Progression of Art
The Girl with the Knife in Her Hand
This early work is emblematic of Nara's signature style: flat, two-dimensional, rosy-cheeked and wide-eyed children placed against empty or nondescript backgrounds. The removal of these archetypal figures - often referred to in Japan as kawaii - from recognizable settings lends them a universal appeal that transcends the limits of time and place. Indeed, the writer Banana Yoshimoto has suggested that Nara's "work attracts many people, because they recognize their precious inner solitude within [the artwork]".
The artist himself cites the children's picture books he grew up with (the likes of Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, and Aesop) as his main influence, observing that "They all reflect our darker side". Indeed, many of Nara's childhood characters express an aggressive or rebellious side; either brandishing weapons (a knife in this case) or smoking cigarettes. Yet Nara insists that his armed children do not pose any realistic threat: "Look at them, [the weapons] are so small, like toys. Do you think they could fight with those? I don't think so. Rather, I kind of see the children among other, bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives".
The anthropologist Marilyn Ivy explains that "The origins of kawaii had to do with pity or empathy for a small or helpless creature - archetypically, a child or infant. There is always a dimension of vulnerability, smallness, and - indeed - (feminized) childishness attending the kawaii". Although Western viewers tend to perceive Nara's kawaii characters to be girls (a view backed up here by the title of the painting) the artist himself asserts that his figures are essentially non-gendered: "For me, there is no distinct sex because people become men or women when they grow up. Children are more neutral. That is the way I see them".
Acrylic on cotton - Private collection
Untitled (Nobody's Fool)
The title "Nobody's Fool" was given to Nara's first major New York exhibition, presented through the Asia Society, in 2010, and was borrowed from 1973 album by the Memphis-based musician Dan Penn. The title pays direct homage to Penn's reputation for "individualism" but it was only one of many of the collections' musical allusions to rebellious rock and punk music (by the likes of Neil Young, the Ramones, and Green Day).
Untitled (Nobody's Fool) presents a young girl with an angry and defiant "punk" expression while at the same time adopting the formal attributes of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints such as those made by Kitagawe Utamaro (1753-1806). The work follows the precise composition - hairstyle, hand positioning, scratched background - of Utamaro's female book reader in Kobikicho Arayashiki Koiseya Ochie. The academic Max Weintraub described how "Utamaro's period prints were mass-produced commercial artifacts that not only proved popular in Japan, but also circulated widely throughout Europe in the latter half of the 19th century during a particularly intense period time of the West's fascination with and appropriation of Japanese visual culture". Weintraub observed, moreover, that Untitled (Nobody's Fool) "contains a number of clichés both past and present, including that of a Japanese girl with a chopstick bun hair style and the phrase "No Nukes" written on her headband. These clichés seem to level any distinction between conventions of the distant past and those of the 1960s and 70s, and [self-consciously] complicate the ideal of authenticity and individuality" in Nara's art.
Acrylic, ink, colored pencil and graphite on printed paper - Private collection
Knife Behind Back
In this monumentally large painting we see a recurrent Nara character named Ramona - after the American punk band Ramones - a young girl with a bob haircut, wearing a red dress with a white collar. Here, she frowns and glares defiantly at the viewer. Her right arm is hidden behind her body, and it is only from the title of the work that we come to learn that she is brandishing a knife.
According to the description in the Sotheby's catalogue, by concealing the knife its threat becomes "infinitely more ominous [and] underscores the unexpected insurgent power of children and the associated radical potentiality of the insignificant, the innocent, the fictionary, and the imagined [and was the] driving force behind Nara's epochal iconography of sullen, disgruntled, yet endearing and captivating youth". The work was created at a time when Nara was reinventing his personal style; moving away from the thick, black, neo-expressionist outlines and vibrant colors he used during the 1990s, toward a softer palette and more painterly quality. Anime and manga illustrator and art critic Midori Matsui (cited through Sotheby's) noted that at this stage in his career Nara's characters began to display "visible signs of humanization" in the way their "heads grew smaller, their expressions gentler, their body proportions approaching that of a real child, and their attitudes reflecting that of a thoughtful adolescent".
In 2019, this painting set the record for the most expensive work ever sold at auction in Japan (the same year, incidentally, a similar national record was set in the United States by fellow Neo-Pop artist Jeff Koons with his 1986 "balloon sculpture" Rabbit). Sotheby's was in no doubt about the painting's value, describing it as "a classic archetype of the artist's strategy that draws on Modernism's sign-like shorthand language of images to leave endless space for resonance and fantasy for both the child and adult viewer". Sotheby's concluded that the work represented the "saccharine sweetness of Nara's figurative lexicon [that] enacts a language undeniably redolent of Pop, anime, cartoon, and manga - one whose extraordinary emotive power endorses "the paradoxical strength of 'minor art', including 'kitsch' imagery's ability to express the emotions of contemporary people".
Acrylic on canvas - Private collection
This editioned print features some of Nara's most popular motifs - the heads of three girls, a dog, and several stars - set against a blank turquoise background. As in all of his works, the cartoon quality makes his figures appear deceptively child-like. However, the complex emotions that can be read into the human figures, as well as the symbolism carried within the other elements, indicate a more profound set of meanings focused around the ideas of youth, rebellion, and the navigation of identity in contemporary society.
For Nara, the submissive obedience of dogs suggests the behavior expected of children. In his art, children and dogs are used as interchangeable symbols of loneliness, fragility, and innocence. Figures with closed eyes became a feature of the artist's more introspective mature period, and in Star Island, we see the dog and one of the girls have their eyes closed. Meanwhile, the four-pointed stars amount to much more than mere decoration. One can see direct similarities here in fact with the work of Murakami for whom stars - which Murakami described as "not just beautiful [but] like the trees in the forest, alive and breathing" - would become something of a motif. For Nara, rather, the stars allude to a range of common childhood tropes, such as receiving a gold star in school (for a well-done assignment), or optimistic encouragements like "shoot for the stars" and "wish upon a star". The range of facial expressions in the characters represented alongside the stars hints at the range of responses that these meanings elicit, and the painting as a whole can be read thus as either one of hope or cynicism.
Color screen-print on woven paper
A to Z Memorial Dog
Alongside "Ramona", Nara's "White Dog" images have become the artist's most iconic. The benign creature has been reproduced as fine art collectables, on T-shirts, as stuffed toys, as moulded transistor radios and through numerous novelty items and trinkets. Here the White Dog takes the form of a giant sculpture; its tightly closed eyes and its rehearsed pose hinting strongly at the theme of Buddhist meditation. The gloss-white color, meanwhile, carries strong associations with the "white-ghost" spirit in Japanese culture. The Memorial Dog (and others produced on a similar scale) also recalls komainu, the mythical lion-like statue that is often used as a symbolic guardian at the entrance to holy shrines and temples (indeed, his "Aomori Dog" is a two story high sculpture that "guards" the entrance to Japan's Aomori Museum of Art).
The sculpture offers a child's unique perspective in terms of scale and feeling, with the animal looming larger than life. However, the overall effect is somewhat melancholic in the way it connotes the theme of self-isolation and loneliness; feelings recalled by Nara in discussions of his own childhood. Indeed, his White Dog represents something of a retreat from reality into the inner world. Speaking of his insular working practice, Nara stated: "I always keep my studio the same. No matter whether I am in Germany or in Nasu, where my current studio is located, my studio's interior settings are always arranged in the same way - so I only find out where I am [in the world] when I open the curtain".
In 2008, Nara, in an attempt to produce a picture book like the ones that offered his comfort in his own childhood, produced The Lonesome Puppy: the story of a supersize dog who finds a lifelong companion in a little girl (the reader may identify thus with the dog or the little girl). Though a children's book, it is an authored work in the way it addresses the fluctuating emotions - sadness, loneliness, belonging, happiness - experienced in the artist's own childhood. The book, like his White Dog sculptures, also functions as reminder to adults of what it is to view the world from a child's perspective.
Fiberglass - Yoshino-cho Park in Hirosaki, Japan
In Fire, a young girl peers over what appears to be a table at a small (toy?) house in flames with smoke billowing skyward. The formal simplicity of the work encourages the viewer to focus their attention on the child's state of mind. Layers of emotion can be read into the figure's large, almond-shaped eyes, which dance with the reflected color of the flame. Her fascination with the burning building are quite evident. However, her eyes also hint at a sense of mischief; indeed, we may reasonably conclude that the girl (Ramona) is the "arsonist".
In 2013 Nara stated "I used to draw [eyes] too carelessly. Say, to express the anger, I just drew some triangular eyes. I drew obviously-angry eyes, projected my anger there, and somehow released my pent-up emotions. About ten years ago, however, I became more interested in expressing complex feelings in a more complex way".
Anthropologist Marilyn Ivy notes, by way of a comparison with Nara's contemporary, Takashi Murakami, that it is through the child's gaze that Nara truly differentiates his work from that of the more "promiscuous" Superflat artists. For Ivy, there is a "horrific dimension of Murakami's serially repetitive eyes - in the register of loss, figured by the vulnerable yet aggressive children in his work" and that Nara "locates a range of affects that Murakami does not provide". She concludes that Nara's work "embodies a different relationship to the child and to the gaze" and that with his figures "we don't feel so much the pulling of the gaze over the plane of the work [...] as the pulling of our gaze toward the eyes of Nara's children".
Acrylic on wood panel - Private collection
Nara's early work represents the epitome of Japanese Pop Art. Indeed, like his American predecessors, he has emerged as a celebrity artist who is respected equally in the commercial and critical spheres of the contemporary art world. His work lends itself to the Pop ideals of mass reproduction and his Punk inspired art attracts a strong youth following seduced by the ideas of subversion and rebellion. In keeping with this "Punk" attitude, Nara said of his earlier approach to painting that he would "have an image that I wanted to create, and I would just do it. I would just get it finished". But the "post Fukushima" Nara talks now of "having a conversation" with himself in which he has begun to contemplate Buddhist concerns about solitude and mortality.
In his updated "Ramona" figures the heavy black outlines have given way to what Nara refers to as his blended "color paintings". This spiritual and philosophical transformation even evokes the iconic works of Mark Rothko (which were also spiritual in their conception). Welcoming the comparison with Rothko, Nara said, "it's not about it being an image of a young girl, it's about the many levels of paint that have built up. Those layers draw out the sensibility of each person who looks at it. I think it provokes you to have a conversation with yourself". In a marked shift from his earlier Romonas, Nara's Midnight series reflected a palpable Buddhist worldview: "It's not really my role to educate people", Nara said of this work, but "if a person has the sensibility, or the understanding, or even just has the potential for that understanding, I think that this will allow them to really come in deeper into my world and really understand more [about themselves]".
Acrylic on canvas