Taro Okamoto’s “Men Aflame” (1955) is a swirling fusion of figuration, surrealism and abstraction. The content addresses the irradiation of Japanese sailors onboard the Dai-go Fukuryu-maru by fallout from American nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll. The painting is part of the 1950s Japanese art movement known as “reportage.” It was serious art — politically engaged, socially conscious and outraged.
“Art informel” (unformed art) of the later 1950s swept aside reportage and everything else with such apparent force that it was refered to as a whirlwind or typhoon. It was, however, largely a generational development in abstract painting.
Before the end of World War II, the mostly 19th-century-born generation who instigated abstraction had died — Paul Klee in 1940, Robert Delaunay in 1941, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian in 1944. Postwar Paris rehabilitated those “cool” geometrical abstractions, though an oppositional trend focusing on an abstraction with figurative and expressive elements also arose. These were lyrical, organic and expressed inner sentiment. The trend gained traction in a 1945 loosely affiliated Salon de Mai exhibition by the postwar School of Paris artists. And it was this show, which was introduced to Japan in 1950-51, that segued into informel.
The French theorist and promoter Michel Tapie assembled an international cast of works, including Jean Fautrier’s dynamic swishes of paint, and Jean Debuffet’s plaster-like paint surfaces, scratched with graffiti as in “Woman’s Body” (1950). He christened their non-geometrical abstractions “an other art” in 1952 with the term “informel” for its theorized form.
The thrust of the movement was abstraction through painterly action, emotive expression, spontaneity, impulse and improvisation. The splattered surfaces of Japanese painter Toshimitsu Imai and the more controlled applications of pigment by Hisao Domoto were integral to Tapie’s informel vision. It was these two Japanese artists, then based in France, who introduced the movement to Japan in 1953. Later, examples assembled by Imai and Taro Okamoto were shown in Tokyo in 1955 and 1956.
But it was in 1957, when Imai brought Tapie and the painters Georges Mathieu and Sam Francis to Japan to give public painting performances, that the whirlwind struck. The Ashiya-based Gutai Art Association that formed in 1954 was proclaimed a kindred spirit by Tapie and he included a special section for his newfound Japanese contingent in the 1957 exhibition “Contemporary World Art” at the Bridgestone Museum of Art. It included Kazuo Shiraga who painted with his feet, as in “Ten’ansei Seimenju” (1960); the Gutai founder Jiro Yoshihara; and Shozo Shimamoto, who typically donned boxing gloves dipped in ink and punched canvases tacked to the walls for works such as “Boxing Painting” (1991). Gutai was subsequently promoted internationally by Tapie.
The informel explosion was enthusiastically embraced by Japan’s traditional arts. In calligraphy, Shiryu Morita produced bold abstractions that nonetheless retained traces of the lexical foundation of written scripts. The nihonga (Japanese-style painting) avant-garde, the Pan Real Art Association (though active from a decade before informel arrived), were roused to create heavily sculptural paintings that left informel looking flat, such as bulbous folded sackings by Hidetaka Ohno.
The Kera Art Association, officially formed in 1960 with the aim of bridging the historical division between Western and Japanese painting, also pursued low-relief sculptural painting through collaging pipes and wooden planks onto painting surfaces. There was also the ikebana sculpture of Sofu Teshigahara, the lyrical lacquer panels of Banura Shogo’s “Evening Tides” (1963) and the splashed glazes on the ceramics of Kanjiro Kawai. Even high school art exhibitions were said to evidence the informel aesthetic.
The 1957 intensification of the informel whirlwind was received positively in Japan; though by 1958, critics began raising a familiar prewar objection: Japan had again superficially transplanted a Western art movement that ultimately obscured the pre-existing local situation.
Gutai was a case in point. The early postwar Japanese art world had craved international attention and got it with Tapie’s embrace, but it was on his terms. Gutai essentially became a group of painters in line with Tapie’s aims, whereas earlier the group had developed strategies such as outdoor art festivals, mail art and performances that predated Allen Kaprow’s conceptual “happenings.” Artists and historians have been trying to recover the significance of Japan’s events ever since. The French critic Pierre Restany called Gutai “victims,” ones who had “lost their souls” in assimilating with international informel to the detriment of their innovative locally developed practices.
By 1959, the realization dawned that the postwar art center was New York and not Paris and that informel was in competition with American abstract-expressionism. The latter won out, and informel today is something of an extensive footnote in comparison. But even by the late ’50s, the anti-art and junk-art movement stars were ascending, as in Tetsumi Kudo’s “Proliferating Chain Reaction” (1956-57), made from a tree root and nails, peaking in 1963-64. And with that, the informel storm abated.
“A Feverish Era: Art Informel and the Expansion of Japanese Artistic Expression in the 1950s and ’60s” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, runs until Sept. 11; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. until 8 p.m.). ¥900. Closed Mon. www.momak.go.jp