“My artistic expressions are guided by my life experiences. They are not determined by art theory nor art history. When we perceive art, we always return to our native cultures which are deeply rooted in our subconsciousness. Where we were born and grew up give us an unbreakable connection to our sensibilities and a wellspring of inspirations”. - YOSHITOMO NARA
With his unique visual language and wildly imaginative use of childhood imagery, Yoshitomo Nara holds an importance place in contemporary art. After graduating from Aichi University of the Arts in 1987, he travelled to Europe to continue his studies at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany in 1988. This period spent abroad has a long-lasting influence on his artistic direction. It is also the nascence of his experiments with interweaving Western and Eastern popular cultures. Untitled was executed in 1988 when Nara first arrived in Germany. The abundant use of bold colours and imageries is a testament to the influences of German Neo-expressionism and Japanese manga that was rising in popularity at the time. There are only approximately 20 oil paintings by Nara in existence from the late 1980s that were executed similarly in the Neo-expressionist style. In terms of scale and fullness in composition, this work proves to be one of the most accomplished early works that are available in market in recent years. In addition, with this work, we can backtrack the origin of Nara’s idiosyncratic symbolism. For instance, in this painting, the artist presents a figure standing in a puddle while ripples radiate outward — it is a motif that he will revisit on numerous occasions and gradually refine in his later works. Agent Orange (in the Milky Lake), an important work offered in the Evening Sale this season, is a prime example that demonstrates the development of Nara’s aesthetic philosophy.
Most of the viewers know Yoshitomo Nara from his world-famous depiction of the defiant little girl. However, he began the development of this subject matter with a male image. If we consider the image of the little girl from his later period an expression of the his distilled spiritual centre, then the image of the little boy from his early period can be seen as a portrait of his spiritual self in its most raw and vulnerable form. Born in 1959 in Hirosaki City, Aomori prefecture, in Hokkaido, Japan, Nara grew up in a rural village that was ten hours away from the next urban area. Due to the fact that both of his parents had to spend time away from home for work, as well as being younger than his elder siblings by almost ten years, the introverted young artist spent most of his childhood alone. The melancholic feeling of loneliness grew up with him, and it continued to affect him when he studied abroad in Germany. In his autobiography The Little Star Dweller, he revealed, “Because the weather was always gloomy, I felt like I was in a world of my own, and I could not relate to anything around me. When that feeling struck me, suddenly I was brought back to my childhood. But feelings of loneliness and alienation have always been driving forces of my creativity”. Even though the protagonist in the painting has blond hair, the hair style itself is unmistakably Japanese in origin where it is popular amongst school boys. His eyes have epicanthic folds that are characteristic of Asians. The scrawny boy holds up a seashell that he has just found in the water. As he shows his find to the viewers, he smiles coyly at them — his expression conveys a sense of genuine excitement but not without timidness and introversion. All of these elements are metaphors for the artist’s childhood where he grew up in solitude in a village by the sea. Nara explained that as an adult, he has always tried to dig a tunnel back to his childhood, “I want to return to somewhere familiar where I am most comfortable”. From this perspective, the work seems to be projecting the main character from the Le Petit Prince written in 1942 by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In the story, the little prince wanders the universe where he defeats the convoluted world with his sense of wonder and defends the truth with his purity of heart — these are ideals are shared by Yoshitomo Nara in his creative practice, and they are exemplified in this spiritual self-portrait.
The massive influx of Western aesthetics and ideologies into Japan since the Meiji Resolution have achieved a state of coexistence with Japanese traditions — this process of conflict, coexistence, and integration is a unique model that shaped the Japanese Modernist aesthetics. In 1970s and 1980s, there was a global resurgence of Expressionism — this Neo-expressionism movement does not bear the cold rationality of earlier movements such as Minimalism and Conceptual Art. Instead, it employs bold and highly contrasting colours as well as wildly gestural brushwork that are heavy on impasto. Such energy is a return to the Fauvist school of expression where artists can freely traverse between abstraction and representational art. Germany has been at the forefront of this movement, and it produced masters like Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz. Despite the language barrier and being alone in Germany, the power of this artistic movement transcended nationality and race, and Nara was caught in the middle of this paradigm shift. The impact of Neo-expressionism shook the young artist to the core. He took this new visual language, combined it with traditional Japanese culture that was deeply rooted in his being, and infused it with major elements from Japanese manga. By the end of the 1980s, Nara created this work Untitled in which he combined both Eastern and Western contemporary cultures — the picture is filled with tension, and yet, the purity of the subject matter is preserved. Below the cerulean sky on the upper half of the painting is the water rendered in brown colour planes. It is then finished with gold pigments highlights so that it glistens like the surface of the lake at dusk. Such effect evokes a dream-like vision where forgotten memories re-emerge from the river of time. The textures of the figure’s clothes, his hair, and his pupils are all delineated by delicate pencil lines. It is evident that at this point in time, the artist is in the process of amalgamating Eastern and Western avant garde art and inventing a new visual language that is uniquely his own.
Yoshitomo Nara expounded on the origin of his inspirations, “My artistic expressions are guided by my life experiences. They are not determined by art theory nor art history. When we perceive art, we always return to our native cultures which are deeply rooted in our subconsciousness. Where we were born and grew up give us an unbreakable connection to our sensibilities and a wellspring of inspirations”. True to this credo, Yoshitomo Nara’s ideas take flight and bring us on a journey between reality and the realm of virtual constructs. He helps us to unearth within our wearied adult heart the pure soul a child who refuses to grow up.