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“Among the most significant examples Yoshitomo Nara’s achievement in painting, the nearly life-size rendering of a large-headed child – furious, demanding, beguiling, yet wonderfully appealing – embodies the opposing forces at work on the level of art history and culture. The lithe linearity of reduced shapes – conical, tubular, oval – centered low in a pale open field, articulated in stark oppositions of hue, come together wryly and with wit in the form of a pair of large half moons tilted upwards with all the effrontery and indignation of an angered child. Both menacing and startling, Nara lures us into the dense black hair, rich glaring green irises, and stark red line that delineates scowling lips locked in irritation. With apparent directness her expression is as open and transparent as the large pictorial field in which she is placed and as defenseless as the muted palette of her garment. Nara’s figurative paintings serve as vehicles of collective anxiety of Japan’s youth in the face of cultural upheaval, and nowhere is this more convincingly portrayed than in emotionally charged portrayal of the fragility and uncertainty facing a single small child. Nara taps directly into the emotional center not only of a generation of disaffected and anxious youth, but also of the spiritual core at the foundation of hope and renewal. Here in The Little Ambassador, a singularly powerful image that ties gracefully sculpted free-hand lines to recognizable fluid shapes and seductive coloration, Nara conveys with a directness and simplicity rarely achieved in contemporary art an emotional quality that resonates with the people, art that is ‘directly born of the everyday folk [minshu]’ (Y. Nara, quoted in M. Matsui, “Art of for Myself and Others: Yoshitomo Nara’s Popular Imagination,” in Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, New York, 2010, p. 22).
Nara’s preoccupation with minshu, “the people,” in the sense of an appeal to a collective, international humanity, spurred his interest in reintroducing the figure into contemporary Neo-Pop sensibilities in 1990s Japan. Motivated by a concern with everyday feeling rather than built on a specific cultural and art-historical tradition, The Little Ambassador, a signature example of Nara’s oeuvre, nonetheless conveys dual foundational histories, the first indigenous, the second imported. The early wood block printing technique of masters of Ukiyo-e (17th and 18th centuries) can be sensed in Nara’s sleek outlines, pristine surfaces and ethereal hues, their high value a result of being seemingly soaked into the canvas much as if fluid inks were dripped onto wet surfaces and expanded to fill the strongly demarked contours. In The Little Ambassasor, Nara’s forms, dramatic perspectives, and truncated compositional structures declare an affinity with the shallow-spaced, almost flat 19th century line drawings of Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), which held such sway over European modernists from Manet to Degas. Both traditions inspired in their turn the extraordinarily fine-honed line drawings of picture book illustrator Takeshi Motai (1908-1956), who combined a traditional aesthetic with a keen knowledge of European modernism (Motai lived in Paris from 1930-1933) in illustrations with which Nara particularly identifies. “Motai’s aesthetic sensibility found its sources in everyday life and this makes it sublime, expressing a sure soul that transcends the difference between Western and Eastern art” (Y. Nara, “Maintaining the Perspective of the Public, Rather than the Artist,” Fukui Shimbun, October 10, 2001, p. 11).
Running parallel to these earlier Japanese traditions is the comic book culture introduced into Japan by the U.S. during the Occupation between 1945-1952, in particular the television series and films of Walt Disney. Much more than contemporary mange and anime, Nara, like many Japanese born in the 1960s, consumed anything that was an American import at a rapid pace, in particular the line-characters of Mickey Mouse, Pluto and other comic heroes. Nara feels an affinity with Disney so strong that this once provoked him to exclaim, “I would rather be someone like Disney than an ‘artist’” (Y. Nara, “My Superficiality is Only a Game,” in Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, Nürnberg, 2002, p. 105). Nara’s large-eyed little girls also draw comparisons with the “big eye” portraits by Margaret Keane, a fixture of popular sentimental works of the 1960s in the West. Yet others group him with Takashi Murakimi’s riffs on postmodern society or the round-eyed mask-like children’s heads lost in an artificial landscape rendered by Japanese artist MR. Yet none of these associations draw on the deeper, more personal, emotion at the core of Nara’s depictions. Nara does not see manga and anime as overriding influences, nor do contemporary visual artists wield undo influence. Rather, Nara looks to other modernist illustrators beyond Motai, such as Tokeo Takei and Shigeru Hatsoyama, who portrayed children as deeply feeling, often isolated and vulnerable. “Honestly, I have been more influenced by children’s books, especially ones that I read when I was little. I don’t dislike manga, but I’m not interested in it, and I don’t watch anime at all. Probably, my childhood visual experiences were from ehon (picture books), manga, and television, but I can’t imagine having any direct influence from the method or technique of manga and anime. Picture books tell me many stories with one picture, so this is a kind of system, narratives emerging from a single picture, has had a much stronger influence on my work, particularly my early work, I think” (Y. Nara and M. Chiu, “Conversation with the Artist,” in Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, New York, 2010, p. 175).
The “narratives emerging from a single picture” in Nara’s figure, his emissary from childhood, are open-ended, but offer as much emotional and cultural meaning as the viewer’s imagination can encompass. Nara’s own art historical and cultural histories combine with a pervasive, universally shared nostalgia for lost innocence, exemplified in such absorbing and compelling children as The Little Ambassador, who simultaneously announces her displeasure and demands her due. These cross currents laid the foundation for Nara’s uniquely personal style—accessible, rambunctious, and anarchic—marking as it does the intersection of American-Japanese cultural and artistic history.
With arms truncated and fists clenched, The Little Ambassador addresses the absent interlocutor who seems to stand outside the picture frame. The single two-leaved seedling held in the small fist of the little girl, with its drooping head, seems to nearly emblematize the notion of stunted potential, while the paleness of the palette might represent the faded vision of a lost past, the child’s anger pointing to a disenchantment with the present, the idealization of childhood and the wish to defy the present in order to perpetuate a utopian J. M. Barrie-inspired “Neverland.” The nostalgia for lost innocence is embodied in the Japanese word for cuteness (kawaii), a culture of nostalgia that began in the 1980s in fashion and commodities, best known in the “Hello Kitty” line of toys and design. As an attitude, kawaii is a channel through which youth might resist responsibilities of adulthood and remain in a state of escapism. “I think I was a very adult-like child. My essays from first grade were written in a direct style, not in a style that children usually use. They are really strange even to me, because they sound like an adult writing. But, I remember when I turned about eight years old, I was then consciously trying to write like a child. Thinking about it now, it’s quite twisted, but I was a rebellious, adult-like child. The time when I was depicting children in a lot of my work was probably a period when I was trying to regain something childlike. Well, I still do depict children, but the images that people generally associate with me are from that time when I was trying to take back my childhood" (Y. Nara, “A Conversation with the Artist,” ibid., pp. 172-173).
Nara’s work, however, even while evoking kawaii, works against it, in that he combines nostalgia with the immediacy of anger toward the past, if not rebellion against the present, recurs as an ongoing theme in Nara’s work. The Little Ambassador conveys that vein of resistance Nara has always cultivated in his commitment to alternative punk bands of the 1970s and 80s, such as the Clash and the Ramones, whose lyrics find their way into Nara’s visual depictions. “Punk culture proclaimed its alliance to freedom of expression even if it as criticized for its amateurism or was simply dismissed as a juvenile outpouring of passion and frustration” (M. Tezaka, “Music on my Mind: The Art and Phenomenon of Yashitomo Nara,” in ibid., p. 99). Nara’s motto, “never forget your beginner’s spirit” underlies much of his production, and constructs a defining bridge between high culture and popular culture. But Nara is wary of being pigeonholed either as a lover of alternative rock or as someone who occasionally watched anime as a child. What is essential to an understanding of Nara’s project is the fusion of Japanese visual culture and Western modernism that inheres in each sketch, painting, or installation. The emotional pull of The Little Ambassador relates to how compelling she is, how much the viewer is drawn into her emotional vortex. Nara’s work is about surface and image—its untrammeled facture and direct emotional appeal invite the viewer in; it is a popular art in the sense that it is made for the people, even as it is a product of high-modernist influence. “Rather than merely offering the work for the viewers to see face-on, I want to trigger their imaginations. This way, each individual can see my work with his or her own unique, imaginative mind. People with imaginative minds can perhaps see something more than I can” (Y. Nara and M. Chiu, “A Conversation with the artist,” in ibid., p. 179).