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Be Happy

Be Happy
signed in Japanese, titled, inscribed and dated 'Be Happy '95 in L.A.' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
30 x 30 in. (76 x 76 cm.)
Painted in 1995.
Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
Private collection, Seattle
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, London, 14 October 2006, lot 44
Private collection, Asia
Acquired from the above by the present owner
N. Miyamura and S. Suzuki, eds., Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works, Volume 1: Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs 1984-2010, Tokyo, 2011, pp. 122 and 382, no. P-1995-037 (illustrated).
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Lot Essay

Having developed an instantly recognizable style in the 1990s, Yoshitomo Nara was one of the first contemporary Japanese artists to attain international acclaim. With his finger on the pulse of late twentieth-century international culture, the artist has encapsulated a generational dissatisfaction in an oeuvre filled with dynamic characters that walk the line between devilish and dainty. Be Happy is an important example of Nara’s early paintings that he completed while living in Germany after receiving a degree from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. The darling protagonist is equal parts impish and unnerving, a dichotomy that is prevalent in the artist’s signature style as exemplified in his so-called Ramonas, a family of feisty characters that share a moniker (and haircut) with one of the artist’s favorite bands, The Ramones.

Channeling a punk ethos mixed with a love of Western rock and roll and illustrated children’s books, Nara has established a solid visual language upon which he has built a far-reaching career. “I paint, making whatever I want, however I want,” he’s noted rather coyly. “Maybe it’s just twists and turns of the ego, and lots of dead time, but action easily banishes worry. To be able to transform the thoughts of the heart into work in the outside world is a lucky gift. It hardly matters if what takes shape is a mix of good and bad” (Y. Nara, quoted in K. Chambers, Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens, exh. cat., Cleveland, Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008, p. 4). Though seemingly flippant about the influential breadth of his prodigious output, Nara’s ability to imbue cartoon dogs and knife-wielding waifs with very real historical and emotional weight cannot be overstated.

Rendered on a square pale background, Be Happy depicts a bust-length portrait of a surly young girl. Wearing a light blue t-shirt, she grips a small knife in her fingerless hand. The head is lentoid and oversized, as is usual with Nara’s subjects, and lends the figure a cartoony, cherubic air. Any sweetness, however, is countered by the large, narrowed green eyes that stare menacingly from under a small shock of brown hair. The mouth is pursed tightly, entirely painted in one red stripe beneath almost snakelike nostrils that seem to be set directly into the face, devoid of any real nose. This girl and her kin are often read as “symbolic representation[s] of the dominant feelings of Japanese youth in the late 1990s and early 2000s, characterised by a sense of uncertainty about the future, vulnerability, and a yearning for the innocence preserved in the inner child” (M. Matsui, “Art for Myself and Others: Yoshitomo Nara's Popular Imagination”, in M. Chiu, et al. (eds.), Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, exh. cat., Asia Society Museum, 2010, p. 13). Using these characters as stand-ins for a generation of young people at the dawn of the twenty-first century, Nara creates an iconic presence that resonates with a vast audience in Japan and beyond. The girl is neither inherently good nor evil, but her countenance suggests a pointed outlook on the future, and the knife she clutches seems intended for something less milquetoast than cutting her vegetables.

Though a cursory look at the artist’s oeuvre might lend one to think he is closely tied to the superficial aspects of kawaii culture like Sanrio’s Hello Kitty and other boisterous cartoons that hinge upon a feeling of shyness and cutesy features, there are actually myriad historical layers to be found. Included in his contemporary Takashi Murakami’s theorization of ‘SUPERFLAT’, a new wave of distinctly Japanese Pop Art that flourished at the crux of post-WWII Japanese capitalism and traditional values, Nara’s canvases effectively combine disparate styles to create a new visual language. Rather than embrace animation, manga, and other imagery from popular culture like Murakami and artists like Mr. and Chiho Aoshima, Nara looked to the illustrations of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and the early twentieth-century imagery of Takeshi Motai. “I don't dislike manga,” Nara has explained, “but I'm not interested in it, and I don't watch animé at all” (Y. Nara, interview with M. Chiu, “A Conversation with the Artist”, M. Chiu et al. (eds.), op. cit., p. 175). He furthers this historical bent by connecting to the ukiyo-e prints of the Edo Period that influenced generations of European artists while also noting the influence of Zen Buddhism on the history of figure painting and the decorative styles of the Rinpa School.

Often one can be hard-pressed to find a concrete reading in Nara’s works, as they hum with a surprising visual and psychological depth. “Rather than merely offering the work for the viewers to see face-on, I want to trigger their imaginations,” Nara has noted of this aspect. “This way, each individual can see my work with his or her own unique, imaginative mind…Maybe an exhibition is not where I present my achievement but an experimental place where visitors find an opportunity to see themselves reflected as though my work were a mirror or a window” (Y. Nara in conversation with M. Chin, “A Conversation With The Artist,” M. Chiu et al. (eds.), op. cit., p. 179). In the 1990s, when works like Be Happy were created, Nara began to eliminate background elements in order to cast more attention on the central subjects and their temperaments. By doing so, each work became a sort of character study that sought to reflect the viewer’s own perceptions back upon themselves. This allowed the artist to hone in on specific emotional states connected to various stages of a child’s evolving psyche that have repercussions later in life. Though his compositions became more stark and forthright in their graphic sensibility, the cultural and psychological subtext expanded exponentially.

Born in 1959, Nara grew up in Post-War Japan during a time when the country was flooded with Western pop culture. Caught between traditional Japanese imagery and the cartoons of Walt Disney and Warner Brothers, the artist developed a cross-cultural appreciation for art that extended into his time at university. After receiving his MFA at the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Art and Music, he began honing in on his signature style while continuing his studies and work in Germany. He accepted a short teaching appointment in California in 1998 before finally returning home in 2000. Crafting a more global dialogue throughout his drawings, canvases, and sculptures, Nara highlights the confluence of Japanese ideologies with Western aesthetics. Frequently referencing his childhood experience as a ‘latch-key’ kid during the American occupation of Japan, he invokes a sense of loneliness tempered by a singular strength and resilience that resonates with entire generations raised on the hustle of capitalism and the comforting embrace of cartoons and rock and roll. As art historian Stephan Trescher intones, “Nara's roly-poly children balance on the razor's edge: they are cute embodiments of infantilism in their chubby-cheeked plumpness. They are the incarnated cry for baby food and love - but at the same time true individuals who will not be defeated, quiet carriers of hope” (S. Trescher, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog” in S. Trescher et al., Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, Munich 2001, p. 15). Through his masterfully evolved iconography, Nara creates symbols of confidence and aspiration for a population of individuals floundering in the cultural barrage of the digital age. Works like Be Happy act as touchstones for those set adrift in an ever-changing world and challenge the viewer to stand their ground.

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