Yoshitomo Nara is one of Japan’s most internationally influential contemporary artists. His works emphasize personal emotions, a theme which he has pursued since the 1990s through the rich imagery of his animal and child-like characters. If the ethos of contemporary art practice is "art for art's sake,” then Nara's works suggest a return to the notion of art for public good. He never complies with the status quo of what is considered to be high art, nor does he hold a condescending attitude towards contemporary popular culture. Instead, Nara breaks away from the hierarchy of artistic tradition in order to make his works more accessible and universally appealing. Nara has enthusiastically supported the marketization and licensing of his imageries in multiple media. He believes that success comes from recognition from the general public instead of exclusively from professional art critics. He once said, "We should rediscover art that exists in what we think of as subculture. It is strong and real anywhere you bring it because it is directly born of the everyday folks rather than of tradition, and it is related to their everyday life."
Between 1988 and 1994, Yoshitomo Nara studied at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in Germany; during this time, he often felt abandoned and vulnerable like a small animal. His poor command of the German language kept him from being able to express himself properly. He believes that when language cannot facilitate proper communication, the only way to achieve a mutual understanding and affirmation of his own existence is to transform his inner sentiments into artistic creation. Therefore, the children or animals featured in his works are in fact self-portraits— it is a portrayal of the loneliness he felt living abroad.
Tempest (Lot 69) was created in 1995, one year after Nara's graduation from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. At that time, he had just moved into a studio in Cologne to continue his artistic development- this is where he formally identified himself as a professional artist. The child in the painting sits by himself inside a cup, evoking the imagery of a teacup ride at an amusement park; yet, the child does not display any expression of excitement or joy. Looking rather solemn and serious while he is half-submerged in the blue-liquid, he clutches the rim of the cup as if to ensure his safety and balance. This scene has an undertone of Surrealism, as well as being humorous and whimsical. One can empathize with the sense of longing and homesickness that Nara must have experienced while living overseas. The child looks like an animal that has been abandoned, helpless in the situation and environment. However, he is defiant in the face of adversity, his determined gaze making clear his resolve to steadfastly march on. It is one of the best psychological portraits of Nara during a time when he was starting down a path of professional artistic development.
The pale-blue background of Tempest gives the painting the illusion of infinite depth. Like the sea and the sky, its dream-like quality projects a sense of mystery and possibility. Works Nara created during this period feature similar backgrounds with reduced detail thus strengthening the focal power of the subject. This compositional technique is reminiscent of the “leaving blank” method in the Eastern ink painting tradition which advocated the idea that that the less detail that was included in the background, the stronger the emotive power of the subject matter. The exaggerated facial features of the figure, the upturned eyes in particular, recall the facial features of figures depicted in Ukiyo-e prints during the Edo era (Fig. 1). In addition, Nara reduces the human anatomy to a collection of geometrical shapes. This practice is parallel to the development and breakthrough in visual language introduced by Western modernist art (Fig. 2- 3). Viewers can also see its connection with the traditional Japanese figurative art (Fig. 4) in its simple and direct use of lines. Nara's brushwork here is sensitive and rich in layers- the colours on the child's face are delicate and warm. The transition between his hair and the background is subtle and demure. Such exquisite techniques demonstrate Nara's acute grasp of colour.
During his teenage years, Nara was influenced by the tragedy and human suffering he saw in television and photographs of the Vietnam War. It was about the same time when he also discovered punk music; its rage and rebellious attitude resonated deeply with Nara and aroused his sympathy and anger towards the misfortunes in the world. Later in life, he would inject this memory into his artistic work; the little girl who fights against injustice and oppression with an electric guitar, gun, or even sickle has become his vehicle to express discontent and anger. The little girl in Nara's work embodies our past and present, while also captivating our feelings about the future. As a result, Nara's work has the power to transcend age, race, gender, space, and even time. With one single glance or movement of the figure, his work strikes its viewers' hearts. Yoshitomo Nara’s paintings arouse a sense of inexplicable familiarity and resonance with the emotions and experiences shared among all of humanity.