Japanese Painter, sculptor, and illustrator
Hirosaki, Aomori, Japan
Summary of Yoshitomo Nara
Nara is a central figure within contemporary Japanese art. He is associated specifically with the rise of Superflat art; a term coined by Nara's compatriot Takashi Murakami to describe a movement that blends a two-dimensional (flat) graphic design with the more contemplative interests of fine art. Nara's deceptively simple art uses cartoon-like imagery to express conflicting childhood emotions and anxieties within a single figure. His children are typically shown in a mood of resistance and rebellion or, sometimes, in a more tranquil or contemplative state. Given his nationality, and the illustrative quality of his art, Nara has often been associated with the traditions of Japanese manga and anime but Nara's work draws on a much wider range of influences ranging through Western Punk Rock and fairy tales to Eastern religion and philosophy. In the later, more introspective, phase of his career, Nara has turned his attentions to sculpture and installation art, but it is through his enduring "Romana" portraits that he remains most readily associated.
- Superflat art is now considered a staple of postmodern art. It is based on Japan's post World War II obsession with anime and manga comic books but Nara's more outward looking worldview has done much to promote the reputation of the so-called Japanese "Pop art" in mainstream Western culture.
- Many of Nara's works are inspired by Punk music and the ethos of rebellion and defiance. His work takes the traditional Japanese theater character of Otafuku, a figure who represents joy and who is always depicted with full cheeks and cheerful eyes, and turns her into a mischievous, brooding "punk" child. These works have even helped overturn the perception of Japan as an inflexible society governed by ancient social conventions.
- Nara's cartoon-based approached has sometimes been compared to the work of Keith Haring. However, Nara's figures are more archetypal and play around much more with the Japanese tradition of the kawaii: the idea that we might feel empathy with feeble and helpless creatures. Like Haring, however, his work has managed to captivate at once the imagination of serious art collectors and critics, and the rebellious youth who consume his art through numerous items of mass reproduction.
- Nara's work often incorporates words or short phrases. In an attempt to reduce his art to a single, simple, idea or concept, his use of words are intended to overcome any ambiguities in the artist's intentions and to enable his viewer to identify specifically with Nara's point of view. In a postmodern context where artists usually prefer meaning to remain ambiguous, Nara offered a more reductive way of looking at his art.
- As a direct result of the fallout from the Fukushima earthquake and the death of his father, Nara's mature works took on a more existential focus. The artist becomes more introspective and philosophical, encouraging, through his art, his audience to come to a higher level of consciousness. In his Midnight series, for instance, Nara brought a Buddhist sensibility to his work that invited comparisons with the transcendental aims of Mark Rothko.
Biography of Yoshitomo Nara
The youngest of three boys, Yoshitomo Nara grew up in a rural community near the city of Hirosaki, in the northern Japanese prefecture of Aomori. His father and grandfather were both Shinto priests, and later in his career, Nara would draw inspiration of his own from the spiritual teachings of Shinto.
Important Art by Yoshitomo Nara
This early work is emblematic of Nara's signature style: flat, two-dimensional, rosy-cheeked and wide-eyed children placed against empty or nondescript backgrounds. The removal of these archetypal figures - often referred to in Japan as kawaii - from recognizable settings lends them a universal appeal that transcends the limits of time and place. Indeed, the writer Banana Yoshimoto has suggested that Nara's "work attracts many people, because they recognize their precious inner solitude within [the artwork]".
The artist himself cites the children's picture books he grew up with (the likes of Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, and Aesop) as his main influence, observing that "They all reflect our darker side". Indeed, many of Nara's childhood characters express an aggressive or rebellious side; either brandishing weapons (a knife in this case) or smoking cigarettes. Yet Nara insists that his armed children do not pose any realistic threat: "Look at them, [the weapons] are so small, like toys. Do you think they could fight with those? I don't think so. Rather, I kind of see the children among other, bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives".
The anthropologist Marilyn Ivy explains that "The origins of kawaii had to do with pity or empathy for a small or helpless creature - archetypically, a child or infant. There is always a dimension of vulnerability, smallness, and - indeed - (feminized) childishness attending the kawaii". Although Western viewers tend to perceive Nara's kawaii characters to be girls (a view backed up here by the title of the painting) the artist himself asserts that his figures are essentially non-gendered: "For me, there is no distinct sex because people become men or women when they grow up. Children are more neutral. That is the way I see them".
The title "Nobody's Fool" was given to Nara's first major New York exhibition, presented through the Asia Society, in 2010, and was borrowed from 1973 album by the Memphis-based musician Dan Penn. The title pays direct homage to Penn's reputation for "individualism" but it was only one of many of the collections' musical allusions to rebellious rock and punk music (by the likes of Neil Young, the Ramones, and Green Day).
Untitled (Nobody's Fool) presents a young girl with an angry and defiant "punk" expression while at the same time adopting the formal attributes of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints such as those made by Kitagawe Utamaro (1753-1806). The work follows the precise composition - hairstyle, hand positioning, scratched background - of Utamaro's female book reader in Kobikicho Arayashiki Koiseya Ochie. The academic Max Weintraub described how "Utamaro's period prints were mass-produced commercial artifacts that not only proved popular in Japan, but also circulated widely throughout Europe in the latter half of the 19th century during a particularly intense period time of the West's fascination with and appropriation of Japanese visual culture". Weintraub observed, moreover, that Untitled (Nobody's Fool) "contains a number of clichés both past and present, including that of a Japanese girl with a chopstick bun hair style and the phrase "No Nukes" written on her headband. These clichés seem to level any distinction between conventions of the distant past and those of the 1960s and 70s, and [self-consciously] complicate the ideal of authenticity and individuality" in Nara's art.
In this monumentally large painting we see a recurrent Nara character named Ramona - after the American punk band Ramones - a young girl with a bob haircut, wearing a red dress with a white collar. Here, she frowns and glares defiantly at the viewer. Her right arm is hidden behind her body, and it is only from the title of the work that we come to learn that she is brandishing a knife.
According to the description in the Sotheby's catalogue, by concealing the knife its threat becomes "infinitely more ominous [and] underscores the unexpected insurgent power of children and the associated radical potentiality of the insignificant, the innocent, the fictionary, and the imagined [and was the] driving force behind Nara's epochal iconography of sullen, disgruntled, yet endearing and captivating youth". The work was created at a time when Nara was reinventing his personal style; moving away from the thick, black, neo-expressionist outlines and vibrant colors he used during the 1990s, toward a softer palette and more painterly quality. Anime and manga illustrator and art critic Midori Matsui (cited through Sotheby's) noted that at this stage in his career Nara's characters began to display "visible signs of humanization" in the way their "heads grew smaller, their expressions gentler, their body proportions approaching that of a real child, and their attitudes reflecting that of a thoughtful adolescent".
In 2019, this painting set the record for the most expensive work ever sold at auction in Japan (the same year, incidentally, a similar national record was set in the United States by fellow Neo-Pop artist Jeff Koons with his 1986 "balloon sculpture" Rabbit). Sotheby's was in no doubt about the painting's value, describing it as "a classic archetype of the artist's strategy that draws on Modernism's sign-like shorthand language of images to leave endless space for resonance and fantasy for both the child and adult viewer". Sotheby's concluded that the work represented the "saccharine sweetness of Nara's figurative lexicon [that] enacts a language undeniably redolent of Pop, anime, cartoon, and manga - one whose extraordinary emotive power endorses "the paradoxical strength of 'minor art', including 'kitsch' imagery's ability to express the emotions of contemporary people".
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Yoshitomo Nara
- Yoshitomo NaraOur PickBy Yeewan Koon
- Birth and Present: A Studio Portait of Yoshitomo NaraBy Kyoko Wada
- The Lonesome PuppyBy Yoshitomo Nara
- UkiyoBy Yoshitomo Nara
- Yoshitomo NaraBy Mika Yoshitake
- Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody's FoolOur PickBy Melissa Chiu and Miwako Tezuka
- Yoshitomo Nara: Drawings: 1984-2013Our PickBy Masue Kato
- Yoshitomo Nara & YNG: The Crated Rooms in IcelandOur PickBy Markús Andrésson, Gumundur Magnússon, Hafthór Yngvason, and Jón Proppé
- Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby SupermarketOur PickBy Stephan Trescher and Banana Yoshimoto
- Nara Yoshitomo: I Don't Mind If You Forget MeOur PickBy Taro Amano
- Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever HappensOur PickBy Kristin Chambers and Larry Gilman
- The Snow Yak ShowBy Mark Ryden
- On View Now | Rock and Roll Fantasy: Yoshitomo Nara at the Asia SocietyOur PickBy Max Weintraub / Art21 Magazine / October 7, 2010
- An interview with Yoshitomo NaraOur PickBy Hideo Furukawa / Asymoptote / November 2013
- 'I Was Really Unthinking Before': Yoshitomo Nara on His Recent Work and His Show at Pace Gallery in New YorkBy Robert Myers / ArtNews / April 14, 2017
- Among Japan's Most Important Living Contemporary Artists, Yoshitomo Nara Now Wishes To Participate In Small-Scale ExhibitionsBy Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle / Forbes / December 15, 2019
- Yoshitomo Nara Puts the Heart back in ArtOur PickBy Edan Corkill / The Japan Times / July 20, 2012