These days, Yoshitomo Nara’s rise is generally considered to be a market-driven phenomenon. In 2019, he captured the market’s attention when Sotheby’s sold his work Knife Behind Back (2000) for a record-setting $25 million in Hong Kong. Since then, he has become one of the most expensive artists in Asia, and his work regularly appears in marquee auctions there.
But, as a current Los Angeles County Museum of Art retrospective intends to show, there’s more to Nara’s art than the price tags typically attached to it. The exhibition, Nara’s largest in the U.S. to date, features 100 paintings, sculptures, drawings, ceramics, and more. After its run in the U.S., it will travel abroad to the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, and the Kunsthal Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Arguably the most famous living Japanese contemporary artist, Nara is synonymous for many with his signature images of menacing wide-eyed children that tap into an intergenerational angst spanning global borders. As the LACMA show makes clear, the inspirations for them are vast— they draw on children’s books, cartoon imagery, and manga. New York Times critic Robert Smith once described his works as bridging “’high, low and kitsch; East and West; grown-up, adolescent and infantile.” Below, a guide to Nara’s life and art.
From Punk Music to Painting
Born in 1959 in the Japanese city of Hirosaki, Nara was raised in the rural northern town of Aomori, which is known for its heavy snowfalls and dark winters. As the youngest of three children born to working parents, Nara spent much of his time alone, finding solace in speaking to animals to pass the time. For comfort, he voraciously consumed TV shows, Japanese and American comic books, and Western fables by Aesop and the Brothers Grimm.
Early on, he developed a deep affection for music that would become influential in his art practice as an adult. At the age of eight, he began listening to the Far East Network, the radio station of the nearby U.S. Air Force base in Misawa, at night. This exposed Nara to American and European pop music of the 1960s, and later to punk in the 1970s. Not able to translate the English song lyrics, he turned to visuals on the album covers for inspiration. Through his obsessive listening, Nara began to internalize the anti-establishment sentiment of Western rock music of the era. Eventually, he would go on to bring this air of rebellion to his own art.
Yet Nara was also influenced by a period of change at home. “I was lucky that I lived through a transition period in Japanese society; a time when, for example, I saw the packaging of apples change from wooden boxes to paper bags, or the way miso-making changed from traditional handwork to modern manufacture,” Nara once remarked. In his teens, he set off to begin a new chapter, moving to Tokyo, and then later to Nagakute at the age of 21 to study fine art at the Aichi University of the Arts.
In 1988, when he was 28 years old, Nara went to Germany to study at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf under A. R. Penck, the Neo-Expressionist known for his abstractions reflecting on the postwar German condition. At the time, Nara’s choice was somewhat unusual—London was the more energetic art capital—but he went to the German city in search of a different kind of momentum. What he found, rather unexpectedly, was more of the same isolation that he felt during his childhood. “When I went to the school in Germany, I found myself again feeling alone, facing my canvas. Again, the inadequacy of the outer world enriched my inner world,” Nara admitted in an interview for Art Review in September 2015.
It’s possible that he may not have developed his signature style during the 1990s had he not studied there, however. In 1994, after his studies ended in 1993, he moved to Cologne; he would go on to stay there for a number of years. At this time, he began embracing that connection between the present and past in his art. “The result of the conversation was so obvious: what I drew changed drastically,” he remarked in 2015. In this nascent stage of his career, he began producing scrawled cartoonish drawings featuring lonely children and dogs, merging styles borrowed from Japanese and Western pop culture.
The language barrier in Germany also forced Nara to “explore the depths of his subconscious and reflect on the search of his identity,” Isaure de Viel Castel, a contemporary art specialist at Phillips, told ARTnews last year. That quest showed up in his characters painted against flat and neutral backgrounds. The void-like spaces in which they appear have been seen by historians as reflections on the sense of emptiness he felt at the time.
In 1995, he got his big break with a solo show put on by Tokyo’s SCAI the Bathhouse gallery. Hosted by Blum & Poe gallery in Los Angeles, the show effectively introduced Americans to Nara. With music as its main influence, his new work contained the themes of youthful rebellion and childhood anxiety that would come to define Nara’s portraits of his young protagonists. Critics have since drawn comparisons between these figures and Japanese kawaii and American twee pop. Representing his personal experience, the characters seemingly translate adult feelings of alienation through a child’s internal world.
‘Here Is My Current Self’
In the 2000s, Nara became associated with an group of Japanese contemporary artists who were part of an avant-garde movement known as Superflat, founded by Takashi Murakami. The group was known for its use of bright palettes, its riffs on Japanese cartooning styles, and its critique of consumer culture. But compared to his colleagues’ work, Nara’s was more toned-down and less outwardly focused on consumerism. “I became more interested in expressing complex feelings in a more complex way,” Nara remarked in 2013, speaking about this change a decade earlier.
When Nara returned from Germany, he had a solo show at the Yokohama Museum that propelled him to new heights. By this time, Nara was merging influences from manga style comic books that consumed his childhood with ones culled from historical Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The show reflected all the works he’d made in the 1990s, and he considered all these works self-portraits in a sense. Even if none of them actually depicted the artist, they still captured what he was feeling at the time. In a recent interview with LACMA curator Mika Yoshitake, Nara said, “It made a statement: Here is my current self.”
Beyond the Cute
At first, Nara’s kawaii-influenced young children appear benevolent. But their innocence is an illusion. Often, the children in Nara’s paintings brandish knives, crucifixes, and flaming torches, and typically appear distressed. Some can be seen with fangs emerging from their mouths or hiding lit cigarettes behind their backs. Critic Sianne Ngai has considered Fountain of Life (2001), a sculpture comprising seven dismembered dolls with their heads stacked on top of one another in an oversized teacup, as a prime example of the violent undercurrent that animates Nara’s work.
Nara’s most prominent heroine, an aggrieved yet charming young girl, has attracted global audiences. She appears in a blue dress and is seated in his painting Hothouse Doll (1995), a work that sold at a Phillips auction in 2019 for $13.2 million. Since that painting was made, her appearance has only grown more menacing. In Midnight Truth (2017), another work featuring her, the green-eyed girl stands against a brown neutral background and blankly stares out at the viewer, her tense mouth represented by a single straight line.
Today, critics attribute the cult following around Nara to how he captures a universal sense of angst. Nara has agreed with that interpretation, saying that the work harnesses shared feelings of nostalgia and anxiety comprehensible to anyone of any age or background. Because of this widespread appeal, Roberta Smith once remarked that Nara is “one of the most egalitarian visual artists since Keith Haring. He seems never to have met a culture or generation gap, a divide between art mediums or modes of consumption that he couldn’t bridge or simply ignore.”