The 19th century was when Japan experienced rapid widespread drive to engage with the rest of the world. The government actively introduced Western modern philosophies and technologies during the Meiji Restoration that began in 1868. However, extreme conservatives adamantly advocated the restoration of the traditional way of life, with reformists strong believers in absolute westernisation, leading to extended conflicts between the two sides. After World War II, the Japanese political system underwent extensive restructuring, with ideological liberation propelling cultural trends, forming the unique Japanese style that blended together “conflicts, coexistence, and fusion”. The art world also began assertively pondering on what constitutes as the Japanese style, with pioneering Gutai artists emerged in the 50s opening up a gate to the world. The post-war generation also keenly explored Japan’s cultural resources and personal lifestyle experiences, seeking to establish an iconic art image.
Yoshitomo Nara, born 1959 in Aomori, Japan, is an exceptional Japanese artist whose unique children and animal portrayals that fuse together Japanese and Western art essences are quite remarkable. Eastern Youth (Lot 22) is one of his quintessential oil portrait paintings. While exuding a light-heartedness that echoes with commercial illustration or comics, it also projects a rich sense of classical aestheticism, with a simple image like this serving to reflect one of Japan’s contemporary art’s developmental directions and accomplishments.
The formation of a particular artistic style is a complex and arduous process. Yoshitomo Nara predominately worked with illustrations in the early stage of his career. He began to explore genres of fine art in the 80s after studying in the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Germany. Europe was in the midst of a rising wave of neo-expressionism that focused on treatments of heavy brushwork and contorted shapes; Nara thus began demonstrating similar aesthetics during this period, working with pronounced shapes and forms and vibrant colours. His brushwork gradually became more delicate and smooth in the 90s. With colours that are warmer and visually gentler, rich layers and subtle variations are perceived upon closer inspection, with his paintings on canvas showcasing exceptional notable features. Eastern Youth is an artwork that stylistically strays away from restrictions of objective realism. The head of the child is in an hourglass shape, with the eyes, nose, and mouth depicted with simple lines, highlighting the Asian painting tradition of creating shapes with the use of lines. The artist also deliberately treated the face, facial features, body, and background in a simple manner, seeking to create the sense of playfulness found in Western modern art through the use of geometric shapes (Fig. 1-2).
Single portrait has always been Yoshitomo Nara’s favourite painting subject, and he has been creating half-length portraits or paintings of single enlarged heads since the 90s. His compositional approach is closely related to the globally celebrated genre of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Ukiyo-e became quite popular in the Edo period, and consisted mainly of images of beautiful women, folk customs, or landscapes. The early Edo period was a time of social stability and prosperity, giving rise to the philosophy of hedonism, with people enjoying life as if it was all just an elusive dream. People idolised geishas and actors, resulting in ukiyo-e prints of actors that were used for promotional purposes, similar to modern day posters of celebrities. Bust portrait became popular in order to accentuate facial features. Kitagawa Utamaro was the pioneer of the style, and the legendary Toshusai Sharaku also specialised in the genre and added more exaggerated techniques to enhance personal features and to highlight and capture the subjects’ momentary expressions (Fig. 3). The child depicted in Eastern Youth is not a celebrity idol, but in Yoshitomo Nara’s eyes, he or she is an individual that needs to be emphasised, and just like the characters in those Edo period bust portraits, this child can be seen as a shiny, eye-catching character as well.
Sophisticated brushwork, harmonious colours, or balanced composition can all elevate the aesthetics of a painting. Eastern Youth encompasses all of these elements, and a subtle sense of loneliness is exuded from the painting with the calm and collected child set against an empty backdrop. The child in the painting is not provided with a tangible subject for him/her to communicate with, but the child’s forward-facing gaze seems to be directed at the audience, hoping to directly engage in interactions with them, with everything unfolding silently. Yoshitomo Nara recalls his childhood as a period of extreme loneliness, and he also felt a sense of detachment from the world due to the language barrier when he was studying in Germany. The lonely child in his paintings can be seen as a portrayal of himself, but the paintings also serve as reflections of real-world interpersonal relationships. When the audience’s sympathy and compassion are evoked by the child in the painting, this echoes with the traditional Japanese aesthetic ideal of mono no aware (an empathy toward things), an aesthetical state that transcends beyond the external world. Mono no aware denotes feelings induced by life’s reality. These natural feelings can be elation, anger, or sadness, but can result in an aesthetic that is harmonious. This abstract and subjective aestheticism requires direct participation of the audience, with the sensitive changes in sentiments slowly savoured.
Symmetry is something commonly observed in nature, and it is also a perpetual mystery for mankind. Symmetry observed in the world of biology and physics has directly impacted human creativities, including such disciplines as painting, sculpture, and architecture. The ancient Greek Pythagoreans held that perfection was to be found in symmetry. Symmetry is able to visually exude a sense of harmony and poise, while also able to stabilise human emotions. The child in Eastern Youth is positioned in the center and is looking forward. Upon first look, the composition appears rather ordinary and simple, but Yoshitomo Nara is not seeking to achieve perfection in symmetry. With closer inspection, it can be observed that the child’s eye, nostrils, and shape of the mouth are all slightly asymmetrical, revealing traces of human gestures as this is, after all, a hand-painted artwork. More profoundly, Eastern Youth also demonstrates asymmetrical, imperfect, impermanence, and simple features that echo with the traditional Japanese aestheticism known as wabi-sabi (Fig. 4). It is human nature to yearn for perfection, and perhaps, in the eyes of the Japanese people and Yoshitomo Nara, they have come realize that perhaps imperfection is the one true beauty in life and an eternal truth.
Yoshitomo Nara is an artist who is devoted in the depiction of humanity. Different traits and emotions are perceived from his paintings. National modernisation was not completed in Japan’s Meiji period, because human rights and equality were not established. It wasn’t until post-World War II that Japan was truly liberated from its feudal tradition, with the introduction of people-oriented Western modern philosophy elevating the value of people. Eastern Youth was completed after the turn of the second millennium in human history. Embarking on a new era, Yoshitomo Nara has created this simple human portrait by bringing together modern philosophy and traditional aesthetics. His endeavour has validated his exceptional artistic talent as a contemporary Japanese artist and also his ability to surpass the superficial and to directly deal with what’s spiritual and heartfelt.