Best known for his unsettling portraits of children, Yoshitomo Nara’s work blends new and old ideas of Japanese identity
1. Nara was drawn to the big city
Yoshitomo Nara was born in 1959 in Hirosaki, a city known for its traditional Edo Period (1603-1868) architecture and cherry blossom trees. 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 communicating verbally with humans.’
In his teens, Nara moved to Nagakute to study art at the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music, eventually leaving Japan for Germany in 1988. At the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where he studied until 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.
‘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 album covers, 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 for a period in Berlin further shaped his outlook. ‘In Berlin 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.’
2. His style blended new and old
After 12 years in Germany, Nara returned to Japan to pursue a career as a painter. 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 anime and manga cartoons he read as a child. His compositions nodded to historical Edo period ukiyo-e woodblock prints.
3. 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 lurid colours, patterns, and Japanese cartoon motifs to examine the country's hyper-marketed and hyper-consumerist culture, which was increasingly mistrusted by Japanese youth.
4. 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.
Yet if Nara's mini subjects are 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.’
Asked why most of the figures in paintings are girls, Nara once replied: ‘I don’t think of her as a girl because it is a neutral image. It is just something that popped into my mind and I have not thought about it. For me, there is no distinct sex because people become men or women when they grow up. Children are more neutral. That is the way I see them.’
5. 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 — more than three times its low estimate.
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 crafts.
‘There seemed to be a division between artists who were successful and unsuccessful, and that society had drawn lines that determine what you could do based on this kind of label,’ Nara said in 2013 of his move to ceramics. ‘I felt uncomfortable with being given a certain label, whether it was positive or negative. And I remembered that I’d long forgotten how I had started my career. I realised that I’d long neglected the “conversation with myself’’, which had been the foundation of my creative activity. So I quit collaboration works and started working with ceramics to restart the conversation.’
6. He has continued to experiment with other materials
Nara continued to expand his practice, making figurines and miniature houses designed as habitats for his characters. He says that he admires Renaissance portraiture: ‘I’m more aware of classical techniques,’ he said in 2014. ‘The same goes for the sculptures. I work in the same way as Henry Moore!’
7. The Fukushima earthquake in 2011 had a profound impact on his production
Deeply disturbed by the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and its aftermath, 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. I was quite depressed and unstable for quite some time, but then I saw people from that devastated area starting to come back and they started again.’
Nara visited the site of the devastation several times, and took up a residency at the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music in a bid to reignite his creativity.
8. 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.
In his native Japan, Nara’s figures have become instantly recognisable. Today, his images of children from the early 2000s are considered among his most important works, while his simplest compositions often command the highest prices.
Nara continues to work in a variety of materials in his two studios in Germany and Japan. But he keeps a low profile and eschews social media, which he claims distract his artistic pursuits. That said, he has admitted that he plays ‘deafeningly loud’ music while he works.
9. 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.’
10. He resists being categorised
In a 2015 interview Nara said, ‘Humans might have a common personality based on the town and environment they were raised in, to some extent, but you shouldn’t be able to judge people under 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’.