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Yoshitomo
Nara

Discover art for sale. Buy and sell prints & editions online by Post-War & Contemporary artist Yoshitomo Nara. The contemporary Japanese artist is known for his emotional and complex portraits of children.

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Biography

Perhaps Japan’s best known living artist, Yoshitomo Nara’s iconic, seemingly simple, paintings, sculptures and drawings are instantly recognisable. His seemingly simple paintings, sculptures and drawings are instantly recognisable, taking influence from cartoons, music and his own life. Best known are perhaps his paintings of children; sometimes sad, sometimes sinister, these figures enjoy a global cult popularity and following, and reflective market pricing.

Beginnings

Nara was born in 1959 in the city of Hirosaki in northern Japan, and raised in the nearby rural town of Aomori. Born the youngest of three children to working parents, Nara is said to have had a lonely childhood, seeking comfort in music and animals.

As a teenager Nara moved to Tokyo, and then to Nagakute when he was 21 to study art at the Aichi University of the Arts. Later, between 1988-1993, he relocated  to Germany to study at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf before moving to Cologne in 1994. During his time in Germany Nara became absorbed by Neo-Expressionism and punk rock. Both would go on to inform his artistic style.

After 12 years in Germany, Nara returned to Japan to live and work. The artist first enjoyed notoriety as a part of his home country’s Pop art movement of the 90s, creating seemingly simple artworks depicting cartoon-like characters.

First Works

A 1995 solo show with Tokyo’s SCAI the Bathhouse gallery marked a turning point in Nara’s career; hosted by LA based gallery Blum and Poe, the show was America's introduction to Nara. The work in this show exemplified many of the themes found throughout his later work: loneliness, childhood anxiety and rebellion. Nara’s 1995 artwork In The Deepest Puddle embodies many of these characteristics, and also lends its name to the exhibition of the same year. The artwork shows a young girl standing in a puddle, ripples in the water fan away from her and mirror the lines of bandages around her head. The child looks out angrily from under a furrowed brow.

Success

Nara’s work is massively popular, enjoying a cult-like status that transcends age, culture, or location. Critics attribute the popularity of Nara’s work to his transmission of nostalgia and angst through childlike figures. Despite their appearance, the emotions portrayed could be applicable to anyone from anywhere. Art critic Roberta Smith has said ‘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’. Similarly critic Robert Smith described Nara’s work as ’high, low and kitsch; East and West; grown-up, adolescent and infantile.'

Nara is arguably Japan’s best known living artist. He has had almost 40 solo exhibitions since 1984, and his work exists in many major collections including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Rubell Collection and The Museum of Modern Art.

Most Famous Works

Nara’s best known works are arguably his depictions of children. Interchangeably sad, angry, menacing, even frightening, and almost always alone.

A figure seen again and again throughout Nara’s work is a young girl with almond shaped eyes and brown hair, often depicted with a single straight line for a mouth and her chin sulkily pushed forward. We see her seated in a blue dress in his 1995 work Hothouse Doll which sold at auction in 2019 for $13.2 million, and again in Midnight Truth (2017) where she stares out at the viewer, challenging them unblinkingly.

Influences

Nara is said to take inspiration from children’s books, cartoon imagery and manga - influences that are perhaps most immediately apparent in the visual language of his artworks.

Music also plays a key role in the artist's aesthetic. As a child Nara would listen to American and European music, not understanding the lyrics he would study the album covers for meaning. Through listening and studying the accompanying visuals Nara absorbed the anti-establishment message of this western music at the time, a sentiment that is now clearly  reflected in his work.

Style & Technique

Nara is a multi disciplinary artist working across sculpture, drawing and painting. His style has been linked to the manga and Disney style cartoon drawing of his childhood, but also to historical Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

In the 2000s Nara's work became associated with a group of Japanese artists who were collectively known as Superflat. Founded by Takashi Murakami, Superflat were known for their bright colours and cartoon style drawing, as well as their commentary on contemporary consumerism, and of the disquiet amongst the youth regarding the rise of Japanese consumer culture. Visually, Nara’s work is separated from the group in its use of a muted colour palette.

Life & Times

Nara’s work mirrors his life experience, reflecting his childhood as a lonely, youngest child of two working parents. The isolated, often unhappy children in his artworks are direct derivatives of this time in his life, and the cartoon style in which they are portrayed is influenced by the various cartoon cultures that he was exposed to as a boy.

Nara has also cited the Japan he grew up in and the period of change undergone by the country as a key factor in his work: '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.'

On the Market

Yoshitomo Nara’s work regularly achieves seven figure sums on the secondary market, with his work from 2000, Knife Behind Back, selling for a record-setting $25 million in Hong Kong in 2019. His work is hugely popular across the world and particularly in Asia.

Berlin Barack, Room 1 by Yoshitomo Nara

Image © Christie's / Berlin Barack, Room 1 © Yoshitomo Nara 2007

1. HK$120.0M for Yoshitomo Nara's Berlin Barack, Room 1

In April of 2021, a 2007 work by major proponent of the Japanese Pop Art movement Yoshitomo Nara sold for an outstanding HK$120,000,000 (£11,091,240).

Setting a record for the fourth most expensive work of art by the artist, the installation piece, entitled Berlin Barack, Room 1, comprises a wooden shack complete with a functioning door. Measuring 2.6 metres in height, Berlin Barack, Room 1 is accompanied by a wood panel painting entitled Three Sister (Berlin Version) – a work which plays with Nara’s signature motif of a young girl with large eyes. As the recent sale of this piece shows, the market for the Japanese artist’s work has burgeoned in recent years; in 2012, the same work sold for only HK$11,300,000 – a figure around ten times less than its 2021 sale price.

Knife Behind Back by Yoshitomo Nara

Image © Sotheby's / Knife Behind Back © Yoshitomo Nara 2000

2. £20.2M for Yoshitomo Nara's Knife Behind Back

Setting a record for the most expensive work by Japanese Pop Artist Yoshitomo Nara, in October 2019 Knife Behind Back (2000) sold for an astounding HK$195,696,000 (roughly equivalent to £20,229,095) at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.

A standout example of Nara’s work, the large-scale piece depicts one of the artist’s signature, cartoon-like figures – a small girl with intense, piercing eyes – as she stares back towards the viewer. With an unmistakable expression of anger on her face, the young girl is rendered in a muted colour palette of red, brown, green, and cream tones.

Establishing Nara as the most expensive Japanese artist of all time, the sale saw Knife Behind Back smash its sale record by almost 5 times.

Nice to See you again by Yoshitomo Nara

Image © Sotheby's / Nice to See You Again ©Yoshitomo Nara 1996

3. £11.4M for Yoshitomo Nara's Nice To See You Again

Significantly outperforming its pre-sale estimate of US$8,000,000-$12,000,000, Nice To See You Again realised an eye-watering US$15,430,800 at auction at Sotheby’s New York in November 2021. Executed in 1996 by Japanese Pop Art icon Yoshitomo Nara, the painting, which measures 180 by 150 cm, depicts one of the artist’s signature motifs: a young girl with short brown hair and glaring, elliptical green eyes. The second most expensive work by the artist, Nice To See You Again serves as visual and material evidence of Nara’s status as the highest-value Japanese artist of all time.

Missing in Action by Yoshitomo Nara

Image © Christies 's / Missing in Action © Yoshitomo Nara 2000

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