Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959)
Property from an European Private Collection
YOSHITOMO NARA(Japanese, B. 1959)

Life is Only One!

YOSHITOMO NARA(Japanese, B. 1959)
Life is Only One!
acrylic on wood
195.5 x 410 x 7 cm. (76 7/8 x 161 3/8 x 2 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2007
Centro de Arte Contemporaneo de Mlaga, Yoshitomo Nara+graf- Torre de Mlaga, Ayuntamiento de Mlaga, Spain, 2007 (illustrated, pp. 54).
Bijutsu Shuppan Sha, Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works (Volume 1: Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs 1984-2010), 2011 (illustrated, plate. B-2007-003, p. 234).
Mlaga, Spain, Centro de Arte Contemporneo, Torre de Mlaga, 21 September 2008-6 January 2009.

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Eric Chang
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Lot Essay

Japanese society has been looking towards social reform and modernisation since the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). Western modern art philosophies and theories were imported into Japan by a group of enlightened theorists. As a result, a conflict arose between extreme conservatives and revolutionaries. Japanese artists have developed a unique Japanese aesthetic out of the "conflict, co-existence and harmony" of these extremes. This reflects hundreds of years of unyielding efforts. Born in the post-war era, Yoshitomo Nara benefited from the more convenient, accessible and efficient means to transmit information and travel. Consequently, compared to his predecessors, Nara was able to gain a more comprehensive overview on how East-West traditions have been integrated. He integrates these traditions in more organically in his own works.

Nara's artistic creations are easy to read; they reflect the artist's open-mindedness about learning from Western artistic traditions and demonstrate the unique manner by which the artist rejuvenates Japanese artistic traditions.
Life is Only One (Lot 31) is a rare example of Yoshitomo Nara's monumental works on wood panel. On the panel, the artist makes half-grammatical utterances in red bold font.
This practice is also found in the catalog raisonn? he published in 2011 and on his other billboard-type wood panel works. They are expressive of the artist's personal views about life and give the panel its shocking power. It cleverly presents a humanistic spirit in a contemporary commercial way.

In the painting, the girl figure appears to be deep in thought as she gazes at a skull she is holding. The painting makes allusions to Dutch paintings from the 16th and 17th century. In particular, it makes an exophoric reference to Frans Hals' Young Man holding a Skull (Fig. 1). Hal's painting serves as a reminder on the transience of life and meaninglessness of the material world. The skull (Fig. 2), emblematic of the inevitability of death is a standard symbol found in momento mori works. In the 1970s, Andy Warhol also took advantage of the skull motif in his Skull series (Fig. 3). Interestingly, Warhol's Skull series was spurred by the artist's need to express his own inspired feelings about death, after his near-death experience in the 1960s. As an Asian artist, Nara has also inevitably been influenced by Japanese culture. The atmosphere in Life is Only One evokes the mono no aware sentimentality coined in the Edo period. Mono no aware can be interpreted as the emotional response one experiences once they recognize beauty in the impermanence of life.

This emotion can be of joy, sadness, anger or terror and awe. Significantly, the notion of mono no aware reflects a distinct Japanese aesthetic notion. Standing in between "East" and "West" civilization, Nara's artistic works reflect the artist's individual point of view on life and existence. Life is Only One is representative of Nara's mature style. With precise lines, the artist outlines the head, eyes, figure and hands of the figure to create a sharp contrast in the picture. Upon first glance, the figure seems to be composed of geometric shapes that exemplify the beauty of pure abstraction. These geometric forms echo Paul Cezanne's geometric reconstructions of natural scenery. Nara's abstracted treatment of the head and face of the figure also call to mind the Cubist figures and the subjective realities of Picasso (Fig. 4).

Nara acknowledges the influence of
Motai Takeshi, a 20th Century illustrator of Japanese children picture books. He has even published children picture books and popular culture products himself. At the same time, his artistic notions have been deeply informed by traditional Japanese paintings. With the rising popularity of Zen Buddhism in the Kamakura period, ink wash painters began to represent the essence of figures with fewer strokes in a more rapid, gestural manner, getting rid of the constraints of objective representation. This can be observed in the works of Sengai Gibon, a Zen Buddhist from the Edo period (Fig. 5) In his works, he places emphasis on the subtle changes in the internal mind of the character instead of realistic external appearance. This can be seen from his unique way of exaggerating the features and contours of the figure. In traditional Ukiyo-e prints of Japanese courtesans, geishas and kabuki actors (figures from the floating world), artists also typically show close-ups of characters with an arresting expression and tense body language. The sense of flatness and colour contrasts found in resonates in Life is Only One. Nara does not only successfully spell out the similarities between his work and classical paintings in his treatment of figures, he also seamlessly borrows from the tradition of prints.

Nara was persistent in his search for a way to expand the expressive and interpretative possibilities of his works on a flat surface. Starting from the early 1990s, Nara began to think about the different effects he could create with different mediums as a way to accentuate the theme. In some of his works, he tears apart and reassembles pieces of a finished canvas. This gives the work an additional visual dimension as it introduces subtle changes to the effects of light and shadow. The textures of the collage are evocative of the mending function of bandages. This highlights the pain, loneliness, helplessness and despair of the sole lone figure. Starting from 2003, Nara began to work on top of a variety of different mediums other than canvas. Life is Only One is one of the artist's largest wood panel paintings to date. This work was exhibited at Nara's solo exhibition in Spain in 2007, where he also displayed fairytale-esque wooden houses he created as part of the YNG design group. He uses reclaimed wood to connect the different works of the exhibition. The wood shows signs of natural damage and wearing, as well as undulating patterns of wavy lines. In contrast to the softness and fragility of canvas, it has stronger, heavier and more 'masculine' qualities. The painting does not only exist on its own, it shows continuity to the wooden houses in the texture and pattern. The work clearly breaks away from traditional format. The surface of the painting is made up of a number of wood pieces that fit together. This again harks back at the wooden houses. By blurring the boundaries between painting and installation art, Nara greatly enhances the viewing experience of art.

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