Yoshitomo Nara - Biography and Legacy
Japanese Painter, sculptor, and illustrator
Hirosaki, Aomori, Japan
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.
Although he has fond memories of his early childhood, Nara's life copied that of an only child. His parents worked busy schedules while his brothers were some ten years his senior. He was a sensitive boy, and grappled with difficult emotions, recalling: "I was lonely, and music and animals were a comfort. I could communicate better with animals, without words, than communicating verbally with humans". (He recalls that on one occasion he became upset with a group of local boys who set out to destroy an anthill and refused to join them.) Young Nara immersed himself in both Japanese and American pop culture; the latter flooding into Japan after the Second World War. Nara took inspiration from various sources including picture books (his favorite was The Little House by American author Virginia Lee Burton) and fairy tales, American comic books, Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons (especially Astro Boy, Gigantor, and Speed Racer) and rock and punk music.
Nara purchased records by mail, sharing the cost with friends. At the age of sixteen he opened up a cafe with a friend in his hometown, and worked as the DJ there. He was inspired, not only by the rebellious ethos communicated through punk music, but also by the visual culture of music. He explains that "There was no museum where I grew up so my exposure to art came from the album covers".
Nara began to create at a young age, first by sculpting forms out of clay (or even his own excrement) and then by experimenting with drawing. He remembers his first drawing vividly: "It was before nursery school. I drew on a blank page of a book that belonged to my father [...] It was a picture of a curtained window looking out onto a landscape, drawn in red pencil. There was something very abstract about it. I think I drew pretty well as a child". In his teen years, he recalls being eager to paint a live nude model (and at being disappointed when that chance finally came and the model was an elderly woman).
Education and Early Training
Nara had originally planned to study literature, but after a friend praised one of his artworks, he decided to pursue a possible career as a painter instead. With the financial backing of his parents, Nara moved far away from his hometown to Nagakute to study at the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music, earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1985, and his master of fine arts two years later.
Between 1988 and 1993 Nara lived in Germany where he undertook a six-year apprenticeship at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (aka: The German State Academy of Arts) under the mentorship of German painter A.R. Penck. During this time he developed a keen interest in Neo-Expressionism and Punk music, while outside of his studies, he earned a living teaching art to high school students.
Nara adopted (as evident in early works such as Flaming Head (1989)) many of the emotionally-charged visual idioms of German Neo-Expressionism, such as the rough, expressive, even aggressive, brushstrokes and bold colors associated with the likes of Markus Lüpertz and Georg Baselitz. Nara took from Penck the use of heavy black outlines as seen, for instance, in his The Girl with the Knife in Her Hand (1991). Nara recalled of his time in Düsseldorf: "I became literally 'alone' there. It strongly reminded me of the memory of my lonely childhood. I felt the city's cold and darkness, just like my hometown, and the atmosphere there reinforced my tendency to seclude myself from the outer world".
Even after the successful completion of his training, Nara felt unsure about the value of a career in art. He said, "All through university I was never sure that I wanted to be an artist by profession [...] I went to art school because I could draw. It was [only] when I was teaching art ... and I was telling all the students that 'this is how artists should be,' and so on [that] it occurred to me that one could draw as a way of finding oneself". It was this moment of self-realization that saw Nara commit to a career in art. Thus, in 1993, and still with only limited grasp of the German language, Nara moved to Köln (Cologne) where he set up a studio. He recalls feeling "very much isolated" but that that feeling of isolation helped him to evolve as an artist: "To be an artist, one might need to be deprived a bit of what he or she has taken for granted: accessibility to things and people, including language and a means of communication [...] I needed a setting which would allow me to isolate myself from others to have a real conversation with the inner-me [...] I found my style only after living in solitude". It was in Köln that Nara received his first meaningful exposure after drawing promotional posters for the Swedish family film Lotta Leaves Home (1993).
A series of collaborative projects in the late 1990s - including a book project with Japanese cult novelist Banana Yoshimoto, as well as commissions to design a CD jacket for Japanese punk band The Star Club, and for Japanese girl band Shonen Knife - propelled Nara into the public eye. He continued teaching during this period, however, working as a visiting professor at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1998. In 2000, Nara finally returned to Japan and worked to cement his career as a painter. He took over a two-story Tokyo warehouse. With its high ceilings and open layout, the warehouse doubled as a studio space and living space. Nara rarely cooked for himself, however, and dined most days at fast-food restaurants.
In 2001, Nara became associated with the Superflat movement, which included artists like Takashi Murakami and Chiho Aoshima. Superflat (sometimes referred to as "Japanese Pop Art") was a term coined by Murakami to describe a style of postmodern Japanese art that demonstrates a critical and ambivalent attitude toward pop culture and consumerism. In his personal Superflat style, Nara drew inspiration from traditional Japanese Otafuku and Okame theatrical masks, and Edo period ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The painterly quality and free-form, hand-drawn lines that characterize Nara's oeuvre also contrast sharply with the more "digital" aesthetic of Murakami's work.
Nara notes that, "Up until [my twenties], I was really only focused on stuff I liked and was interested in. Then, entering into my thirties and forties, and becoming more of an adult, I started seeing more of the world and even seeing things that I didn't want to see. My perspective really opened up. Whether it was to do with society or the environment or the relationship between the two, my view of the world became much wider".
In 2009, Nara was celebrating the completion of a gallery show in New York in an East Village Punk bar called Niagara. Flushed with alcoholic inspiration, Nara drew a number of his signature punk figures directly onto the bar walls. Once finished (and before being arrested for drawing on a subway wall on his way home) he signed and dated his handiwork. While Nara's subway graffiti was quickly removed, his "dive bar mural" was preserved (behind a plastic screen) by the bar owners. The fact that the mural exists as a public artwork saw Nara connected with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat both of whom produced works on buildings in the same East Village neighbourhood.
The devastating Fukushima earthquake and tsunami of 2011, which directly affected the Aomori prefecture where Nara grew up, had a profound impact on the artist. As he recalled, "I became unable to draw [...] I was so depressed that I couldn't help feeling that what I'd been doing was totally meaningless and useless. No one needs art in an extreme situation, after all". Eventually, however, he saw people who had been displaced from their homes by the disaster beginning to return and rebuild their lives and it was this that inspired him to return to his own creative activities. As part of this process, he paid several visits to the devastated area before taking up a residency at his alma mater, the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music.
In 2013, Nara's career took a change of direction. As he recalled, "I felt uncomfortable with being given a certain label, whether it was positive or negative. And I remembered that I'd long forgotten how I had started my career. I realised that I'd long neglected the 'conversation with myself', which had been the foundation of my creative activity. So I quit collaboration works and started working with ceramics to restart the conversation". Around the same time, Nara's father passed away, which further contributed to his new-found sensibility: "In the past I would have an image that I wanted to create, and I would just do it. I would just get it finished. Now I take my time and work slowly and build up all these layers to find the best way. Just like you cook so that you know it's going to be the most delicious, you find a way to make your art the best it can be".
Since 2014, Nara has taken an interest in exploring his own roots, turning to photography to document his journey. For instance, he visited the abandoned mines, worked by his grandfather, on the Russian island of Sakhalin (formerly part of Japan). He remarks that, "Standing in front of these ruins, I really felt that I had made my artworks over all these years just to have this experience to find myself in front of this landscape [...] What I saw was neither Japan nor Russia; it was a place that is still in between. In fact, I am very interested today in places that are not one thing or another, that are between two things. So art for me was a big detour that finally allowed me to find what I was really looking for, what I really wanted to do. And when I met the local indigenous peoples, I really had the impression of meeting myself". More recently, and in homage to Takeshi Motai, a Japanese Showa-era picture book illustrator, Nara organized the 2017 exhibition "Takeshi Motai: The Dream Traveler" at the Chihiro Art Museum. It was Nara's way of acknowledging Motai as a significant influence in his own work: "Residing in day-to-day life, Takeshi Motai's aesthetic sense is paradoxically sublime. His artwork makes no distinctions between East and West; it is pure spirit" he said.
Nara currently operates out of two studios; in Germany and Japan. He likes to play "deafeningly loud" music including the Canadian rocker Neil Young, because Young "has a spirit of equality and freedom, bravely singing his songs that make us think what's around us". Nara has always kept to himself, and tries to avoid in-person interviews. He has stated "I'm not a teamwork type of person. I have no 'real or personal life' outside of my working life, like other people may have. Or at least, I'm not good at 'enjoying my life' after I've finished the work". He also avoids social media, as he sees it as a distraction to his artistic pursuits. He recently stated "I'm not really interested anymore in doing big things for mass media attention, but what interests me the most today is entertaining people from small communities with my work", adding that, "Whether I like it or not, the things I make are no longer self-portraits, but belong to the audience who find themselves, their friends or children they know in my paintings. My hope is that they will remain in the history of art [...] that they will survive as long as humankind exists even if my physical body is destroyed".
The Legacy of Yoshitomo Nara
Through his associations with Takashi Murakami and the Superflat label, Nara has helped give Japanese cultural identity a significant voice in the world of Western art markets and Western consumer culture more generally; his art caters simultaneously for the tastes of East and Western audiences, be they child, adolescent, or adult. Nara's significant cult following, which is especially strong throughout Japan and Asia, can be attributed as much to the artist's willingness to fully embrace blogging and Tweeting, and the appearance of his signature characters on any number of consumer durables (ranging from T-shirts and key chains to stuffed toys and ashtrays), as to his original gallery pieces.
With a penchant for simple lines, primary colors, and blank backgrounds, Nara's unmistakable cartoon "portraits" of small children and animals have left many critics struggling to pinpoint the essential value of his art. However, the anthropologist Marilyn Ivy has observed that Nara's art brings about "some sort of cathartic encounter with childhood in viewing his works [and he] has animated fan solidarities around a paradoxically activist art centered on cuteness and its latent capacities to signal a shared realization of the vulnerabilities of young subjecthood in commodity culture". Nara's work is deceptively disarming in the way it reaches beyond the Japanese traditions of anime/manga to embrace universal themes such as isolation, anxiety, rebellion and, in his later works, spirituality. His standing is such that he can now make valid claims to be the most important "cross-over" artist since Keith Haring, while his highly synthetic art, which so effortlessly blends the worlds of high art with kitsch, has seen him placed in the esteemed company of Jeff Koons.