At Christie's New York sale in 2007 Princess of Snooze, a creation of Yoshitomo Nara, a Japanese contemporary artist, sold for a record price of around $1.5 million (HKD $11.7 million), attracting substantial notice of art critics and collectors. As it happened, his works when appeared they were often publicly, and bitterly, criticized; some held that they were nothing more than children's drawings. Nara did indeed create out of childhood fantasies, and developed, on this basis, an art practice addressing and reflecting on the cultural psychology of modern Japanese society and its many facets. As a "latchkey" child, Nara was often left to entertain himself with nothing but his imagination; his lonely childhood was difficult, but it also cultivated his sharp creative sensibilities. It was this subtle and simple personal sentiment that nourished his later creations.
In 1988 Yoshitomo Nara set off for Germany. Studying and living in Europe proved to be an influential experience for his development. European 20th Century Expressionism, had affected the creative works of Nara from the outset of his stay. Romantic Catastrophe (Fig.1), produced in 1988, for example, shows the bent, exaggerated and raw modeling of Nara's figure. Painted with a liberal, coarse brushwork, the work is suffused with a sense of childhood innocence, which, accompanied by the raw and stimulating style, lays out a spiritual world at once pure and mysterious, calling to the unworldly artworks of K. Appel, the eminent Dutch expressionist (Fig. 2).
The style of Nara is an array of extremes - from simplicity and naivete, to fantasy and frenzied excitement; it is, moreover, a reflection of the lived experience and cultural orientation of the artist. Painted in 1996, Girl with a Long Fuse (Lot 1024) is an exposition of the way Nara re-interprets modern Western art practices while keeping alive Japanese traditional art, culture and philosophy, resulting in an original art form that representative of modern Japanese society and culture.
At first sight Nara's Girl with a Long Fuse pictures a well-groomed, ingenuous little girl. On closer look, however, it becomes clear that the body of the girl is depicted in a bizarre proportion; by design, her head is enlarged, her limbs shrunk, the two parts assume a ratio of nearly one-to-one. Simple geometric shapes constitute the figure of the girl, whose head is a circle, body a cone, and her eyes are ellipses slightly distorted with two sharp ends. Organic shapes, on the other hand, make up her limbs and hairs. By reducing the body to simple shapes the artist deforms and contorts our perception of the image. This geometrized and twisted expression bears its own charm and originality as it distantly echoes Western Cubism and Expressionism.
Paul C/aezanne had famously advocated "to treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone" in which Pablo Picasso followed his lead by analyzing and deconstructing his figures, re-constituting the essential elements in order to bring them into existence. In his Maya with a Doll (Fig. 3), Picasso simplified the shape of the girl into vivid, geometric colour blocks, deformed her figure by combining the profile and frontal bodily images, and altered in entirety her facial proportion. The work produces a stunning visual effect and at the same time reflects a dichotomous view of human nature. In a similar manner, Constantin Brâncui attempted to distill his images and remodel their essence through elegant simplification and geometrization. In his works, the facial features of the figure are abstracted and their proportion distorted. He once stated: "what they call abstract is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things." Invariably these artists manifested their inner self through deforming, exaggerating, simplifying and abstracting objective images in their works.
With his child-like, innocent vision, Yoshitomo Nara demonstrates a conscious return to the primal state of things. The artist encapsulated the substance of his imagery by geometrizing, deforming and fantasizing the figure, and in doing so also manifests continuity with traditional Japanese art and aesthetics. In Girl with a Long Fuse , the exaggerated head of the girl, her slightly tilted eyes and her overblown squinting all call to mind the Edo period ukiyo-e art and its dramatic depiction of Kabuki actors (Fig. 4,5): heads oversized, pop-eyed, elaborated glances, thus revealing their frayed, taut nerves. Japanese Zen-Buddhist art distorts and exaggerates the face of Bodhidharma to register his genuine, earnest heart and the worldly philosophy of the Mahayana doctrine. The representation of intricate and abstract concepts by means of amplified, imaginative expression is not new for Japanese artists. Japanese visual arts have long relied on fantasy and exaggeration to reveal the inherent characteristics of their figures, drawing the viewer into a psychological relationship with their subjects. The term "Expressionism" does not exist in Japanese art history, but the way Japanese art represents the mind through figural exaggeration rests almost on the same premise as the Western Expressionism.
Yoshitomo Nara absorbed this traditional visual culture of whimsy and fantasy, and extended it, mildly and implicitly, fusing it with childhood fancy to reflect modern Japanese culture. The aspiration of works like Girl with a Long Fuse is to describe how the artist looked at the bursting of Japan's economic bubbles in the early 1990s and the psychology of the Japanese society. Since mid-1980s, propelled by the US-dollar exchange rate risk, Japan experienced an unprecedented influx of capital, and, in response, a market bubble. At that time Japan, unlike Russia, Europe, China or the United States, was comparably stable both in politics and economics. The jingle, "Japan as Number One", became a catchy tune, and it was generally understood within the nation that Japan had entered into their "Japanese epoch". In 1989, however, the bubble economy of Japan came to an abrupt end as it rose to its full height, asset prices were backed by nothing, and the bubble collapsed. A more balanced, healthy economy never returned, not even a decade later in the 1990s. The Japanese, falling from their glorious height, were fretful, fearful, sorrowful and enraged - torn in every way by tangled emotions.
In this context, Nara's dreamed-up girl, holding a long fuse against the isolated, empty background, becomes a revolutionary, fully prepared to struggle with her weak body against a world of uncertainty. In her innocence, she is prepared to stand up to a stagnant economy and panicked society with a valiant and resourceful fearlessness. The viewers, gazing at the magnified eyes of this child with the ponderously large head may find themselves standing at a mirror that reflects their own childhood, and see in it themselves as a brave, innocent child, naive to the intractable circumstances of adulthood, wondering "Can I, as an adult, keep this intrepid spirit alive?"
Nara dedicated a poem:
It looks like walking on top of a string
It is me riding on a boat, alone
It is empty and quiet above and below me
In that, I slowly move forward
Swimming forward at the same time
My hand will probably reach somewhere
I don't know if that's true but I keep going forward
- Yoshitomo Nara
Indeed, Girl with a Long Fuse showcases uniquely Japanese aesthetics throughout. The background is a "blank" that divorces space, allowing audiences of different ages and classes to locate themselves in the work. An empty background alludes to the Zen-Buddhist art, as the desolate, quiet vacancy prompts the viewers to communicate, spiritually, with the make-believe girl Nara created. The balanced composition and the smooth lines of Zen-Buddhist art is also an inspiration to Nara. The curved and wavy fuse balances the empty space, and the sense of seamlessness and fluidity runs through the body of the girl. Nara employs acrylic and canvas, but the technique of colouring is adopted from Nihonga techniques, a traditional Japanese painting style which creates for the work a delicate, sleek tenor by overlaying pigments. In Japanese painting, moreover, natural mineral pigments are often blended to produce modest, gentle and pure colours; the pastel-coloured Girl with a Long Fuse is a near match to this tradition. Since the Meiji Reform, Japan sought every chance to innovate for improvement. Meeting the West, Japanese artists endeavored to assimilate the essence of foreign art and at the same time preserving the expression of their own tradition. Yoshitomo Nara stood out especially for the way he integrated Western modern art, the Japanese visual art of imagination and the composition, colouring and brushwork of traditional Japanese paintings. It carries the work through to a novel way of expression that underlines the cultural psychology of the modern society. For Nara's success in creating art representative of different facets of modern Japan, his works deserve what they have earned in the international art world.