Since the Meiji Revolution, western aesthetic has massively influenced and coexisted with traditional Japanese ideologies. This model of “conflict, coexistence, and harmony” became a feature in Japanese modernist aesthetic. Born in 1959, the changes in modern Japan enabled Yoshitomo Nara to benefit from this cultural exchange. His approach to combining western and eastern cultural elements is truly remarkable in presenting a coherent visual language.
In 1988, Yoshitomo Nara went to Germany to continue his studies, and the Neo-expressionism movement that was dominant in Germany at the time left a lasting impression on him. In the late 1990s, he turned his attention to responding to iconic techniques and compositions in art history with his portraits of children.
Departing from the bold outlines and the highly vibrant palette that characterized the artist’s early works made in the late 1990s, Yoshitomo Nara’s style has now become much more nuanced— his characters exude an air of poetry. His use of pastel colour and meticulous brushwork is an homage to his favourite Early Renaissance works. Nara once said, “I especially love the translucent colours of Giotto and Piero della Francesca. The surface texture of fresco painting contains a space that I can enter easily. […] I also love Giotto’s painting because it makes me feel the strength of a believer.”
In Sleepless Night (Cat), an innocent child is centrally positioned on the canvas in front of a reduced background. Despite its simplicity, the narrative is sophisticated. The black background introduces a texture that suggests the child is under the shroud of the night. The protagonist gazes up into the distance. Her vampiric canine teeth and demonic pupils make the viewers question the identity of the subject. Is this a Halloween costume, or do the viewers have to come to terms with the grim reality of the subject’s true identity? The little girl is pure. Yet, she is not without melancholy, wickedness, and mischief. The artist has given the viewer an open narrative with this picture in order to draw their emotions into this work. All the answers to the mystery can be found in this sleepless night.
The subject of the child constantly appears in Yoshitomo Nara’s works. Its symbolism is apparent. As the artist repeats this symbol in his art, and the system of these signs are disseminated and interpreted. The way in which the content is being transmitted is the core idea of the the artist. Yoshitomo Nara embodies his ideas into an adorable and pure child. In the most direct and innocent way, he cautions, confesses, and exclaims to the world his feelings of ennui, helplessness, sadness, and longing in an attempt to reawaken a piece of tranquility in everyone — it is a piece of purity that resides within the hearts of those who are lost within the doldrum of the everyday.
Yoshitomo Nara is a quintessential thinker in the post-war Japanese art world. His experience with the Germany Neo-expressionist movement compelled him to return to his roots and delve into his native culture. The result is his idiosyncratic portraiture style which is an amalgamation of western classical technique and Japanese Ukiyo-e composition. In Sleepless Night (Cat) , the face and the body of the subject receive a flat treatment. This style of rendering and the reduced composition are similar to the format of manga — it is a sublimation of traditional Japanese visual language.
Either as a religious object of worship or an instrument that display the power of the aristocrats, portraiture has always had a significant role and practical meaning in our culture. Using the subject of children as his manifesto, Yoshitomo Nara declares to the world his existential meaning, agency, and autonomy. With a simplistic representation, he is able to formulate a plea that conveys sophisticated philosophical thinking.
Born in Aomori, Japan in 1959, Yoshitomo Nara received his MFA from Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Art and Music in 1987. He then studied at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1988 to 1993. After that, he stayed in Germany and continued to work in Cologne. In 1998, he was invited to be a guest professor at University of California, Los Angeles for three months. In 2000, he returned to Japan where he currently resides and works in Tochigi, Japan.
His works emphasize personal emotions, a theme which he has pursued since the 1990s through the rich imagery of animal and children. As one of Japan's most internationally influential contemporary artists, Nara's works are collected by important museums, including The Art Institute of Chicago (USA), British Museum (UK), The Museum of Modern Art, New York (USA), Aomori Museum of Art (Japan), Leeum Samsung Museum of Art (Korea) and Neues Museum (Germany).
His major solo exhibitions include I Don't Mind, If You Forget Me (2001, touring exhibition in Japan, Yokohama Museum of Art and others), Nothing Ever Happens (2003-2005, touring exhibition in USA, Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland and others), From the Depth of My Drawer (2004, touring exhibition in Japan and Korea, Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo and others), Nobody's Fool (2010, Asia Society Museum, New York) and Life is Only One (2015, Asia Society, Hong Kong). Nara's large retrospective exhibition with over 100 works from 1987 to 2017 was held at Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, Aichi Prefecture in 2017.