Yoshitomo Nara’s paintings & drawings: Cute or dark and frightening?

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Yoshitomo Nara - Yellow in Blue, 1994, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 150 cm
Yoshitomo Nara – Yellow in Blue, 1994, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 150 cm

Published: November 21, 2016

Last updated:

Yoshitomo Nara’s biography

Yoshitomo Nara was born in Hirosaki, Japan in 1959 and is a Japanese artist whose work has been exhibited around the world. He lives and works in Tokyo, and Japanese popular culture plays an influential role in his world. Nara studied at the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music where he received his B.F.A. (1985) and an M.F.A. (1987). He also studied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, in Germany between 1988 and 1993.

Influences

The work has several influences including manga and anime of the 1960s as seen in Nara’s large-eyed figures. He challenges these characteristically cute images by juxtaposing them with dark and frightening imagery. This infusion of horror changes the image altogether, the contrast of the innocent large-eyed child with the imagery of human evil may be a response to Japan’s strict social conventions. Other influences of Nara’s work include punk rock music, Renaissance painting, Ukiyo-e1, traditional woodblock prints, and graffiti. He also takes inspiration from the positive values of Japanese tradition and combines traditional with contemporary.

Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806) - Kobikicho Arayashiki Koiseya Ochie
Utamaro Kitagawa – Kobikicho Arayashiki Koiseya Ochie, a traditional Japanese Ukyio-e style illustration of a Japanese woman portrait reading a book.
Image: Ronin Gallery/roningallery.com

Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806) was one of the most famous and prominent Ukiyo-e artists, famous for his woodblock prints depicting beautiful women.

Yoshitomo Nara - No Fun! (In the Floating World), 1999, Lithograph, 41.5x29.5cm
Yoshitomo Nara – No Fun! (In the Floating World), 1999, Lithograph, 41.5 x 29.5cm

Childhood

The artist grew up in post-World War II Japan, and the sociocultural environment at this time certainly affected his mindset and artwork. During his childhood and youth, Japan was being barraged by Western pop culture. Nara was raised in the city of Aomoro in the Japanese countryside, fairly isolated, and as the child of two working-class parents, he was often left alone while his parents were at work. This time alone with his imagination played a significant role in his artistic development.

Education in Germany

Yoshitomo Nara’s work expanded and improved mainly because he lived in Berlin for quite some time. According to him, he was isolated there, he didn’t know any German and he was seen as a foreigner. That disconnected him from the world just how living in Aomori kept him away from the rest of Japan. It was a great thing because it allowed him to go on a journey of rediscovery and finding new things about himself.

Returning to Japan after 12 years

He stayed in Germany for 12 years and then he went back to Japan to try and pursue his own career as a painter. He started to paint children portraits and their facial features were inspired by Okame and Otafuku masks2. Their poses were also from manga and anime cartoons. These were offering him a great way to fuse various elements from his past, all while bringing in front a rather distinctive and very creative set of ideas.

Kitsune, traditional masks of Japan
Traditional masks of Japan
Photo: Traditional Kyoto/traditionalkyoto.com

Yoshitomo Nara - Otafuku No 2 (Moon-Faced Woman No.2), 2010, ceramic decorated with platinum liquid, 118 x 125 x 127 cm
Yoshitomo Nara – Otafuku No 2 (Moon-Faced Woman No.2), 2010, ceramic decorated with platinum liquid, 118 x 125 x 127 cm

Superflat: Collaborating with Takashi Murakami & other Japanese artists

It was in 2001 when he started to work with Superflat3, a group of avant-garde artists that also had Chiho Aoshima and Takashi Murakami. They started to be very creative, using cartoon motifs, lurid patterns and colors, all with the idea of showcasing the hyper-consumerist culture at that time. The culture was not trusted that much by the Japanese youth, and they worked really hard to try and show off the truth about it.

Takashi Murakami and his Superflat Collection
Takashi Murakami with his Superflat collection at Yokohama Museum of Art, 2016
Photo: Kentaro Hirao/yokohama.art.museum

First big exhibition in New York

His first major New York exhibition ‘Nobody’s Fool’ in 2010 at the Asia Society featured over one hundred works from the 1980s to his current works. His work features ceramics, drawings, paintings, sculptures, and large-scale installations.

How did Fukushima affect Nara & his work?

Just like a lot of people, Nara was shocked and also quite disturbed by the earthquake at Fukushima in 2011, and he didn’t work for quite some time. After all, his birthplace was in Aomori which was really close to Fukushima, to begin with. The entire area was destroyed and while he wasn’t living there, lots of his images and ideas from childhood were affected. And he also saw people that suffered in that area, and he was very emotional about the entire situation and process.

What he did to help after the earthquake

Nara also saw that people came back and started rebuilding and reframing the cities bit by bit. He even visited the devastated sites many times and became a resident at the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music as he wanted to get back some of his creative ideas.

With the artist's blessing antinuclear protesters have adopted Yoshitomo Nara's No Nukes Girl as a banner during recent rallies. Photo Mio Yamada
With the artist’s blessing antinuclear protesters have adopted Yoshitomo Nara’s No Nukes girl as a banner during rallies in 2012.
Photo: Mio Yamada/japantimes.co.jp

About his work

Technique

He often uses soft-hued, pastel colors with bold lines as seen in anime characters in popular culture. The children featured in Nara’s works sometimes wield weapons such as knives and saws; their expressions are haunting, their eyes giving viewers accusatory looks. It is with his use of contrasting images, colors, and emotions that Nara’s work has captured the imaginations of generations around the world. The subjects of his work, the wide-eyed and vulnerable children and animals, together with the nightmarish features of his paintings can easily stimulate distressing feelings.

Why does he usually paint girls?

His work regarding young children paintings became very popular in the Superflat community and he did manage to show a darker side of those kids, which smoked, had vampire fangs and even used flaming torches. It was very hard to actively figure out what that was all about but it did show off that his creations can also go a bit darker if he wants to do so.

They did bring in an aggressive posture mostly as the means to defend themselves. He said himself that he saw kids alongside bad people holding knives. And when he was asked why he has mostly girls in pictures, he said that he wants to have a neutral image. He doesn’t make any gender distinction, he just wanted to keep it neutral and showcase various emotions and sentiments depending on the situation.

Yoshitomo Nara - Miss Spring, 2012
Yoshitomo Nara – Miss Spring, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 227 x 182 cm

Why is Yoshitomo Nara relevant?

Nara is one of the leading artists of Japan’s influential Neo Pop art4 and has become infamous for his portrayals of children and animals. Although the children and animals he creates are adorable they are often menacing, causing viewers to contemplate the feelings and concepts behind his work. Underneath the popular appeal of the dark but adorable characters in his work are the somber social, political, and personal elements of his work: darker emotions of loneliness in a rigid society, rage, fear, and helplessness.

Artworks

Works on canvas

Yoshitomo Nara - No Means No, 1995, 55 x 65cm (21 5/8 x 25 9/16in), acrylic on canvas
Yoshitomo Nara – No Means No, 1995, acrylic on canvas, 55x65cm

Yoshitomo Nara - Sleepless Night (Standing), 1997, framed acrylic on canvas, 120 x 110 cm
Yoshitomo Nara – Sleepless Night (Standing), 1997, framed acrylic on canvas, 120 x 110 cm

Yoshitomo Nara & Hiroshi Sugito - Deeper than a puddle, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 260 x 280cm
Yoshitomo Nara & Hiroshi Sugito – Deeper than a puddle, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 260 x 280cm

Yoshitomo Nara & Hiroshi Sugito, Marianne, 2004, framed acrylic on canvas, 66 by 60 cm
Yoshitomo Nara – & Hiroshi Sugito, Marianne, 2004, framed acrylic on canvas, 66 by 60 cm

Yoshitomo Nara - White Night, 2006, 162.5×130cm
Yoshitomo Nara – White Night, 2006, 162.5×130cm

Yoshitomo Nara - Night Walker, 2001
Yoshitomo Nara – Night Walker, 2001, acrylic on canvas; 228 by 182 cm (89¾ by 71⅝ in)

Yoshitomo Nara - Pale Mountain Dog, 2000
Yoshitomo Nara – Pale Mountain Dog, 2000, acrylic on canvas, 132 by 198.1 cm (52 by 78 in)

Yoshitomo Nara
Yoshitomo Nara

Yoshitomo Nara
Yoshitomo Nara – The Little Judge, 2001, acrylic paint, cotton cloth, 194.3 x 162.2 cm

Yoshitomo Nara - Itchy and Scratchy, 2000
Yoshitomo Nara – Itchy and Scratchy, 2000, acrylic on canvas, 89.9 x 99.7 cm (35 3/8 x 39 1/4 in)

Works on wood

Yoshitomo Nara - One Foot in the Groove (For Donnie Fritts)
Yoshitomo Nara – One Foot in the Groove (For Donnie Fritts), acrylic on wood, 221.9 by 352.7 by 8.9 cm (87 3/8 by 138 7/8 by 3 1/2 in)

Yoshitomo Nara - ROCK YOU ! signed in English and dated 2006 on the reverse, framed acrylic on board 162 by 162 cm.; 63¾ by 63¾ in.
Yoshitomo Nara – ROCK YOU !, 2006, framed acrylic on board 162 by 162 cm

Yoshitomo Nara - Untitled, 1995
Yoshitomo Nara – Untitled, 1995, acrylic on canvas laid on plywood, 46.5 x 46.5 cm (18.3 x 18.3 in)

Yoshitomo Nara - Mumps
Yoshitomo Nara – Mumps, 2015, acrylic and pencil on wooden board, 48.3 x 40.6 cm (19 x 16 in)

Works on paper

Yoshitomo Nara - OH! MY GOD! I MISS YOU
Yoshitomo Nara – OH! MY GOD! I MISS YOU, Synthetic polymer paint and pencil on printed paper. 20 x 14 1/4″ (50.8 x 36.2 cm)

Yoshitomo Nara - Nobody’s Fool, 1998, Acrylic, ink, coloured pencil and graphite on printed paper Size- 34.3 x 25.4 centimetres (13.5 x 10 inches)
Yoshitomo Nara – Nobody’s Fool, 1998, Acrylic, ink, coloured pencil and graphite on printed paper, 34.3×25.4cm

Yoshitomo Nara - Standing Innocent, 1995, acrylic on paper, 49.5 x 36 cm
Yoshitomo Nara – Standing Innocent, 1995, acrylic on paper 49.5 x 36 cm

Yoshitomo Nara - Star Island, 2003, screenprint in colors on wove paper, 300 x 300 mm
Yoshitomo Nara – Star Island, 2003, screenprint in colors on wove paper, 300 x 300 mm

Yoshitomo Nara - We Are Punks, 2011, color pencil on paper, 41.9 x 29.5 cm
Yoshitomo Nara – We Are Punks, 2011, color pencil on paper, 41.9 x 29.5 cm

Yoshitomo Nara - After the Acid Rain (Day Version)  woodcut in colors, 2010, on wove paper, signed and dated in pencil 21 7/8 x 17½ in. (555 x 445 mm.)
Yoshitomo Nara – After the Acid Rain (Day Version), 2010, woodcut in colors on wove paper, 555x445mm

Yoshitomo Nara - Big Eyed Cat, 2003, acrylic and pigment on printed paper, 30 by 22 in. 76.2 by 55.9 cm
Yoshitomo Nara – Big Eyed Cat, 2003, acrylic and pigment on printed paper, 76.2×55.9cm

Yoshitomo Nara - I Don’t Want to Grow Up (2010), woodcut in colors on Japon paper; © Christie’s Images and Yoshitomo Nara
Yoshitomo Nara – I Don’t Want to Grow Up, 2010, woodcut in colors on Japon paper
© Christie’s Images and Yoshitomo Nara

Yoshitomo Nara - Life is Only One, 2010, woodcut in colors on Japon paper, 420 x 295 mm
Yoshitomo Nara – Life is Only One, 2010, woodcut in colors on Japon paper, 420 x 295 mm

Yoshitomo Nara - Moe No Suzaku, 1997, acrylic, coloured pencil on paper, 36.6 by 30 cm
Yoshitomo Nara – Moe No Suzaku, 1997, acrylic, coloured pencil on paper, 36.6x30cm

Yoshitomo Nara - Lotta Leaves Home, 1999, acrylic, colour pencil on paper,  72.5 x 51.5 cm
Yoshitomo Nara – Lotta Leaves Home, 1999, acrylic, colour pencil on paper, 72.5×51.5 cm

Yoshitomo Nara - After the Acid Rain (Night Version), 2010, Japanese woodcut, Ukiyo-e style, 21 7/8 x 17-1/2 in. (Courtesy the Pace Gallery)
Yoshitomo Nara – After the Acid Rain (Night Version), 2010, Japanese woodcut, Ukiyo-e style
Courtesy: Pace Gallery

Yoshitomo Nara - Balance girl, 2014, Woodcut
Yoshitomo Nara – Balance girl, 2014, Woodcut

Yoshitomo Nara - Standing alone, 2002
Yoshitomo Nara – Standing alone, 2002, acrylic and coloured pencil on paper, 72.5 x 51.2 cm (28.5 x 20.2 in)

Yoshitomo Nara - Untitled, 2004
Yoshitomo Nara – Untitled, 2004, coloured pencil and gouache on paper envelope, 34 x 26 cm

Yoshitomo Nara - Cosmic Girl, Eyes Open & Eyes Closed
Yoshitomo Nara – Cosmic Girl, Eyes Open & Eyes Closed (two works), 2008, offset lithograph in colors, 71.1 × 50.8 cm (28 × 20 in)

Yoshitomo Nara - Gypsy Song
Yoshitomo Nara – Guitar Girl, 2003, lithograph on paper, 65 x 50 cm

Toys & Sculptures

Yoshitomo Nara - Sleepless Night (Sitting)  mixed-media multiple in colors, 2007, signed in felt-tip pen on the wooden certificate, Height- 11½ in. (290 mm.)
Yoshitomo Nara – Sleepless Night (Sitting), 2007, mixed-media multiple in colors, height 290mm

Yoshitomo Nara - Wicked Looking
Yoshitomo Nara – Wicked Looking
Photo: Keizo Kioku/japantimes.co.jp

Yoshitomo Nara - Setsuko the Cat, bronze, 2012
Yoshitomo Nara – Setsuko the Cat, bronze, 2012
Photo: Merrily Kerr/newyorkarttours.com

All images: Yoshitomo Nara/pacegallery.com unless otherwise noted.

  1. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukiyo-e
  2. https://theculturetrip.com/asia/japan/articles/traditional-japanese-masks-and-what-theyre-used-for/
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superflat
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-pop
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