The Rawness of Energy in Paintings: Gutai


Needless to say, brush marks play a vital role in painting. Plenty of examples can be found in the history of painting to account for the curious relationship between painting and brush marks, or the lack thereof. For instance, Impressionist painters of the 18th century rather emphasised the use of brush marks. Absorbing the spirit of Enlightenment, it was not only for the aesthetic reasons, but for the brush mark to become the means of reflecting artists’ character, allowing their personal qualities to be manifested. The paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, for example, bear the distinctive dashed brushstrokes, unveiling his tempestuous and passionate character, whereas that of Pierre-Auguste Renoir rather displays fluid and smooth brush strokes as if revealing his feminine sensuality.

In stark contrast, a quintessence Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci and his followers frequently exercised a technique called la technica del sfumato, or la gioconda tecnica dello sfumato. Sfumato allows colours to be blended seamlessly into one another without leaving brush marks. In Leonardo’s paintings, the contours of figures typically look hazy, gradually fading and defusing into the background. This naturalistic rendition of figures is only achieved as a result of applying the technique of blurring the outlines. As the name of the technique suggests, the world best known painting, Monalisa exhibits the application of la gioconda tecnica dello sfumato.

However contrasting they are, in both cases, specific kinds of brushstrokes bring to light the significant role of brush marks in painting. Together with colour, brush marks subsequently took centre stage in the palette of the mid 20th century painters. Being quintessentially demonstrated by Neo-American Expressionists, brush marks appear more visible in their paintings to the viewers and applied rather robustly. The way in which Minimalist painters treated the brush mark, on the other hand, is contrary to that of the Expressionists. The minimalist removed any trace of personal expressions, which brush marks effectively convey.

The distinctive characteristic of the brush mark is derived from the fact that it requires the creator’s physical and gestural movements. This insinuates that gestural mark makings are often inflicted by the instinctual and primordial human desire for expressing oneself. This human desire for self-expression coexists with another primal human desire to communicate to others, as humans are, by nature, social beings. Behind the act of applying a brush stroke, therefore, a tension between these contrasting human desires smoulders. 

While in the context of Western visual art the brush mark in painting has historically taken a role of fulfilling artists’ primordial desire for self-expression, in the East, on the other hand, there has been other means to fulfil such a role. Along with painting, calligraphy is a long established art form in the East. Calligraphy has a rich history and the origin of its tradition goes back to a couple of millennia ago. Posited on the Eastern philosophy, calligraphy is not just about the pursuit of beautiful lettering, but has much deeper meanings. It is considered as a creative self-expression, which gives form to signs in an expressive yet harmonious way. The creative nature of calligraphy has a lot of relevance to contemporary art. The recent history of Western art shows several of examples where the relevance of art to calligraphy is found. Art Informel, translated in English as unformed art, quickly developed during the post-war period in France. The work of Art Informel artists, often dubbed as European Abstract Expressionism, shares the propensity towards unconventionality and spontaneity, rejecting predefined forms and structures. Around the same time the American counterpart, the aforementioned American expressionism appeared, being immensely influenced by Eastern calligraphy. At that time, the Western world was particularly interested in the Easter culture, and many Western artists were inspired by various aspects of the Eastern tradition, and calligraphy was one of the exports of the Eastern tradition to the West. Mark Tobby, for instance, one of the American Expressionist painters actually spent years in Japan soaking up its cultural ethos. In response to the phenomenon where some aspects of the Eastern cultural tradition inspired the Western world in the 50s and 60s, across the pacific, there was the resurgence in the popularity of calligraphy. In no time calligraphy became one of the avant-garde means of artistic expression in Japan.

According to the tradition of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, lettering is executed in a monochrome colour, and the tone is determined by the density of ink and water, and paper’s water absorption. Due to its fortuitous and creative nature, as it rather gives form to signs than conforming to pre-existing forms, the execution of lettering relies heavily on chance and serendipitous elements. The main purpose of the traditional calligraphy is to literal communication. In the context of Japanese contemporary visual art, however, calligraphy is perceived rather differently. After merging with the spirit of Modernism, Modern Japanese calligraphy gave birth to a new type of expression, which separates itself from its predecessor. In some cases, modern calligraphers completely abandoned the use of brushes, but use their body as the primary tool. Gutai was the most prominent group of artists that transformed the traditional Japanese calligraphy into a contemporary art form. Taking to the extreme, some of Gutai artists associated the calligraphy with action painting, which involved physically demanding gestural movements. For instance, a leading figure of Gutai, Kazuo Shiraga’s primary means of producing paintings was literally his own body. Typically, he would cover his body with paints, then throw himself onto paper or canvas. On one occasion, he suspended himself from the ceiling of a gallery space by a rope. While dangling in space, he splashed oil paints by erratically swinging his feet around. To put it bluntly, he was a performative painter who produced a special kind of action paintings.

Contrary to Gutai, "Mono-ha" movement in the 1970s led by a minimalist artist Lee Ufan focused more on subtlety and a philosophical kind of aesthetic. The Mono-ha artists often arranged industrial materials, such as stone, steel plates, glass, light bulbs, wood, wire, rope, oil and so forth. Their intention was to examine the incidental relationship between these objects when they are placed closely, albeit quite randomly and in unintended ways. In relation to brushstroke, Lee Ufan’s minimalist paintings are contemplative and ethereal, consisting only of a few brushstrokes.

There is some similarity to be drawn between the way in which Western painting has developed and the trajectory of calligraphic development in Japan in recent decades. In the realm of calligraphy different types of surface to write on have been explored in an attempt to break away with the old tradition. Similarly, in the context of art, a lot of heed has been paid to the use of different materials, as many post-war artists experimented with non-traditional materials. Various surface textures (effet de matière) are achieved as a result, and the materiality and physicality became the object of investigation for many contemporary painters. In this regard also, the brush mark has remained relevant to contemporary art.

Exploration of different materials and the emphasis on self-expression through abstract means imply our yearning for tactility, intensity and the rawness of energy, which cannot be transmitted solely through literal communication. In other words, literal communication through representations account only for a part of human communication. In the age of digital media, our visual world is flooded with numerous visual representations. The prominent French sociologist Jean Baudrillard calls it hyper-reality. Yet, representations lack certain qualities. Amongst them is the quality that brushstrokes encapsulate, such as traces of an artist’s expressive gestural movements. A trace of a dynamic movement symbolises aliveness and life itself. In the increasingly sterile two-dimensional visual world, the primitiveness and rawness behind a brush stroke should not be regarded as backward or regressive, but evoke a sense of rejuvenation as it pertains to something primal in us all.


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