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Portraits of the Sun: Violence, Gender, and Nation in the Art of Shiraga Kazuo and Tanaka Atsuko


The Gutai Art Association, or more simply Gutai, meaning "concreteness" or "embodiment," was formed in 1954 in Osaka. Emerging at the close of the American Occupation, this intensely productive group took up an array of practices, including painting, performance, mixed-media installation, and calligraphy. This dissertation attempts to move away from the over-reliance on the Gutai Manifesto and the persistent view that Gutai was a collective of homologous interests. In response to this highly generalized approach, this dissertation focuses specifically on two key Gutai members, Tanaka Atsuko (1932-2005) and Shiraga Kazuo (1924-2008), to explore the larger stakes of the modern Japanese subject in the postwar period. Their works, often filled with crimson reds, radiating circular forms, and aggressive acts of exhibitionism, resonate with issues of nationhood and representation portrayed through a language of visual violence and gendered spectacle. An adequate account of the politically fraught, gendered stakes of Gutai art has yet to be produced, and I hope that my work will begin to uncover the intensely important, yet somewhat ambiguous questions of gender, representation, and nationhood that, as I see it, Tanaka and Shiraga insistently posed and demanded to be witnessed.

The frequent, but oblique, appearance of visual motifs that bear an analogous relationship to nationalist symbols (for example, circular red shapes reminiscent of the Hinomaru or sun symbol of the flag) is conspicuous in Shiraga's art. Shiraga's motifs were entangled in a web of violent and messy abstractions that refused to be pinned to a particular political position, whether harmonious or antagonistic to nationalist agendas. His performative invocations of the soldier and the hunter were overtly male roles that allowed a space for critical encounters: between man and medium, state and subject, and representation and envisioned nation. In Shiraga's work, the repetition of violence enacts, facilitates, and empowers the construction of the masculine artist-hero.

Tanaka's work is an interrogation of surface and selfhood that raises questions about the status of the female artist in 1950s Japan. Tanaka's paradoxically diverse yet formally analogous oeuvre consistently reworked forms suggestive of the tension between containment and endlessness. Her repetitious, physical engagement with their completion became a means to examine the relationship between subjectivity and representation. This examination ultimately culminated in a commitment to the potential of surface materiality. From the beginnings in her earliest notebooks to the last of her large-scale paintings, nearly all of Tanaka's works share a correspondence of circle and line that is intriguing for their exploration of the capacity of the gendered, mechanized, and naturalized subject. Like the notebooks themselves, they offer no clear answers, only a sense of searching for the spaces between what is known and what is not.

For Tanaka and Shiraga, fascination with bodily action was not a simple matter of self-promotion through spectacle, but rather informed a strategy through which to exploit the tension between the state and art, and to discover the possibilities of Japanese avant-garde art in the 1950s and beyond. Each used representation to interrogate the inter-relationship of artistic status, gender, and selfhood. Shiraga's violent spectacles, steeped in crimson red, and Tanaka's electric mappings of circuits and circles charted new artistic territory, asking how patterns of masculinity and femininity, reiterated and reconfigured, could be manifested within and through the entangled culture of the postwar nation.

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