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Who is artist Tsuruko Yamazaki?

A project evolving the digitized archive of the book, “GUTAI STILL ALIVE 2015 vol.1”.In the sixth edition, prolific artist part of the Gutai Art Association, Tsuruko Yamazaki was the only woman artist who remained in the Gutai from its beginnings to its dissolution. Yamazaki continued actively as an artist and did not gain international recognition until later in her career. Curator and art critic, Yoshio Kato recollects the Yamazaki's influence as a founding member of the Gutai alongside with Jiro Yoshihara, Shozo Shimamoto and Chiyu Uemae.

Tsuruko Yamazaki: A Pure Artist Who Only Makes What She Likes, Does What She Wants To

Yoshio Kato
Curator,art critic


From the end of the Meiji era through the Taisho period to the prewar Showa period, the wealthy and literati in Osaka set up their homes in bedroom suburbs in an area at the foot of Mount Rokko. Two private railway companies, Hanshin and Hankyu, plus the national railway company connected Osaka and Kobe. Housing development was active along the railways, in such areas as Nishinomiya, Ashiya, Rokko and Mikage. In the region between Osaka, a city of commerce, and Kobe, a city of trade, an art movement called Hanshinkan (Osaka-Kobe) Modernism once thrived.

Many renowned painters set up their ateliers in the Osaka- Kobe region. Japanese-style painter Kagaku Murakami (1888- 1939), Western-style painters Narashige Koide (1887-1931), Ryohei Koiso (1903-1988) and Saburo Hasegawa (1903-1957), and avant-garde painter Jiro Yoshihara (1903-1972) were among them. They are masters of Japanese modern art.

Tsuruko Yamazaki (born in the city of Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture, in 1925) grew up in an environment of the Hanshinkan Modernism. Born and raised in Ashiya, she still lives in the same city. Soon after the war, in 1946 she attended a lecture on art by Yoshihara and was strongly attracted by his personality. The following year she visited Yoshihara’s atelier with a friend and became his disciple.

At that time Yamazaki still was a student at Obayashi Sacred Heart School. She was a precocious girl with an enthusiasm for art and keen sensibilities.

In 1954 the Gutai group was founded. The founding members included Yoshihara, Shozo Shimamoto, Chiyu Uemae and Yamazaki.

I met Yamazaki for the first time in the summer of 1986. It was at “Art Space” in the Koshienguchi area in the city of Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture. The space comprised former Gutai artist Shimamoto’s atelier and stockroom for his works, and an exhibition gallery.

After the disbandment of Gutai in 1972, a group of artists named AU was founded under the initiative of Masunobu Yoshimura in 1975. Shimamoto assumed the role of its secretarygeneral the following year. In 1984 a building for Art Space was opened in Koshienguchi. People from the art circles of Japan and overseas gathered there.

There I met former Gutai artists Kazuo Shiraga, Saburo Murakami and Yasuo Sumi, as well as mail artist Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, contemporary musician Takehisa Kosugi and sound artist Yukio Fujimoto.

The first impression of Yamazaki was that of a fashion designer, or a modern girl from the Showa period. Everyone called her “Otsurusan.” Her makeup and outfit were very fanciful and avant-garde, from top to toe. She had an atmosphere of a young lady from Ashiya, one of the Kansai region’s most prestigious residential districts, besides a sense of the avantgarde. She was highly stylish.

A retrospective of Gutai took place at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from February to May 2013, as an example of a boom in the West in reevaluating Japan’s postwar avant-garde art. The New York Times, well known for its bitter criticism, praised the exhibition, which attracted an audience of 250,762. The number is amazing for an exhibition organized by the museum. Red soft vinyl was used for the exhibition catalog. According to Alexandra Munroe, one of the curators of the exhibition, the design was inspired by the red used in many works by Yamazaki.

In “Open-Air Modern Art Exhibition Challenging the Midsummer Sun,” held in July 1955 in Ashiya Park, Yamazaki exhibited “Mosquito Net-Like Three-Dimensional Work,” made of red hard vinyl sheets hung around. At night, from inside the sheets, electric lamps shed reddish light around the work. The grand work “This Isn’t a Triple Mirror” consisted of dozens of tin plates painted in reddish violet, jointed together and hung like curtains, oscillating by the wind. In the “First Gutai Exhibition,” held in October that year at Ohara Kaikan in Tokyo, she put dozens of red tin cans randomly on the floor, in a work titled “Tin Cans.” All these works were characterized by red as the key color. Yamazaki’s vivid red enchanted Munroe and came to symbolize Gutai.

On the other hand, another work by Yamazaki at the First Gutai Exhibition was a large zinc panel with some 150 round perforations mounted on a mirror. It reflected light and made the viewer sense light itself. The aforementioned tin plates and cans also seem to have been made for the effect of light. It is said that such works were inspired by a scene of a car’s headlights shining metal signboards and cans in darkness. It was soon after the war, when night was much darker than today. Yamazaki was attracted by the magic of light and color, and visualized them in her works. Shouldn’t we think that her talent was shown in her ability to materialize immediately what she felt?

After the disbandment of Gutai, in the mid-1970s Yamazaki made surrealistic, Pop Art-style representational paintings. Their motifs included pachinko (pinball-like gambling game) machines, giveaway packages of some toy and assorted fireworks, which aroused a sense of immoral excitement among the audience. From the late ’70s to the early ’80s, Yamazaki added dogs, pigs, gorillas, lions, etc. to her motifs. In those days in Japan, most art professionals might believe that avant-garde or modern painting must be abstract, and mass-appealing representational painting was outdated. Yamazaki was courageous enough to paint representationally in such times. Was she bracing herself for criticism? She rather wouldn’t care about criticism. She is a pure artist who only makes what she likes and does what she wants to, freely. Such her attitude is marvelous, and her firm selfconfidence conspicuous.

In fact, the early ’80s saw a boom in expressionistic representational painting, as exemplified by Italian Transavanguardia and American New Painting. Yamazaki’s foresight was perfect.

In recent works, Yamazaki paints tin plates with dye lacquer in transparent and vivid colors. The colors are reduced to pure light, and the works become expressionistic abstract paintings. Such works still make us imagine the fresh sensibilities Yamazaki had when she met Yoshihara as a girl.

Even though she gets old, Yamazaki retains shining sensibilities of a girl and a fresh spirit, and is full of curiosity. She is indeed a “supergirl” called “Otsurusan.”

(Mothly Gallery, November 2013) 


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