Categories: Artist Profiles

Yoshitomo Nara and his Ever-Evolving Self-Portraits

Yoshitomo Nara is a Japanese artist known for his work of children and animals that are cute and ominous at once. His work takes on themes like isolation.

Yoshitomo Nara, by Satoko Kawasaki for The Japan Times

Yoshitomo Nara is a Japanese artist known for his work of children and animals that are cute and ominous at once. His work takes on themes like isolation. A common symbol of his art is the frequent feature of a little girl with piercing eyes. Across pieces, you might find her shutting her eyes, holding a small knife, or rocking out on the guitar. Some say that Nara was probably inspired by manga because of his figure’s large eyes. However, he has disagreed with this. Instead, he says his work is about spiritual introspection. 

Nara’s art has had an impact on fans who project their emotions onto the faces of his painted little children. But a look at how he grew up reveals that these innocent figures are a personal look into himself.

Sleepless Night (Sitting), Yoshitomo Nara, 1997, acrylic on canvas

A Lonely Childhood

Nara was born in 1959 in Hirosaki, Japan. This was after World War II, when Japan experienced food shortages and economic shock because it lost the war.  This only made worse when the allies occupied the nation from 1945-1952. After, Japan began to shift its policies to create a period of rapid economic development. This sudden change meant that people had to work at a much faster pace. His parents were often working, and Nara was an introverted, sweet child. According to Notable Biographies, he has a memory of rejecting to join a group of boys to smash an anthill. Nara has brothers, but they were much older with him, which created another barrier to forming relationships in his childhood.

Alone, he began to develop a vivid imagination. He spent his time watching television, reading books, and listening to punk and rock music.

Untitled, Guitar Girl, 2006, via Christie’s

Putting his Imagination to Paper, Wood, and Bronze

In 1985, Nara got his B.F.A. Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music. Two years later, he got his M.F.A. there.  The next year, he went to Germany, where he would live and study for the next decade at the art academy of Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. He spent the next decade doing exhibitions around the world in the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

His unique art style developed early, as shown in his piece, The Girl with the Knife in Her hand (1991). A look at it shows you that it doesn’t neatly fit into any other artist;s genre. It may be childlike, but it’s not anime either. Rock n Roll Suicide (1992) is another eccentric piece that connects to his childhood dipped in music.

The Girl with the Knife in Her Hand, 1991, via Art Observed

Influences in his Artwork

ArtNews writer Robert Ayers interviewed Yoshitomo Nara on his recent work in 2017. He remarked that Nara’s new pieces felt more contemplative and serious. This could be connected to Nara’s experience living through the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and his father’s death.

At one point in the interview, Ayers commented on his series of Miss Forest sculptures. When asked if he has always been interested in the natural world, Nara responded,

“I didn’t really think about it until my twenties. Up until then, I was really only focused on stuff I liked and was interested in. Then, entering into my thirties and forties, and becoming more of an adult, I started seeing more of the world and even seeing things that I didn’t want to see…”

Nara’s choice of medium can shift how serious he feels about his work’s message, as well. In a 2006 interview, Nara revealed that he creates his drawings, paintings, and sculptures in different headspaces. Drawings are for fun, paintings “emerge” from his natural emotions, and sculptures are planned down to the smallest details.

Big Pup Head, 2007, via See-ming Lee

What remains consistent is that all his work is a portrayal of himself. Rather than catering to what the art market wants, all his work is a deep introspection of his emotions and state in life. That might be why he’s soared to popularity. People might relate to the isolation, angst, or humor in his art because it’s portrayal is genuine.

Critical Reception

Nara’s artwork has been presented in major museums worldwide. Some of these include the MoMA in New York, The Rubell Family Collection of Miami, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the National Museum of Art in Osaka.

Nara is friends with Takashi Murakami, creator of the super flat art style that combines high and low art. In 2001, the MoCA Gallery in California had an exhibition entitled Superflat that featured both Murakami and Nara’s work. Although Nara doesn’t consider his art too closely related to anime, his pieces had a cute, or kawaii, twinge. Some viewers thought this cuteness made his work feel at home with the other work in the exhibition.

At this time, Nara had just moved back to Japan after spending a decade in Germany. It was an era where Japanese pop culture was beginning to become more popular in the United State. This may have influenced people to see his art as having manga-like techniques.

The Little Star Dweller, 2006, via Christie’s

Yoshitomo Nara’s Art is not only for the rich

Since then, some of Nara’s top sold art has been Missing in Action (2000) and The Little Star Dweller (2006). The first sold for £1,986,500 at a 2019 Phillips auction. The latter went for $3.4 million in a 2015 Christie’s auction.

Yet, Nara likes to make his art accessible to less wealthy folks, too. In the same aforementioned KultureFlash interview, he remarked that he likes to work with smaller merchandising companies to make affordable prints of his art. He wants everyone to have the opportunity to have his pieces and his “heart sinks” when he sees his work on an auction catalog. If you search for Yoshitomo Nara merchandise, you’ll find notebooks, card sets, and bandages for sale at the MoMA alone.

Nara’s drawings, credit to The World’s Best Ever

The message in Nara’s art continues to be the most important thing to him, though.

“I only draw what I know from experience,” Nara has said. He doesn’t see the figurine’s weapons as particularly sinister, noting, “… I kind of see the children among other, bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives…”

Most artists would say that they paint what’s important to them. That can mean anything from existentialism to political issues. But in Nara’s case, he appears to draw inspiration off only experiences he has directly lived through. Perhaps that’s why his work resonates so deeply with people who can relate to his solitary upbringing.

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