“They say human eyes are the mirror of the soul, and I used to draw them too carelessly”.
Yoshitomo Nara is a key pioneer of Japanese Neo-pop art. His iconic style blends traditional Japanese pictorial language like manga and traditional theatrical masks with Western visual registers like Walt Disney characters, punk music and American comic books. The artist is best known for his innocent yet sinister figurative depictions of children and animals, with their central feature being a large pair of captivating eyes. His playful yet profound artworks meditate on the boundaries of Japanese and global identity, as well as the power of imagination and the eternal enigma of childhood. He has had over 70 solo exhibitions throughout his long and illustrious career.
Yoshitomo Nara was born in Hirosaki, Aomori, Japan in 1959. After attending the Aichi University of the Arts, he pursued his further education at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1993 and settled in Cologne a year later. His artworks create hybrid vocabularies from Eastern and Western cultural influences, merging visual lexes like manga and punk rock. Whilst living in Germany, the artist perfected his technique of layering paint and subdued pigments to achieve an ethereal effect as seen in Pony Tail (1995) and Sleepless Night Sitting (1997).This would gradually mature into the artist’s signature aesthetic.
Upon returning to Japan in 2000, Nara had his germinal solo exhibition at the Yokohama Museum of Art entitled I DON’T MIND IF YOU FORGET ME (2001). Although this was not his first solo exhibition, it was by far his largest and most important in his career. The show featured portraits of children that were influenced by manga comics and traditional Japanese theatrical masks, with an often sweet yet sinister effect. The eerie dimension of his seemingly innocent works is further enhanced through the visual cues and props in the works such as knives, cigarettes or crucifixes.
His notable sculptural works include the drawing installation Time of My Life (2001) and the ceramic work Fountain of Life (2001). Nara also often inserts fragments of Japanese, English and German text like ‘no means no’ and ‘born to lose’ into the images. Primarily associated with the Japanese neo-pop movement, he was a member of the Superflat group with Takashi Murakami, focused on the intersection of art and consumerism, founded in 2000.
Nara created a famous collaborative project with the design collective graf at the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga in Spain, entitled Yoshimoto Nara + graf: Torre de Malaga (2007). The tower constructed from industrial waste featured the painting 126.96.36.199, Change the History (2007) by Nara.
The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011 marked an existential turn in Nara’s practice, his paintings such as Thinker (2017) and Dead of Night (2017), portraying his iconic child figures in a meditative state and often with closed eyes.
Currently based in Nasushiobara in Japan, Nara has had many notable exhibitions, including the Hayward Gallery (2009), Stephen Friedman (2016) and Pace gallery (2017). His artworks can be found in prestigious collections such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the MOCA in Los Angeles, the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, The Art Institute of Chicago and the British Museum, London. His most recent retrospective was held at the Los Angeles Museum of Art (2020-2021).
Nara’s works celebrate the freedom of youth, rebellion, individuality and imagination through a unique figurative practice that merges traditional Japanese Art and contemporary Western iconography.