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Bad Barber

Bad Barber
signed with artist’s signature, titled and dated ‘Bad Barber 2000’ (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
100 x 90 cm. (39 3⁄8 x 35 3⁄8 in.)
Painted in 2000
Galerie Zink, Munich
Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, Germany
Phillips de Pury & Company New York, 7 November 2005, lot 10
Private collection
Seoul Auction, 23 February 2006, lot 87
Private collection, Asia
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, Verlag fur moderne Kunst Nurnberg, Nurnberg, 2001 (illustrated, pp. 172, 199).
Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works Volume 1 - Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs, Bijutsu Shuppan Sha, Tokyo, 2011 (illustrated, plate P-2000-010, p. 166).

Brought to you by

Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

‘A rock musician can share mental impulses with his audience in real time depending on the beat or the warped guitar sound he play. Likewise, Nara realises something with his inner self as he uses his materials and simple images. His materials are his guitar, while images are his melody, his beat.’——Takashi Azumaya

A watershed year for Yoshitomi Nara, 2000 marks not only a turning point in his artistic development, but also his venture into the international art scene. In that year, after twelve years of sojourn in Germany, the artist returned to Japan and participated in SUPERFLAT, an exhibition spearheaded by the leading contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. In the following year, that exhibition travelled to a number of art museums abroad including the ones in Los Angeles and Seattle; it played an essential role in spreading his name across the world, which gradually became synonymous with Japanese contemporary art. Both created in 2000, the present work shares an identical composition with a work on paper that is currently resided in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. These two seminal works, therefore, attest to a critical moment as Nara turned to a new mode of aestheticism during this time. With the drastic adjustments in life and work come subtle changes in his pictorial idiom. Taking Bad Barber as an example: the expressive and bold lines from his early period that still reflect the influence of German Expressionism have been transformed into delicate and soft contour lines. Layers of overlapping colour planes build up a virtual space marked by its signature fog-like atmosphere that enwraps the figural subject—a poignant symbol of the insignificance of the self within the highly alienated adult society. Furthermore, the small tools that often show up in his early works are nowhere to be seen after 2000. Instead, the artist has opted for a more inward sensibility that brings to focus the subjects’ inner self—be it their emotional tension or psychological dissonance. The result is an all-the-more powerful pictorial language charged by emotional intensity. Bad Barber belongs to the last batch of important paintings that the artist created before his return to Japan. They are seen as the culmination of Nara’s many years of artistic experimentation and thus testify to his embrace of and sensitivity to pop culture as an international phenomenon. His little girl, perhaps, is a force of nature anchoring our desire to escape from the mundane world as we oscillate between her endearing look and mischievous behaviour.

The little girl in Bad Barber wears a red dress with a round collar. Red is the colour of life—not only does it call to mind the circulating blood that supports life, it also is the primary colour of our organic body. In semiotics, it represents the sanguine nature of life. Indeed, for centuries this colour has played a key role in art, literature, and life. Red in Christianity, for instance, connotes spiritual awakening—a sacred moment when the good triumphs over the bad. In ancient Rome, the red vexillum was a symbol of victory. Even today, this colour is still associated with revolution and courage. Meanwhile, ‘red dress’ as a pictorial motif often appears as a symbol of love and romance throughout history. Leading modern painters including Gauguin, Picasso, Modigliani, and Kahlo, all created portraits in which their subject dons a red dress. In the beginning of the 20th century, Modigliani eschewed the traditional convention to portraits and revolutionised the subject matter with his simplified lines and flat planes. A century later, Nara brought about yet another major shift in approach. By expanding on the concept of SUPERFLAT, he fused the wisdom inherited from the past century with his idiosyncratic understanding of aestheticism to formulate a new artistic language, one that touches the heart of many across the globe in the 21st century.

The frilly collar of the red dress is also known as Peter Pan collar. Its iconic design is based on the eponymous character in J. M. Barrie’s 1902 fantasy novel The Little White Bird. Never growing old, Peter Pan not only flies through the faerie dust in children’s dreams, but also stands in for the good old memories of every grown-up. Since the 1920s, this collar design inspired by Peter Pan has been the standard for kid’s fashion. By elevating this element from popular culture to the realm of art, Nara tells a story with Bad Barber about anxiety as felt by a generation of young people in face of reality. As in Marilyn Monroe by Warhol or the blondes by Lichtenstein, Nara’s little girl in a red dress is distinguished by her piercing gaze. It is thus no exaggeration to describe her as a symbol of the collective memory that belongs to a whole generation. As a lone fighter against the imperfection of the world, this little girl traverses time and provides us with the strength and courage required to go on.

Equally striking about Nara’s artistic approach is how he pieces together fragments of childhood memories, snapshots from pop culture, music that he listened to growing up, as well as an array of little things in life, in order to weave a coherent picture that speaks simultaneously to the personal as much as the emotional. In addition to paintings themselves, the artist often assigns to his works comical titles that are loaded with deep poetic associations. Bad Barber fortifies this approach with its unparalleled power in storytelling. As much as the title may evoke the image of a mischievous hair stylist, the little girl with her unkempt hair also appears to be giving someone the side-eye—she does not seem happy with the haircut this time. This apparently humorous interpretation is rooted in the artist’s larger approach to depicting the ‘little girl’. Beneath her innocent and cute face often hides a rebellious spirit waiting for its turn to fight back against the adults. The same can be said about Knife Behind Back, a painting that broke his global auction record. Here, the rebellious and oversized little girl—an oxymoron itself—appears to be hiding a knife somewhere behind her back. This indirect approach to the unseen is key to understanding Nara’s art for it provides an important clue allowing the viewer to go beyond the imaginary realm of the picture and also giving this singular flat imagery a metaphysical dimension. It is for this reason that Bad Barber holds an unshakable position in the history of portraiture. This interpretation also resonates with the art critic Stephan Trescher’s description in an essay about Nara’s consequential exhibition from 2000, Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket: '[Nara’s paintings] evoke the immediacy of children's feelings that his grownup audience had long forgotten but that were nevertheless preserved in the recesses of their minds. These feelings in turn gave them the strength to accept their own solitude and to understand life as an inextricable mixture of loss and hope' (S. Trescher, ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog’ in Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, Munich, 2001, p. 15).

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