Within the contemporary art world, there is perhaps no artist that turns to children for inspiration than Yoshitomo Nara. This begs the question: why is art depicting children not more widely considered a matter of serious discussion in art? Is it because children belong to an immature stage in human development? Can the subject of the most important portrait in art history be a child? Nara has had many solo exhibitions in his career and his works featuring children as the main subjects have been internationally critically acclaimed both in the art market and in academia. This rare feat is a testament to the power of Nara's work to capture the hearts of countless viewers, especially adults who have parted with childhood forever.
It is very difficult to find examples of paintings that position children as the sole subject matter in Western classical art before the eighteenth century. In the religious paintings of the Renaissance period, Jesus often appears as an infant, but he is always accompanied by the Virgin Mary or other saints - he is never depicted on his own. Other child-like characters, such as putti and cherubs, play accompanying roles in the composition as if they are supporting characters in an elaborate play. Examples of children being used as the main subject within a work of art cannot be found until later periods. Romantic painter Francisco de Goya's Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga (Fig. 1) features an innocent boy; the magpie and the bird in the cage symbolise the soul and purity of the child in order to accentuate the air of naivety. It is worth mentioning that this painting was commissioned by an aristocrat. Post-Impressionist Van Gogh also painted children as the subject matter; however, considering his oeuvre as a whole, it is apparent that the figures were used more as vehicles to express and experiment with his understanding of colour.
THE EMOTIONAL PORTRAIT
Yoshitomo Nara is not a Realist, nor is he a painter who takes commissions. The models of his works are never the daughter of a good friend or the son of a tycoon. All of his figures have similar features - round faces, high and wide foreheads, big eyes, small noses, mouths that are delineated by a single line, and giant heads atop small bodies. Such remarkable stylisation is reminiscent of the character modelling in classical Japanese painting (Fig. 2) and Ukiyo-e figures (Fig. 3). Similar to the abstract figures of Joan Miró (Fig. 4) and Paul Klee (Fig. 5), it is almost impossible to see their connections with the human anatomy in objective reality. It is a path of absolute subjectivity. Nara's real concern is not to express the identity of the figure, nor is he concerned with the theoretical study and technical possibility of visual art. The crux of his artistic output is to articulate the genuine emotional depth of his characters through their colourful facial expressions. Just by examining the different treatments of smiles-some intoxicated, some joyful, still others exhilarated-one will realise the wealth of expressions in Nara's characters. This talent is abundantly demonstrated in Sleepless Night (In the White Room) (Lot 59) offered in this auction. The subject’s smile reveals a sharp canine tooth. The crafty smirk is anything but innocent-it is an expression of wry self-satisfaction hinting at the anticipation of a brewing plot or impending trick about to come to fruition. Yoshitomo Nara's characters emote with their vivid and animated expressions, and viewers are able to share the artist's concerns for genuine human experiences when they empathise with the characters.
FOREVER PARTED WITH CHILDHOOD
Human emotions are sophisticated and constantly changing. Smiling is just one of the many genuine expressions of humanity. Yoshitomo Nara also excels at depicting expressions of discontent, anger, grief, as well as other mental states. As adults, we manage our emotions through rationality, and in turn, we repress our emotional expressions. On the contrary, children are still at a stage where they cannot yet restrain their emotions. That is why children will impulsively cry and throw temper tantrums. It is the prerogative of children to embrace this freedom of unbridled emotions; conversely, adults are robbed of this privilege when they have grown up. This is the reason why Yoshitomo Nara's paintings resonate with us. We might even envy the children in the painting who are still free to live in a childhood that we too experienced once.
Psychologists believe that humans are particularly vulnerable during their formative years. They can be easily negatively influenced by the environment. Thus childhood trauma is often etched into the subconscious, and continues to plague a person resulting in negative patterns of thinking well into adultood. Yoshitomo Nara has endowed all of his characters with an invaluable personality trait-a resilient and rebellious spirit. Psychologically, it vigorously empowers a child who is otherwise helpless and frail. Though the child in Sleepless Night (in the White Room) is not armed with a knife, sickle, or a handgun, like Nara’s other characters, his confidence and canine tooth covertly exudes an aggression that seem to declare to the world, “You do not want to mess with me.” As the title of the painting suggests, despite staying awake in an empty room at night, the child convinces us of his resolve and fearlessness through his grin.
In the face of the uncertainty of nature and the limitation of the physical body, humans can take solace in the perseverance of this child who takes the world head-on. Portraiture is among the oldest subject matters in art, yet Yoshitomo Nara's works radiate a sense of positivity and warmth that they breathe new life into the tradition.