“What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?”
This is the Riddle of the Sphinx put forth in Greek mythology, questioning humankind’s understanding of themselves. The riddle uses morning, afternoon, and night as metaphors for youth, adulthood, and old age. It succinctly illustrates the stages in life that everyone must experience. Regardless of one’s social status, gender, nationality, personality, or life experience, everyone must walk down the same one-way street. We all were once children, who grew up to be adults, and shall slowly grow old— the process of aging is universal. As we accumulate experiences, we learn about the world and ourselves. Through this entire process, childhood can be considered a starting point from which everything else begins. When he was asked why he persistently uses children as the main characters in his works, Yoshitomo Nara replied,
“When you ate some candy and thought it was sweet, if you think about where the 'sweet' comes from, don’t you go back to the very first experience you had as a child, to the time when you were given the word 'sweet' the first time you had that experience?”
When viewers first set eyes on MIA (Lot 54), without exception, they will decide that a figure with such character modelling must be a child. Yet, they are puzzled by how different this figure is compared to the conventional depictions of children in other art works. She does not need to be held in anyone’s arms. Her determined expression is laced with artifice. She does not the need protection and she is not guileless. Compared with the head or partial portraits from the same series, this full-body portrait is a work that most completely demonstrates the spirit of Nara-ism. She stands defiantly as if making a declaration that she is prepared to face the world confidently and independently. She radiates a confrontational force that is too powerful for her tiny body. This fearlessness is reminiscent of the eagerness that we experience during childhood when we were itching to explore the world and encounter the unknown. Nara captures a collective human experience that transcends nationality and ethnicity. Viewers can see traces of themselves in the character. Conversely, the character also appears to be looking at the viewers as if she is their younger self from the past. It is not the artist's intention to use this form of introspection as a fountainhead of pessimism where one dwells in the past or to encourage Peter Pan Syndrome. MIA is a mirror that invites the viewers to return their most precious and memorable times at will. Yoshitomo Nara once said,
“Although it is physically impossible to go back to the past, I discovered that as long as I preserve the emotions that I originally felt, nothing is lost. From this point of view, returning to the beginning is very positive”.
Many critics have attempted to make the connection between Yoshitomo Nara’s works with the rise of manga culture in the postwar Japan. However, studying MIA will reveal that the artist has drawn influences from both east and west, and he synthesised his own artistic language from these vastly different sources.
Departing from the bold outlines and the highly vibrant palette that characterized the artist’s early works made in the late 1990s, Yoshitomo Nara’s style has now become much more nuanced— his characters exude an air of poetry. His use of pastel colour and meticulous brushwork is an homage to his favourite Early Renaissance works (Fig. 1). Nara once said, “I especially love the translucent colours of Giotto and Piero della Francesca. The surface texture of fresco painting contains a space that I can enter easily. […] I also love Giotto’s painting because it makes me feel the strength of a believer.” The artist painted multiple layers of translucent colours in MIA. Underneath the mint-green of her dress and the blush on her skin, different subtle shades of brown show through. The black background is composed of a multitude of intricate tones crisscrossed and layered to bestow the otherwise flat composition with a sense of depth. In addition, this masterful treatment has also constructed a voluminous space for the play of light. Despite not having an obvious source of light, the effect of this treatment gradually engages the subconscious of the viewers.
When Yoshitomo Nara talked about his round paintings, he expressed that at the time, he realised “there is no necessity of having corners”. Looking back at Renaissance art, we can see many examples of circular paintings on canvas (Fig. 2). They are known as tondo in Italian. Nara had expanded this two-dimensional format into three-dimensional sculptures. MIA perfectly demonstrates the effects of the artist’s unique visual arrangement. Large eyes gazing upward, high and wide foreheads and faces, as well as the exaggerated head in proportion to the body are all features pointing to the interplay between Nara’s idiosyncratic character modelling and the traditional Japanese ukiyo-e aesthetic (Fig. 3). It is worth noting that as a fullbody portrait, MIA showcases the artist’s exceptional handling of line, placement, and composition. A series of arcs are used to construct the overall modelling of the character’s figure, from the child’s bob hairstyle, to the rounded face, to the hem of the skirt, down to the curves that delineate her feet, the lines flow as a unified whole. These deftly executed lines are reminiscent of Torii Kiyonobu I used the curves on the garments to enable the viewers to glide freely across the picture surface— the flat composition is activated through this dynamic use of lines. (Fig. 4) Without relying on any horizontal or vertical lines for reference, this treatment is able to reconcile the visual relationship between the figure and the circular composition. The edge of the circular painting is slightly lifted, creating a distance between the piece and the wall. When the viewers stand in front of a work that is 180 centimeters in diameter, they cannot help but feel enveloped by it— one must lift their head to gaze up at the little girl. The dark background not only emphasises the pastel coloration of the figure, but it also generates a sense of drama. As if she is standing in the limelight, the little girl commands the presence of the stage as protagonist of her own narrative.
“Never Forget Your Beginner’s Spirit”, Yoshitomo Nara once wrote on the wall of an exhibition. One should ceaselessly forge ahead, but never forget from whence they came. The works of Nara resonate universally with viewers around the globe. This is chiefly because they provide a space within which everyone’s sentiments and memories can freely reside— they bridge that chasms between different stages in life.