Yoshitomo Nara: ‘Even if I knew there would be no one out there to look at my work, I would still make the exact same thing’

A look at how the neo-Pop artist associated with the Superflat movement blends new and old ideas of Japanese identity — illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

Yoshitomo Nara, The Little Pilgrims (Night Walking), 1999

Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959), The Little Pilgrims (Night Walking), 1999. Acrylic, lacquer, and cotton on FRP, sculpture. Edition: 9/10. Height: 72 cm (28⅜ in). Sold for HK$4,284,000 on 28 May 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Nara was transformed by his time in Germany

Yoshitomo Nara was born in 1959 in Hirosaki, a city known for its traditional Edo Period (1603-1868) architecture and cherry blossom trees, in Japan’s mountainous northern Aomori Prefecture. The youngest of three boys of working parents, he spent much of his free time lost in Japanese comic books. ‘I was lonely, and music and animals were a comfort,’ he admitted. ‘I could communicate better with animals, without words, than verbally with humans.’

Nara moved to Tokyo in his teens, and then to Nagakute when he was 21 to study art at the Aichi University of the Arts, before leaving Japan for Germany. At the prestigious Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where he studied from 1988 to 1993, Nara became fascinated with Neo-Expressionism and punk rock; both of these movements would shape his artistic style, although he denies punk was his only musical influence. He settled in Cologne in 1994, a pivotal time for the artist as he began to incorporate Japanese and Western popular culture into his work.

Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959), Sanchan with Shark “In the Room”, 1984. Acrylic on canvas. 130 x 130 cm (51⅛ x 51⅛ in). Sold for HK$10,055,000 on 28 May 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

‘It is a big mistake to connect my art to punk alone,’ he told the Financial Times  in 2014. ‘My work is always linked to recognisable punk albums [including covers for Shonen Knife and Bloodthirsty Butchers], but folk music record covers are really important. There was no museum where I grew up so my exposure to art came from the album covers.’

Living in Germany further shaped his outlook. ‘I was a foreigner and I had no language skills, so I felt very much isolated,’ he said. ‘It was like growing up in Aomori, which is very much disconnected from Japan. It reminded me of who I am and helped me rediscover myself.’

His style blended old and new

After 12 years in Germany, Nara returned to Japan, where a seminal solo exhibition I DON’T MIND, IF YOU FORGET ME  was held at the Yokohama Museum of Art in 2001. In his work, he began fusing elements from his past; he painted portraits of children with facial features adopted from traditional Japanese Otafuku  and Okame  theatrical masks, and in poses lifted from the manga  he read as a child. His compositions also nodded to historical Edo period ukiyo-e  woodblock prints.

Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959), Nowhere Bunny in Somewhere, 1998. Acrylic and graphite on canvas. 48 x 40.6 cm (19 x 16 in). Sold for HK$19,130,000 on 28 May 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

He became part of the Superflat group of artists

Around 2001, Nara became associated with an avant-garde group of Japanese artists known as Superflat, which also included Takashi Murakami and Chiho Aoshima. They used bright colours, patterns, and Japanese cartoon motifs to examine the country’s hyper-marketed and hyper-consumerist culture, which was increasingly mistrusted by Japanese youth.

Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959), KAMEHAME - HA, 2004. Acrylic on cotton mounted on FRP. Diameter: 55.2 cm (21¾ in). Sold for HK$8,820,000 on 28 May 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Nara’s portraits hide a darker side

Nara soon became known among his Superflat  peers for his pictures of young children. Seemingly innocent at first glance, a closer look reveals a darker side to these boys and girls, who brandish knives, crucifixes and flaming torches, or sport vampire fangs and smoke cigarettes.

Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959), Night Fishing, 1995. Acrylic on canvas. 100 x 100 cm (39⅜ x 39⅜ in). Sold for HK$22,155,000 on 28 May 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Yet if Nara’s diminutive subjects are (usually) no angels, their aggressive posturing is perhaps a necessary defence. As Nara once said of his work, ‘I kind of see the children among other, bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives.’

Nara’s reputation has grown with his oeuvre

In the 2000s Nara’s work began to tour in group and solo exhibitions in Japan and America, and his prices rocketed. In 2008 Christie’s sold Nara’s 1995 painting of a child in an orange hat, Yr. Childhood, for HK$6,487,5000. It sold again at Christie’s in Hong Kong for HK$19,720,000 in 2015. Wish World Peace, a painting from 2014, sold for HK$97,090,000 at Christie’s in Hong Kong on 26 May 2022.

Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959), Dead of Night, 2004. Acrylic on cotton mounted on FRP. 70 x 70 x 10 in (180 x 180 x 26.5 cm). Sold for £2,291,250 on 12 February 2020 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Yoshitimo Nara

Nara also began experimenting with other mediums, sculpting heads of figures from his paintings. These works, which retain impressions from the artist’s hands, are often coated in liquid metal that cracks like the glaze on Song dynasty Chinese ceramics. In sculpture as in painting, Nara again harmonised modern and centuries-old craft.

The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 had a profound impact on his production

Deeply affected by the earthquake and tsunami, Nara found himself temporarily unable to work. ‘I think what is different about those artists who were affected by the earthquake is that I grew up in Aomori, which is on the border of Fukushima,’ Nara revealed in 2016.

‘The whole area between us and Fukushima was devastated; the whole scenery I was familiar with has been destroyed. For some people with no relation to the area they may be affected as an artist, but in my case I was a lot more affected on a personal level because I know people who were lost.’

Nara visited the site of the devastation several times, and took up a residency at his alma mater, Aichi University of the Arts, in a bid to reignite his creativity.

Nara has been exhibited all over the world

Nara’s reputation outside of Asia had already been cemented by a major 2010 show at New York’s Asia Society, Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool. This was bolstered by permanent acquisitions by MoCA in Los Angeles and MoMA in New York, which now houses more than 130 of his works. The Los Angeles County Museum of Arts held a major retrospective of his work in 2021-22.

Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959), Can’t Wait ’til the Night Comes, 2012. Acrylic on canvas. 76⅛ x 72⅛ in (193.2 x 183.2 cm). Sold for HK$92,875,000 on 23 November 2019 at Christie’s in Hong Kong. Artwork: © Yoshitimo Nara

The monumental six-feet high 2012 work Can’t Wait ’til the Night Comes, which sold for HK$92,875,000 in 2019, has been selected for forthcoming exhibitions planned around the world.

Nara denies that his work contains overt cultural or political messages

‘In my case, it is not about the country or the people or categories,’ the artist told Ocula  magazine in 2016. ‘I am just trying to express individual things, so for people keen to understand things on that level my work will probably resonate. Basically my approach is that it doesn’t matter if there is an audience out there. Even if I knew there would be no one out there to look at my work, I would still make the exact same thing.’

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He resists being categorised

‘Humans might have a common personality based on the town and environment they were raised in, Nara said in 2015 interview, ‘but you shouldn’t be able to judge people by the same standard.’ It is an approach that has been warmly received by the art world; Roberta Smith, the respected American art critic, has described Nara as ‘one of the most egalitarian visual artists since Keith Haring’.

He likes to keep his profile low and his volume high

Today, Nara’s images of children from the early 2000s — described by a 2020 Phaidon monograph as ‘those big-headed girls’ — are considered among his most important and sought-after compositions.

He continues to work in a variety of materials at his home studio in Tochigi Prefecture, but prefers to keep a low profile. He claims that social media is a distraction to his artistic pursuits but admits to playing ‘deafeningly loud’ music while he works.

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