Since the Meiji Restoration took place more than a century ago, Japan has been pursuing social innovation and modernisation. After the massive import of modern art theories and aesthetics philosophy by Enlightenment theorists, a confrontation broke out between extreme conservatives and revolutionaries in Japan. With the ceaseless effort from generations of artist in the past century, a unique system of Japanese aesthetics developed based on the notion of "Conflict, Coexistence and Harmony." A contemporary artist born in the Post- War era, Yoshitomo Nara benefited much from the quick information exchange in a modern society and the opportunities to visit abroad. Therefore, compared to Japanese reformist artists in the past, Nara has a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the motivation as well as the actual practices of the cultural coalition between the East and West. Nara's work is amiable and approachable by infusing the concepts of Western modern art with an open mind. Nara injects endless vigour into traditional Japanese art and creates a brand new artistic style of his own.
Banging the Drum (Lot 4) presents a mature style of Nara's works. He sketches the contour of the figure's head, eyes, body, limbs and the drum sticks with crisp lines to create a sharp contrast in the picture. The seemingly geometrical pattern that constitutes the body alludes to pure abstraction (Fig. 1), echoing with the modern art pioneer Paul Cezanne's concept of reconstruction of natural scenery and objects within a geometric framework. The works of famous modern sculptor Constantin Brancusi has an abstracted ovoid form (Fig. 2), like Cezanne, Brancusi also approaches his subject matters from a very introspective perspective to reduce all existential aspects, leaving the sculptural figure an abstract simplicity. By minimising the facial details, the sculpture's internal sensibility is heightened; similar practice can be noted in Banging the Drum. Although Nara paints through a Western medium, his usage of lines leaves the traces of an Eastern artist. It is not the technique of chiaroscuro that renders the vivid imagery of the little girl; it is the variation and fluctuation of lines that brings forth the life and texture of the subject. Such practice reminds us of the unique presentation of lines in Asian classic ink paintings, which further demonstrates that Nara has established a perfect balance and connection between the East and West aesthetics.
Yoshitomo Nara acknowledges that he was influenced by the naive painting style of Takeshi Motai, a 20th century illustrator of children books. Nara also had published illustration books and other related popular products. As a result, his works are often mistakenly identified as children's books or derivatives of Japanese manga. The reason is that viewers only superficially consider the similarities in the formal elements without understanding the origins of their styles. To label Nara as a Japanese manga artist would be an oversimplification of the Japanese visual history. The visual culture of Japan has long been influenced by the genes of Japanese traditional painting. Since the rise of Zen Buddhism in Japan during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), figurative art had already shifted from objective representations to a highly stylised depiction with exaggerated forms. For example, Sengai from the Edo period (1750-1837) painted figures that are completely unrestrained by conventions (Fig. 3). A few simple strokes would complete a highly reduced modelling. These simple figures are exaggerated, humorous, and light-hearted. It is obvious that the artist slighted realistic representations. His focus was on the mental processes of these characters and how their thoughts were expressed. Ukiyo-e prints privilege a flattened picture plane as well as a high-constrast palette (Fig. 4) – this visual style had deeply influenced Yoshitomo Nara as well. Evidently, Nara inherited his artistic genes directly from traditional Japanese paintings. On the other hand, manga borrows more from the popular visual style of the Heian period and Kamakura period. Both of them are inspired by traditional Japanese paintings, and they had both successfully reinvented tradition and turned it into a contemporary visual language.
The contemporaneity of Nara's works is further signified by his particular choice of materials in addition to his unique design. He began to deconstruct and reconstruct the pictorial plane as early as the 1990s. He cut a piece of cloth into patches of different sizes; put them together on top of another layer before starting working on it. Hence Nara creates the wonderful play of light and shadow to the monotonous background. Combination of materials by chance and the crude texture may allude to repair and bandages, which bring out the idea of the healing of a wound that goes side by side with the lonely representation of the little girl, helpless, agonised and disappointed. In recent years, Nara further broadened the expressiveness of materials. In Banging the Drum, he paints on top of combined pieces of found construction planks. The rough surface of the wood planks is full of old nails marks and abrasions. Comparing to the soft and fragile quality of cloth, the used wood material unleashes a keen sense of masculinity. A striking architectural feel is created in the painting by the layered structure and its thickness, obscuring the boundary between painting and installation art, and at the same time it attracts the viewers' eye.
When Yoshitomo Nara was still in high school, he was obsessed with Rock and Roll music. He especially enjoyed Punk music for its anti-establishment attitude and spirit of freedom. During the 1990s, he was frequently invited to produce album cover art for famous bands such as, R.E.M., The Star Club, and Shonen Knife. In 2005, he made the album cover for the Japanese Punk band Bloodthirsty Butchers. The title of the album was precisely Banging the Drum. Two years later, Yoshitomo Nara cast a female drummer as the main character in his work and painted the Banging the Drum solely as a stand-alone piece of art. The background colour of this work is an unmodulated plane of green. The ambiguous setting adds prominence to the figure. The girl waves the drumsticks around intently with her eyes closed. Her demeanour is calm and at ease, which is drastically different from the wild actions of the typical rock drummer. Even though the viewers cannot actually hear the sound of her drumming, a sense of selfpity and lonesomeness is still conveyed through the image. The figure of a girl playing the drums to herself is juxtaposed with the jarring texture of the wooden board surface. It is a metaphor for the rebellious spirit of Rock and Roll. The uncompromising spirit expressed by the character mirrors the artist's strong sense of individualism towards his creative endeavours.
As a vehicle of catharsis, Rock and Roll music has an evocative power that is unparalleled by the spoken words or text. Its infectious spirit is able to bring audience from different backgrounds together. Nara harassed the power of music to heighten the sense of engagement and bring the viewers closer to his work. His signature painting style is concise and direct. The adorable characters express genuine emotions that are multi-dimensional. All of these elements come together to form an aesthetic that integrates the sentiments of both the East and the West. Yoshitomo Nara strives to development a visual language that is both profound and popular. It is no coincident that his works can captivate audiences from all walks of life.