suggestion of stroke orders and, to a degree, Hisao’s paintings with their strict compositional requirements borrowed from his early nihonga training — is that they retained, rather than relinquished, their rule-governed provenances.
“Insho and Informel/ ‘Gutai’/ ‘Bokusho’ — Avant-Garde after World War II” at the Kyoto Prefectural Insho-Domoto Museum of Fine Arts runs till Oct. 23, admission ¥500, open 9:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www2.ocn.ne.jp/domoto/index-e.htm.