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Property from the Stefan T. Edlis Collection


Nara, Y.
signed in Japanese, titled and dated 'Julien 2012' (on the reverse)
acrylic and jute mounted on wood
71 x 63 in. (180.5 x 160.5 cm.)
Painted in 2012.
Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2014
Y. Nara, Yoshitomo Nara: Self-selected WorksPaintings, Kyoto, 2015, p. 123 (illustrated).
The Yoshitomo Nara Foundation, Yoshitomo Nara: The Works, digital, ongoing, no. YNF5631 (illustrated).
London, Stephen Friedman Gallery, Study for the Human Body, March-April 2014.

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Lot Essay

Boldy representative of his iconic visual language, Yoshitomo Nara’s Julien is a contemplative example of the artist’s celebrated figurative lexicon. Beloved for their emotive, and often playfully mischievous, dispositions, Nara’s eclectic cast of children elicit feelings which oscillate between remnants of childhood nostalgia and the complex experiences of adulthood. In Nara’s world, toddlers with cropped hair confidently strum electric guitars, swear like sailors, play with matches, and wield knives.

The present work stars a simultaneously cherubic and sinister young boy who stares into the distance as he urinates off the canvas. While Nara’s characters are typically sparked by original narratives, the present work borrows iconography from a historic Dutch landmark of a similarly stout, knavish figure, Mannekin Pis (Dutch for “Little Pissing Man”). This fountain feature has been shrouded in famous myths and cultural traditions since its origination in the 15th century—most famously commemorating Julianeske (Dutch for “Little Julien”), who is believed to have saved the city of Brussels by urinating on the fuses of explosives planted at the city wall by invaders. Irreverent and absurd, yet simultaneously jovial, the present work speaks to Nara’s greater creative ethos and masterful ability to fuse humor and punk rock aesthetics into poignant portraiture.

Julien also distinguishes itself through the use of a softened, shaded figure rendered in grayscale, as opposed to the artist’s typical use of more bold and blocky colors and lines. The patchwork background—created using jute—gives the work an arresting dimensionality while simultaneously emphasizing the grittiness of the child’s disposition. This texture, paired with the work’s breathtaking scale, makes Julien a striking example of Nara’s talent as a draughtsman and articulator of culture and complicated human emotions.

Nara was raised in rural Japan in the 1960s and 70s. He spent much of his time as a child alone, which immensely influenced his artistic output into adulthood. The toys and posters in his bedroom fostered his fantastical imagination and seeped into his artwork, which is “usually distorted to a certain extent, making it difficult to tell whether they are living people or dolls,” (S. Takahashi, “Miss Spring Waits for the World,” in NARA Yoshimoto: a bit like you and me... exh. cat., Yokohama Museum of Art, the Aomori Museum of Art and Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto, 2012, p. 130). During his coming of age, he immersed himself in Western culture, often tuning into the local American military base radio station, which exposed him to punk and rock-and-roll music. During his teen years, the Vietnam War unfolded, and he experienced the conflict through television and photographs. Art and music became outlets for his anger and frustration in response to the war, and this rebellious spirit reveals itself clearly in his body of work.

While many critics and viewers have drawn comparisons between Nara’s work and manga or anime, he has stated that children’s books have had a much more profound impact on his style and technique. He reads both Western and Japanese picture books, drawing inspiration from the illustrations. When asked in an interview if he is at all influenced by the—at times—violent themes of fairytales, considering the macabre and seditious tone of his work, he stated that he never reads “into” them, (M. Chiu, “A Conversation with the Artist,” in Yoshimoto Nara: Nobody’s Fool, exh. cat., Asia Society Museum, New York, 2010, p. 175). Nara has always been elusive about his process and the meaning of his work, leaving viewers to interpret the juxtaposition of kawaii “cuteness” and coarse social commentary.

The charm and intrigue of the contradictions that exist in Nara’s paintings are uniquely illustrated in Julien. While a divergence from more archetypal Nara paintings, Julien’s subtle subversion and monochromatic tranquility attest to Nara’s unique aesthetic achievements that have captured the attention of collectors and critics around the world.

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