The stylistic development of an artist is long and complicated. Upbringing, education, temperament, personal preference, aspiration, and other environmental factors all contribute to the formation of their style or serve as a catalyst for change. If Yoshitomo Nara did not travel to Germany on a whim to turn a new page in his artistic education, he probably would not have produced the same style of works twenty years later today. Being in a foreign land is lonely, but it is also refreshing and stimulating. This environment encourages remarkable qualitative changes in the artist’s creative thinking process. Living in Europe, he could not avoid the direct influence of Western modernist painting. German Neo-Expressionism, in particular, had heavily guided his paintings into a more liberated style in the early 1990s. Since Nara’s return to Japan in 2000, his style underwent yet another transformation, and he accumulated much life experiences as well as further honed his artistic skills - all these factors had precipitated into a new expression. The decisive and bold outlines from his younger days have now been smoothed out by gentle brushstrokes; the young female protagonist who is eternally youthful and rambunctious has now matured and became introverted. It is apparent in many of his recent works that the Nara had shifted his focus from the subject matter of rebellion to topics that require more quiet contemplations. The 2010 work Midnight Vampire (Lot 53) thoroughly demonstrates this major transformation.
The girl in Midnight Vampire sits squarely in the centre of the painting in front of a gloomy background. The glow on her face highlights the warmth in her countenance which exudes an air of sacrosanctity. The little cross on top of her head clearly suggests religious associations. In terms of subject matter and composition, interesting parallels can be drawn between this work and Salvator Mundi by the 16th century Renaissance painter Andrea Previtali (Fig. 1). The crosses on top of the little girl’s head in Nara’s work and the glass orb in Previtali’s work represent cruxifixction and sacrifice in Christianity. They represent love and salvation. With her eyes closed, the peaceful expression on the girl’s face demonstrates the daily praying rituals of the followers of Christ and conveys the message of faith, hope, and love. The 2009 census reports that less than one percent of the Japanese population are Christians. It is possible that the girl in Nara’s painting is representing the minority who has Western beliefs in the Japanese population. She could also represent the billions of Christians around the globe. According to Nara’s catalogue raisonné, the cross symbol made repeated appearances in his works in the late 1980s. Crosses were also placed on top of the head of wooden sculptures. However, this symbol was rarely found again in the next twenty years until the appearance of Midnight Vampire. Its significance cannot be understated.
Contradiction and juxtaposition have always been two characteristic elements in Nara’s works. The little girl is a reoccurring subject in Nara’s work. While it is customary to bring out the guileless side of a young female character, Nara often portrays her engaging in reckless behaviours such as fighting, smoking, obsessing over anti-establishment Rock and Roll music, or sometimes even pairing her image with profanities in English. This element of surprise is a critical component for the infectious power of the work. Without exception, Midnight Vampire is yet another work that is full of contradicting imageries. The posture and facial expression convey the reverence and devotion of a religious painting. Yet, the fangs protruding from the corners of her mouth and the reference to vampire in the title point to a dark undercurrent beneath this tranquil expression. This ambiguity is reminiscent of the work Love and Pain (Fig. 2) by 19th century Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. Munch’s work depicts a woman kissing a man in an embrace. Yet, compositionally, viewers often read the image as the man being trapped in the clutches of a vampire. The title Love and Pain also hints at the complicated nature of love and the internal struggles experienced when two people try to find harmony in a contradictory relationship. The duality expressed in Munch’s work is echoed in Midnight Vampire. The cross and the fangs occupy an extremely small amount of space on the canvas. Yet, they have assumed tremendously powerful positions on the figure. Like an epic battle between good and evil, the body of the girl becomes a spiritual battleground. This character could be a midnight vampire who had surrendered to religion. She could also be traitor who forsook the teachings of Christ. Nara intricately constructed an open imagery as a metaphor for the possibility of extreme polarities in the human nature.
Other than to protect the artwork and enhance the decorative qualities of the piece, the picture frame can also serve as a window to another realm (Fig. 3). In the context of contemporary art where an emphasis is placed on releasing the character within the medium itself, any extraneous material to the work will be included in the reading. The wooden frame of Midnight Vampire was not chosen by the collector. It is a visual language that was arranged purposefully by Nara. It is true that the classical wooden frame in golden yellow has a distinctly decorative flavour. But its style perfectly complements the aforementioned religious atmosphere. The colour of the wood also accentuates the colour of the wooden cross on top of the girl’s head. It is no mere coincident - the classical frame acts as a mediator and sets the tone for the entire painting.
The female characters in Nara’s paintings often have large doe eyes. The unrealistically disproportionate pupils serve as channels that let the viewers reach into the subject’s spirit and soul. The genes of this type of character modelling are inherited from traditional Japanese paintings as well as Ukiyo-e (Fig. 4). Eyes are able to emote joy, anger, desperation, and grief - their ability to express completely transcends the possibility of language. Nara often paints contemplative figures who have their eyes closed. In addition, the artist allows the figure in Midnight Vampire to frontally face the audience in a half portrait format. This treatment reduces much of the agitation, rebellion, and extroversion from the girl. Looking at her mature composure, viewers cannot decipher what she is thinking. Her smile and quietude seem to be telling every viewer that the material world is but a reverie. The only thing that is worthy of pursuit is spiritual investigation. The coming of age of Nara’s girl has also heralded a new development in Nara’s artistic career.