Folie à Plusieurs : Art collectivism in post-war Japan

This text is a modified version of what used to be one of my line of thought about Japanese post-war art groups. I thought I would put it here for those that might find it interesting in any sense. I tried as much as possible to get straight to the point and erase the superfluous. It still needs some proofreading but I thought I would just got ahead and post it, the joy of working online.

Art and its social and political contexts are always linked both in matter and change. Wars and their aftermath are crucial periods of changes both for societies and artistic currents. It is safe to assume that Art cannot be set apart as an entity created into a vacuum.
The end of World War Two in Japan was a pivotal moment for the country’s artists. It is during that period that they started pushing their artistic exploration toward new horizons, which opened following the destruction of old societal and material structures. Some artists clustered into eclectic art groups that rose to prominence through their vanguard artistic experimentations.

Hiroshima after the nuclear bombing of the 6th August 1945

Hiroshima after the nuclear bombing of the 6th August 1945 (credits : Hulton)

It is also with the end of this postwar period, arguably ending with the World Exposition in 1970, that they gradually split apart, leaving postwar collectivism behind and giving place for individual artists. Yet, these collectivist groups left their mark on the canvas of art history.

Miwako Tezuka defines collectivism as a communion of individuals, or artists working together within a loose relationship, to produce and facilitate the creation of artworks (Positions: Collectivism in Twentieth-century Japanese art). It is also during that time that those art-groups played a strong opposing role to the current political and artistic status-quo. However, the true strength behind this artistic period and its vanguardism was the enhancing power of artistic collectivism.

Art to serve the nation !

The Fall of Shingapour - Foujita Tsuguharu

The Fall of Shingapour – Fujita Tsuguharu (1942)

 Art during wars has often been put to the service of propaganda and Japan was no exception. Many artists glorified Japanese actions in Manchukuo and the rest of Asia. The artist Foujita Tsuguharu, after studying western art during his early artistic career in Paris, decided to return to Japan during the war and produced works supporting Japanese war efforts. His painting The Fall of Singapore (1942), depicts Japanese soldiers watching over Singapour from the top of a mountain, making their weapons ready the attack.

Censure often prevented any kind of ‘deviant’ artwork which did not support the cause of the imperial army. The situation offered a very narrow field of action for artists, who could not experiment and explore their inspirations.

“During the war, not only were artistic materials difficult to obtain, but controls upon artistic expression were almost absolute, permitting only paintings that glorified the war effort.” (Ming Tiampo)

The wartime period was, for Japanese artists, a concealed time during which Japanese artists could only explore within the boundaries set by the militaristic and expansionist views of the government.

Breaking open the frontier

The defeat of Japan thus meant the end of artistic restrictions,  and greater freedom for the artists as the society was granted free speech.

“Perhaps the most important and positive legacy of the occupation […] was that it benefited postwar Japanese art, not only by lifting the suppression against modern and van- guard expressions, […] but also by assuring their right to criticize their contemporary cultural, social, and political conditions.” (Miwako Tezuka)

However, the Allied forces also applied censure to prevent any return to traditionalistic values in the aftermath of the war. Many traditional icons such as Mount Fuji and traditionalistic images were banned. This censure slowly faded away with the “reverse course” which promoted economic development to get the country more stable and safe from the “threat” of communism.

Fine Wind, Clear Morning by Hokusai - Mount Fuji was part of the iconography that was banned after the end of the war to prevent the spread of nationalistic values (Wikipedia Commons)

Fine Wind, Clear Morning by Hokusai – Mount Fuji was part of the iconography that was banned after the end of the war to prevent the spread of nationalistic values (Wikipedia Commons)

This greatly affected Japanese artists. Some of them wanted to set themselves apart and create truly original art, and step away from the assumption that art was a reaction to  political or societal conditions. This established the reactionary strand that is so dear to Japanese postwar art-groups: defining themselves apart from the West, and seeking originality while rejecting the foreign hegemony in Art.
The emasculation of the Japanese following the defeat and the occupation was one reason which led to the rise of collectivism among Japanese artists. In a situation where artists were left facing new possibilities, and pressured by the Western artistic nomenclature and self-appropriation of Japanese art discourse by Western critics, Japanese artists were more secure and stronger in art-group settings which also allowed them the protection to experiment with art.

Atsuko Tanaka from the Gutai

Atsuko Tanaka from the Gutai

However, the occupation of Japan also had a positive effect for female artists. In fact, the occupation forces forbade any degrading image of the female gender. Many female artists thus found themselves actively involved in art-groups.

The Gutai, Jikken Kobo or Zero Jigen, along with Hi-Red Center were born from those various currents.

The Rise of artistic collectivism

Liberated from state censure artists were left to deal with their current times. Many followed Western art. However, collectivism did enable some artists to make their ideas resonate with others.
The Gutai group was blatant in its desire to depart from anything Western. With Japan being under US hegemony, the departure from Western art was also a political message that Japan should somehow carve its own way. It was under the authority of the SCAP and had little auto-determination.
Freeing Japanese art from western ties would show the capacity that Japan had to stand once again for itself. Art-groups could react through their works to current times and raise debate about the state of the country.

Jikken 1

Jikken Kobo is a direct product of the wartime period and the passive complacency of postwar Japan. When seeing their contemporaries’ acceptance of the drastic conditions imposed by the American occupation, the group strived to experiment new form of arts that could directly relate to their environment.

“The group took the initiative in constructively engaging with art as a valid means of communication and expression. Whether the subjects explored in its projects were positive or negative in nature, Jikken Kobo chose active engagement over passive disengagement.” (Miwako Tezuko)

The group hoped to bind people together: artists among themselves as much as the artists and the public. It had a highly utopian idea about the future that opposed the dominant feeling of self-deprecation of the population. By producing work through collaboration, Jikken Kobo tried to revitalize the artistic scene in the form of a manifestation against wartime legacy.

Zero jigen 1

One of Zero JIgen’s rituals

Zero Jigen was another Japanese art-group that differenciated itself throught its performances called ‘rituals.’

In the movie Funeral Parade of Roses (1968) by Matsumoto Toshio and Suzuki Tatsuo, Zero Jigen performs one of those rituals.

The group rejected the monetisation of vanguard art happening around the end of the sixties. As artists were starting to establish their reputation, they tended to be increasingly desired by galleries and were offered interesting deals. Zero Jigen believied that this undermined artistic creativity.
The group performed in a grotesque manner, using mixes of western and Japanese patterns in their imagery, as a way to criticize the current political status of Japan.

The examples of Zero Jigen and JIkken Kobo show the creativity and political approach that were empowered through Collectivism. Those successful examples were the precursors to perhaps the best representation of artistic collectivism in postwar Japan, the Gutai group.

4) Collectivism as an artistic catalysis

Gutai leader Jiro Yoshihara, already a prominent and established artist, played a decisive role in giving younger artists a sense of artistic direction. When formulating the simple maxim of “creating what has never been done before”, he gave the whole group a goal at which they could aim.

gutai 1

The Gutai group, with leader Yoshihara Jiro in the left hand corner

The group worked as a coordinator with members giving each others peer-reviews and making sure that the artworks fit into the general direction of the group.
Jairo Yoshihara often criticized members for failing to be original. Gutai artists had to constantly challenge their conceptions and methods.

“As Gutai artist Matsutani Takesada recalls, a common and alarming practice of Yoshihara’s was to reach for his library during a critique, pull out a single issue of an art journal, and indicate the lack of originality in the work being critiqued.” (Ming Tiampo)

The group was also relevant as a place of exchange. As artists exchanged and came with new ideas, they nurtured each other creativity, and gave the group a general artistic aim. Under the supervision of Jiro Yoshihara, members could make sure to produce works fitting the general direction of the group. Which meant : Creativity.

Playground for experiments

Art-groups also enabled the incorporation of a wide range of medias, which made the production of original artworks possible. Because those groups were formed by people from many different backgrounds, they could use their different expertises to create truly unique pieces.
Jikken Kobo for example was formed of fourteen individuals. Some were painters, others poets, critics, music composers, engineers, photographers, lighting designer, and there was even a pianist. This blurred the traditional separation between different art forms.

“The collective is also what specialist of media cultural studies, Morioka Yoshitomo, calls a ‘communion’ of individuals with an open-ended associative relationship […]. To artists, as we explored in the case of Jikken Kobo, new technology offered new ways of experimentation in their art.” (Miwako Tezuka)

New artistic combinations were thus possible.and artworks fusing different elements were soon made. Tanaka Atsuko’s Electric Dress (1956) is striking as it marries domains such as fashion and technology. This was rare at the time.

Tanaka 1

Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress (1956)


The work’s vanguardism and futuristic aspect  echoes the Japanese society that was modernizing at a fast pace with neon signs invading every city street. The work might have been at that time an optimistic expression that Japan was heading toward a ‘brighter’ future.

“Through the Gutai’s support of her performance, Tanaka came to free herself of the belief that painting was ‘a transparent expression of the soul’ and return to the medium unencumbered.”

Through the Gutai’s influence, Tanaka could experiment other ways of creating art, certainly ‘forced’ into originality by the group’s emphasis on originality.

Jikken Kobo 1

Jikken Kobo’s Pierrot Lunaire (1955)

The play Pierrot Lunaire (1955) by Jikken Kobo is another example of this creative mingling. A play requires the collaboration of different domains, such as music, acting, and settings.


Takechi Tetsuji on the stage of Pierrot Lunaire (1955)

For Pierrot Lunaire, the collective collaborated with playwright Takechi Tetsuji. He was unsatisfied with the current status-quo of traditional Japanese theatre, and sought to open new path of expression by marrying Western and Eastern perspectives, as well as modern and traditional ones.
This piece was based on the 1912 expressionist musical composition of Austrian composer Schoenberg. The play created by Jikken Kobo drew its originality from the collaboration of various elements put together.

Takechi brought together three actors from disparate theatrical disciplines to incarnate the three characters of Pierrot Lunaire : Hamada Yoko, an actress of shingeki theatre popular in twentieth century, Nomura Mansaku from the kyogen theatre, and the Noh actor Kanze.

The masks of the play are the perfect example of this mingling of influences

The masks of the play are the perfect example of this mixing of artistic influences

The play itself married elements taken from traditional Japanese theatre and modern western theatre. The masks of the play were inspired from the Noh theatre, but designed in a modern esthetic that abstracted the realism and the falsification of human emotions.

Different examples of Noh Masks

Different examples of Noh Masks

Besides, the lines were sung in ways that combined Schoenberg’s musical experimentation with the Noh’s oral tradition. Both considered the voice as an instrument of its own.

Pierrot Lunaire thus put Jikken Kobo at the artistic vanguardism of their time by mixing different historical and artistic elements together.

New forms of exhibition

Art groups also used collectivism to explore new ways to exhibit. The Gutai or Zero Jigen artists, strive for new space to ‘perform’ their works.
The Gutai sought outside and open spaces where their art could merge with the environment.

Searching for new places

Searching for new places : Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Summer Sun (1955)

The Gutai with its 1955 “Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Summer Sun” were actively reinventing the relation between the artworks and their environment. The exhibition challenged artists in making works that were not to be eclipsed by the scale of the exhibition site, or could be displayed without walls and could be rained on, blown around, touched, played with and seen in the dark. Pieces had to be able to fit in the nature and to resist the possible aggressions of the weather.
This brought art outside of the traditional dedicated spaces such as galleries and museums. The Gutai sought to escape from the stratification of art, which they saw as separating Art from everyday life.

A performance by Zero Jigen. On the signs can be read "Obscene things"

A performance by Zero Jigen. On their ‘loincloths’ can be read “Obscene things”

Similarly, Zero Jigen performed directly in the streets.

“The members often performed naked, struck exaggerated gestures reminiscent of child’s play, Kabuki, and Buddhist rituals, among other pre-modern traditions, and deployed props intended to antagonize their urban audience.”

Another group, Hi-Red Center, also made use of unconventional spaces to perform. The group had already a strong anti-conformist connotation as its member Asegawa had been making copies of thousand yen bills as a way to critic the use of money in an increasing capitalist Japanese society. The group consisted of Asegawa Genpei, famous for making copies of thousand yen bills to critic the growing obsession of money in the Japanese society, Takamatsu Jiro and Nakanishi Natsuyuki.
The three of them called their streets actions “mixers.” These were original in the sense that they denigrated conventional art spaces to make their performance political and directly aimed at the passerby.


Ultra-Cleaning Event (1964) by Hi-Red Center

For example, during their Ultra-Cleaning Event (1964), they went on cleaning the streets of Tokyo with a ridiculous meticulousness to protest against the ridiculously rigid sanitary laws in preparation of the Olympics.

These original performances were made possible through collaboration. Individual artists, looking for a place to exhibit their pieces have always to comply with art space regulations. This can limit the quality of art exhibition. Sometimes, artworks are even made to be shown outside of conventional places.
When a group of artists takes on the idea of performing publicly, they stand strong through the union. The number of artworks showcased, the presence of several people, enables the group to perform public exhibition more easily than individuals. This was particularly true at a time when art was rarely shown in the public domain.

Collectivism as a political/artistic tool?

Collectivism was also used in experimentation to reinvent connotations revolving around the artistic process, such as individualism.
While individual artists are usually embedded into their own environment, the structure of the art group makes it arguably possible to erase this aspect from their works.
For example, Hi-Red Center was aiming at new forms of relating with the public, and prove wrong the idea that art and everyday life are separated.

“All artistic conventions and practices, from object to performance, were subject to scrutiny, experiment, and revision in the service of a critical investigation of daily life.” (William Marotti)

Collectivism enabled Hi-Red Center to argue that what they were doing was not art, but actions, in an attempt to bridge the gap that art implies between artists and viewers.

“The group assiduously avoided invoking the concept of art and artworks, in an attempt to expand the reception of their actions and objects beyond a restrictive idea of art and to arrive at a potentially revolutionary form of direct action.” (William Marotti)

The Gutai also used collectivism in their discourse about their works. Its motto was to “create what has never been done before.” Yoshihara himself explained that Gutai artists were not creating their artworks for the purpose of art, but rather were un-selfconscious during the process, stripping their artworks from any political or societal reading.

Murakami Saburo - Passing Through (1956) : Un-selfconsciously breaking boundaries?

Murakami Saburo – Passing Through (1956) : Un-selfconsciously breaking boundaries?

The freedom sought by Yoshihara and other Gutai members was less affixed to the pursuit of artistic vanguardism than in attaining liberation from pretence, ambition, or other forms of self-awareness. This freedom, they felt, was an absolute prerequisite in the creation of truly original paintings.

This is a debatable point since the Gutai positioned itself against the artistic views imposed of the West. It sought to get away from any kind of classification.

“Not only was this assertion of originality an attempt to assert a valid modernism outside the West, but also an assertion of subjective independence in the context of Japan’s recent militarist history.” (Ming Tiampo)

Therefore, artworks of the Gutai were intertwined with their historical and societal context, and were perceived as such by viewers.

It is interesting, however, to point out that Gutai used collectivism in an attempt to strip away the individualism and political meanings that could be found in the critics of their work. During Gutai art exhibitions, works did not feature the name of their artists, so that the whole exhibition would be considered as a whole. No written explanation would be given.The group appeared more important than the individual.
The pieces were also not for sale, to denounce the commercialization of art. It appealed directly to people without any consideration for monetary value.

To privilege individual artists, and thus to set up a ‘hero’ system in which the works of one individual might be valued over another would be contrary to the logic of collaboration.

Opening a path for future decades

Collectivism in the sixties thus enabled many artists to step out of the boundaries that influenced the Japanese art scene prior and during the war. They explored new forms of artistic expression and sought new meanings to infuse in their artworks.
Collectivism enabled many different things. Many ideas and artworks were produced following similar logics and goals.
It also made possible the collaboration of artists from different expertises, which resulted in the creation of vanguard artworks. The great diversity of artists working together also enabled truly interesting exhibitions, outside of the traditional space dedicated to art such as museums and art galleries.
Finally, it enabled artists to cover themselves behind the group and divest Art from individualism, translating into new meanings for their artworks, in the case of the Gutai, of “non-intention” as vehicle for the act of creation.
Collectivism in art was therefore able to push further the limits of artistic exploration. It is not merely a “loose association” of individuals. It goes beyond cooperation and efficiency, to reveal the many sides it encompasses.

Even if the golden era of art groups in Japan ended in the 70s, Collectivism did not disappear. Many groups have followed and have been successful, as for example, the collective Dumb Type. However, it seems individualism took back its former place in the artistic scenery of the country, sadly or not, it is left for you to decide.


  • This is very thorough and interesting. Particularly I enjoyed the detail about the women artists who were so bold.

    • Thank you for the very nice comment. I am happy that this subject that I had a lot of fun research could be of any use. It feels that that era was indeed quite an interesting one at least on the Japanese scene.

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