Having spearheaded the neo-Pop movement in 1990s Japan, Yoshitomo Nara’s depictions of cute yet mischievous cartoon figures has a worldwide cult following. Born in 1959 in Aomori prefecture, Nara’s idiosyncratic and peculiar children and animals hold the insouciant lure of children’s book illustrations, yet belie an atrociously lonely childhood marked by feelings of isolation and loss, referencing Japanese visual traditions and Western modernism. With influences from Japanese anime, manga, and German expressionism, the artist’s early works use precise lines to outline the figure of the subject, creating a sharp contrast with the background, both through flatness and colour juxtaposition.
RAW BUT AUTHENTIC ARTISTIC POWER
Throughout Nara’s oeuvre, the works on paper have been a powerful vehicle for artistic experimentation with ideas and techniques. The physical and temporal immediacy that Nara found in the execution of drawing made it well suited to the spontaneous expression of raw emotion, providing an important arena for discovery, and undeniably self-discovery, as he sought an artistic language that was better suited to his vision. Harmonious in composition and tantalising in the rendering of colour, Northern Light (Lot 21) is a classic specimen of Yoshitomo Nara's well-known repertoire and among his most significant large-scale paintings on paper. Painted in 2000, there is a softening of adolescent angst, depicting a lone child with upturned eyes portrayed with solid green tones, against a monochromatic background. The disproportionate protagonist commands the centre of this painting; its head is overwhelmingly large while the rest of the body is abbreviated, rendered schematically in reduced geometric shapes, and washed in varying hues of white, calling to mind the Japanese Ukiyo-e prints that influenced European modernists such as Manet and Degas.
In Northern Light, Nara’s dramatic perspectives and forms evoke the almost flat 19th century line drawings of Utamaro Kitagawa (Fig. 1); and the simple, graceful outlines of mothers and infants of Mary Cassatt’s Mother’s Kiss (Fig. 2). The stylistic characteristics also declare affinity with those of Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s in the 1920s (Fig. 3), fabricated with radically deformed planes and elaborated with sharply drawn lines that created subtle shadows, his children reflecting Cubist influences. Kuniyoshi’s scene, which integrates his childhood memory, is endowed with a sense of timeless nature, the children, like Nara’s, possessing eyes that look beyond the present space-time in which they exist. Reminiscent of Amedeo Modigliani’s portraitures with the typical elongated oval face, the graceful sinuous neck, and the almond-shaped eyes (Fig. 4), Nara’s condensed and simplified contours of head and body; subtle and rhythmic combinations of geometric form here are the destruction of the coherent, integral image of the human face and figure under the auspices of Cubism, imbuing the portraiture with a sculptural sense of threedimensionality. Recalling Modigliani’s portrayal of eyes with an engaging presence, Nara defines his portraiture’s irises in this work to lend them penetrating intensity, dominating the face and creating an enigmatic expression that conveys a true sense of the candid nature, heightening the sense that these eyes are windows into the soul. The eyes become the natural focal points for the viewer, magnetising us directly in front of the portrait. A process of interaction, rather than simple viewing, is encouraged. At once individualised yet conforming entirely to Nara’s quintessential children, this painting embodies the artist’s extraordinary ability to balance the generic with the unique, endemic and the particular, the abstract with the naturalistic, and capture the very essence of the figure.
The parallel between this work and that of Modigliani’s is even closer in its use of colour - the almost invisible modulation and incredibly delicate blending of hues to render alternatingly cool and warm skin. Here, in Northern Light, shifting away from the artist’s typically bold palette, Nara replaces brash hues with multilayered brushstrokes of soft violet, white and 93 pale blue, designed to thrust the head of the portrait into an almost sculptural relief relative to the deliberate flatness of the background. These colours, so dreamy and tender, form a strange contrast with the deliberately grouchy look on the figure's face, and that in fact adds a charming dimension to the painting. Coming from the northern Aomori prefecture, Nara has also taken his cue from snowy scenes. Look closely at the white he uses in his art and you may notice a slight blue tinge, caused by light scattering in ice crystals from the pure thick snow. Nara uses a visual syntax that evokes a vague otherworldly fantasy world full of exalted passions beyond the bounds of modern reality.
Rendered in a manner that approaches a serene universality, this work is similar to how Modigliani used portraiture as a means to explore an idealised aspect of humanity, an image of internal as well as external likeness. True to himself, Nara depicts his subjects in a similar pictorial language to capture the essence of humanity itself, that is compellingly subjective, intuitive and all his own. Northern Light is a silent conversation, a dialogue between his lines and ours. Northern Light is a silent conversation, a dialogue between his lines and ours.
A GLIMPSE INTO THE NOSTALGIA
The present work, with the words Northern Light written at the bottom of the composition, carries the same title as the sixth studio album by the Canadian-American rock group the Band, Northern Lights – Southern Cross, released in 1975. Every new portrait is an additional clue into this nostalgia, the works, a visual meditation on being a child - the freedom of being pure yet unruly, vulnerable yet unafraid. As he paints fervently in his studio against a background of rock music, Nara is laying down disjointed fragments of his own childhood memories.
“I was drawing a lot back then. I had no money to buy canvas because I spent it all buying records.” - Yoshitomo Nara (Y. Nara quoted in Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, Asia Society Museum, New York, 2010, p. 89)
Nara’s passion for rock music led him to amass an enormous collection of albums, which inspired his own imaginary album cover art as early as the 1970s. Many works from Nara contain direct references to his favourite musicians or song lyrics. Consumed by the anti-establishment spirit of punk and New Wave, identifying with its emotional intensity, Nara’s “never forget your beginner’s spirit” motto underlies much of his production, and constructs a defining bridge between high culture and popular culture.
In Northern Light, the spectacular fusion of sculptural and painterly style; tradition and novelty, illusionistic volume and modernist flatness; the individual idiosyncrasies of the children juxtaposed with the familiar, ongoing exploration of idealised form distinguishes Nara’s art as a whole.