Takashi Murakami's Flower Ball (Brown) bursts into the viewer's universe, a circular painting packed with grinning buds and vibrant colour. The laughing faces of the various flowers perfectly encapsulate the quality of kawaii, or cuteness, so frequently explored in Japanese culture, be it in anime movies, in everyday ads, in manga or in Hello Kitty products. Here, it is taken to proportions of visual overload, creating the impression of an almost unstable cataclysm as these dementedly joyful buds explode into our world.
Looking at Murakami's works, it is all too easy to be seduced by its ultra-Pop aesthetic. But at the heart of his work lie questions about the nature of art and culture in modern Japan. The theme of flowers was one that he had to tackle repeatedly when he himself was an art student, learning Nihon-ga painting techniques. This was a sort of confected form of traditional Japanese art, a notion created as a reaction to the increasing influence of Western culture in Japan during the Nineteenth Century. Murakami spent years drawing and painting flowers, and then his own students to paint them afterwards:
"Once every two days, I would buy flowers for my lesson and make compositions for my students to work on. At the beginning, to be frank, I didn't like flowers, but as I continued teaching in the school, my feelings changed: their smell, their shape-- it all made me feel almost physically sick, and at the same time I found them very 'cute'. Each one seemed to have its own feelings, its own personality. My dominant feeling was one of unease, but I liked that sensation. And these days, now that I draw flowers rather frequently, that sensation has come back very vividly. I find them just as pretty, just as disturbing. At the same time there is this strength in them; it is the same image of strength I find when drawing the human face. So I thought that if the opportunity arose, I would pretty much like to make a work in which I would represent them as if in a 'crowd scene', in the manner of these scenes of moving crowds that you see in films" (Murakami, quoted in Takashi Murakami Kaikai Kiki, exh. cat., Paris and London 2002, p. 84).
In Flower Ball (Brown), Murakami has wed the flowers of the Nihon-ga period with the ultra-modern aesthetics of Tokyo. He has introduced the cartoonish quality of the animated films for which Japan is now so famous, but which were themselves originally created as a reaction to the cultural invasion by Disney and its peers that had accompanied the American occupation in the wake of the Second World War. This, then, is a riposte to the all-too-eagerly-absorbed Western culture of Fantin-Latour, Fantasia and Andy Warhol. Murakami has found himself in a unique position, all too painfully able to perceive the gap between modern Japan and the world of Nihon-ga. And so he has created a new, distinctly Japanese aesthetic, one that has dark undertones yet is ultimately pulsingly energetic, exuberant and optimistic.