Yoshitomo Nara

Japan 1959

Sculpture, Pop Surrealism


Yoshitomo Nara
Yoshitomo Nara
June 13, 2016
Ok, I know it's so damn corny to quote somebody just to describe yourself, let alone Confucius, but this quote says all about my relationship with Widewalls, so forgive me for doing this: Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. Am I forgiven?

Yoshitomo Nara is one of the most popular Japanese painters who portrayed wide-eyed children and dogs. Along with the painting, he draws, makes sculptures and illustrations. His major breakthrough occurred in 1990’s when the Pop art expansion spread across Japan. What he found most appealing is the general acceptance of pop art, which he used to promote somewhat contradictory ideas and subjects. The innocent children with their wide eyes, pastel colors and cute clothes were depicted carrying weapons, showing hostile affinities and breaking the soft image of innocence.

asia new japanese acrylic works 2016 and drawings 2013 recent dispayed at york museum house Yoshitomo Nara - Little Wanderer and Pup Cup animals
Yoshitomo Nara – Little Wanderer and Pup Cup, image via Mutualart.com

Girl and Dog in the World of Yoshitomo Nara

Nara was born in 1959 in Aomori, Japan. In 1985 he graduated from Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music and two years later earned an MFA there. He left Japan for Germany where he studied at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. When he started painting he combined his desire for expression with books and music he loved, creating an explosive fusion of popular culture elements. The most important influences are the manga and anime from the time of his childhood, with their innocent looking characters who go on great adventures. His favorite characters are a little girl and a dog. However, Yoshitomo Nara gave those cute looking figures a different twist, portraying them in dark and mysterious manner, painting them in almost horror like the light. This contradictory composition originated from strict social conventions in Japan, which no one could fight against, so the opposing nature of youngsters and weapons were a perfect medium because of their power to induce strong feelings. Most of the intellectual, creative and artistic members of the modern Japanese society felt the need to rebel against the social oppression imposed by the government however, it had to be done under the veil of free artistic expression no one could censor. His ambition was powered up by his love for punk music, which gave him the energy to be a rebel himself. Nara liked the characteristic spirit of the punk culture, he enjoyed the positive influence they had on young people’s attitudes and aspirations, and however, he did not enjoy their rough aesthetics in fullness.

Nara’s paintings are minimalist but carry an explosive fusion of pop culture elements

asia acrylic works at recent japanese new museum house drawings 2013 and 2016 york Yoshitomo Nara animals
Yoshitomo Nara – Girl with Cigarette, image via Tyoindex.com

Soft Pastel Colors of the Rebellion

Instead of making his subject punk rock, he wanted to make them appear cute and vulnerable, and in more appealing aesthetics. During his educational years, he came to love Renaissance paintings and literature and often found inspiration in the paintings of old masters. He liked the positive values of Japanese tradition and used it quite often as a source of inspiration. He combined the traditional with contemporary and often used cites from rock and punk songs, graffiti and street art to enrich the motivational background of his work. Growing up in post-World War II Japan gave him to an opportunity to witness social and cultural change, to be part of the generations that were open to Western culture. His mindset was settled for openness, for the ability to incorporate new with traditional, keeping the quality unchanged and both element equally significant. Also, his upbringing was quite modern, as he was able to explore as many books as he wanted. He grew up to be fiercely independent and it determined the fictional nature of his subjects, too. The subjects of his work vary, from the typical allegorical satire to the odd looking wide-eyed kids, whose vulnerability of induces slightly disturbing feelings. The colors are pastel, soft-hued and the lines are bold, similar to the ones they use to portray anime characters.

The nature of Nara’s sujbects is extremely confidant and independent

japanese new museum in tokyo presents recent works 2013 and drawings 2016 at new york museum house Yoshitomo Nara animals
Yoshitomo Nara – Looking for Treasure, image via Ganji.com (Left), Nice to See You Again, image via Mutualart.com (Right)

Playing with Weapons and Toys

The main subject is the contradiction, the strange sight of kids carrying weapons, knives, sometimes even displaying famous brand logos on them. The idea is to place weapons instead of toys, in order to show how easily the violent nature of humankind can be awakened. It is enough just to be part of the modern society to encounter some type of violent behavior. Children with weapons are a metaphorical depiction of grown up people who represent the bad kind, the one who would exchange noble ethical principles for acquiring power and wealth. Those are the ones who carry bigger weapons, and can successfully hide behind the seemingly innocent wide-eyed gaze. He develops his idea extremely well and has a major group of followers and appreciation around the globe. Critiques love him, general audience, even more, and fellow artists even feature him in their art, like the band Fantômas did in their album Suspended Animation in 2005. He uses his painting for commercial purposes also, and so far he has published many pieces for magazines, catalogs, and books and had his artwork appear in many videos. In 2010 there was a major retrospective exhibition held in New York, entitled Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool. From 2001 to 2003 and 2004 to 2005 he had two retrospective exhibitions touring Japan and United states – I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me and the Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens.

Minimalistic portraits of babies carry a deeper and emotional message

aomori works at the new tokyo museum shows drawings from 2013 at new york museum and new animals drawings 2013 Yoshitomo Nara
Yoshitomo Nara – Untitled (Left), Another Girl Another Planet (Right), images via Mutualart.com

Naive Aesthetic and Simple Form

With something as simple as the 2D image, minimalist portrait of the moody child, Yoshimoto Nara manages to create something emotional and deep. Pop aesthetics serves him as a platform for the proud presentation of the confident children, whose eyes gaze straight into the viewer, or when they are closed they engage the viewer into the inter-subjective and introspective analysis. Their still glares, cheeky expressions, and cute appearance use the postmodern ability to transfer something deeper without having to sacrifice their simplicity. In pop culture cartoons are not made just for childer, their message resonate among the adults pretty well, so his medium makes perfect sense to those who want to dig deeper for the message and not just label him as sweet, cartoonish artist. The naive aesthetic gives the characters certain appeal, but their facial expression does not imply friendliness and cuteness. They look like the kids who just premeditated some sort of mischief or did something bad, and now are hiding under the veil of presumed innocence. In just one single frame Nara displays his composition of 2D canonization of the human spirit. Those children are grown men in masks, and a perfect example of the social oblivion that misinterprets them as victims and ones who require protection, while they are perfectly safe, ready, willing and able to commit a bad deed.

The artist is represented by the Pace Gallery London, Pace Gallery Beijing, Pace Gallery Hong Kong, Pace Gallery Menlo Park, Pop Fine Art Los Angeles and Galerie Fluegel-Roncak.

Yoshitomo Nara lives and works in Tokyo, Japan.

Featured image: Yoshitomo Nara – Portrait of the artist, image via Japantimes.co.jp

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group 
2016Yoshitomo Nara: New WorksStephen Friedman Gallery, London, UKSolo
2016Takashi Murakami’s Superflat Collection: From Shohaku and Rosanjin to Anselm KieferYokohama Museum of Art, JapanGroup
2016Hey Ho Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of PunkQueens Museum, New York, NYGroup
2016Revalue Nippon Project: Hidetoshi Nakata’s Favorite Japanese KogeiPanasonic Shiodome Museum, Tokyo, JapanGroup
2016Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructoseirginia Museum of Contemporary Art, Virginia Beach, VAGroup
2016Very Addictive: Re-extension of Aesthetics in Daily LifeMuseum of Contemporary Art, Yinchuan, ChinaGroup
2016Group ExhibitionArt Gallery ARTIUM, Fukuoka, JapanGroup
2015Shallow PuddlesBlum & Poe, Tokyo, JapanSolo
2015Life is Only One: Yoshitomo NaraAsia Society Hong Kong Center, Hong Kong, ChinaSolo
2015Yoshitomo NaraJohnen Galerie, Berlin, GermanySolo
2015COSMO - INTIMELa Collection Takahashi, Maison de la culture du Japon a Paris, FranceGroup
2015Go and play with the giantMuseum Villa Stuck, Munich, GermanyGroup
2015To the North, From Here: Naoki Ishikawa + Yoshitomo NaraWatari-um, Tokyo, JapanDuo
2015Takahashi Collection: Mirror NeuronTokyo Opera City Art Gallery, Tokyo, JapanGroup
2015Dual - Nature: Selections from the Chaney Family CollectionPearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts, Spring, TXGroup
2015Today is the Day: Proposal to the FutureArt Gallery Miyauchi, Hiroshima, JapanGroup
2015Forever YoungAsia University Museum of Modern Art, Taichung, TaiwanGroup
2015Messages: Takahashi CollectionTowada Art Center, Towada, JapanGroup
2015Bow Wow Wonderful I Want to Meet That DogMigishi Kotaro Museum of Art, Sapporo, JapaGroup
2014Yoshitomo NaraBlum & Poe, Los Angeles, USA Solo
2014UntitledSawada Mansion Gallery, Kochi, JapanSolo
2014Yoshitomo Nara Greetings from a Place in My HeartDairy Art Centre, LondonSolo
2014Study from the Human BodyStephen Friedman Gallery, London, England Group
2014This Is Not A ToyDesign Exchange, Toronto, Canada Group
2014Go-Betweens: The World Seen Through ChildrenMori Art Museum, Tokyo, JapanGroup
2014Go-Betweens: The World Seen Through ChildrenOkinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum, Okinawa, JapanGroup
2014Go-Betweens: The World Seen Through ChildrenMuseum of Art, Kochi, JapanGroup
2013Yoshitomo NaraThe Pace Gallery - 534 West 25th Street, New York City, NYSolo
2013Nara Yoshitomo: A Bit Like You And Me…Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto - CAMK, KumamotoSolo
2013PrintsTomio Koyama Gallery - Kyoto, KyotoSolo
2013Nara Yoshitomo - A Bit Like You And MeYokohama Museum of Art, Nishi-ku, YokohamaSolo
2013Neo JaponKumquat Gallery, Hong Kong , China Group
2013Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., USAGroup
2013Flowers: Towada Art Center 5th Anniversary ExhibitionTowada Art Center, Aomori, JapanGroup
2013The Magic of Ceramics: Artistic InspirationMuseum of Modern Ceramic Art, Gifu, JapanGroup
2013Re: Quest - Japanese Contemporary Art since the 1970sMuseum of Art, Seoul National University, Seoul, KoreaGroup
2013Why not live for Art? IITokyo Opera City Art Gallery, Tokyo, JapanGroup
2013Wonderful My ArtKawaguchiko Museum of Art, Yamanashi, JapanGroup
2012Contemporary Asian Art: Texas ConnectionsAsia Society, Texas Centre, Texas, USAGroup
2012DOKI DOKIThe Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, Shigaraki, JapanGroup
2012Everywhere and nowhereReydan Weiss Collection, Oberstdorf, GermanyGroup
2012Print/Out: Multiplied Art in the Information Era, 1990 - 2010Museum of Modern Art, New York, USAGroup
2012Double Vision: Contemporary Art from JapanMoscow Museum of Modern Art, Moscow, RussiaGroup
2012WE LOVE KOKESHI!Nishida Kinenkan, Fukushima, JapanGroup
201210th Anniversary Exhibition; To Wander a GardenThe Vangi Sculpture Garden Museum, Shizuoka, JapanGroup
2012MOT Collection, New Acquisitions | Anish Kapoor, Yutaka Sone, Yoshimoto Nara, Nobuya Hitsuda, Mami KosemuraThe Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Tokyo, JapanGroup
2012Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., USAGroup
2012A Curator's MessageHyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Kobe, JapanGroup
2012Masahiko Kuwahara, Yoshitomo Nara, Hiroshi SugitoTomio Koyama Gallery, SingaporeGroup
2012The Art of CookingRoyal/T, Los Angeles, USAGroup
2011PRINT WORKSRoppongi Hills Art & Design Store Gallery, Tokyo, JapanSolo
2011Collection Exhibition: Floating BoatToyota Municipal Museum of Art Aichi, JapanGroup
2011Collectors' Stage: Asian Contemporary Art from Private CollectionsSingapore Art Museum, SingaporeGroup
2011Work by Nara Yoshitomo in Yokohana Museum of Art CollectionYokohana Museum of Art Yokohama, Kanagawa, JapanGroup
2011The Most Requested Top 30 / 10 Years of Takahashi CollectionTABLOID GALLERY, Tokyo, JapanGroup
2011Zenkyo-an x FOILKennin-ji Zenkyo-an Temple, Kyoto, JapanGroup
2011Contemporary Magic: A Tarot Deck Art ProjectThe Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USAGroup
2011Paul ClaySalon 94 Bowery, New York, USAGroup
2011Future Pass ーFrom Asia to the World Collateral Event of the 54th International Art Exhibitionla Biennale di Venezia, Abbazia di San Gregorio, Palazzo Mangilli-Valmarana, Venice, ItalyGroup
2011Invisibleness is VisiblenessMOCA TAIPEI: Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, TaiwanGroup
2011Taguchi Art Collection, Global New ArtSeiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Museum of Art, Tokyo, JapanGroup
2011The Most Requested Top 30, 10 Years of Takahashi CollectionTakahashi Collection Hinode Opening Exhibition (Part 2), TABLOID GALLERY, Tokyo, JapanGroup
2011CAFE in Mito 2011Art Tower Mito, Ibaraki, JapanGroup
2011New Works in ceramics, Japan 2011Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, Toyota, Aichi, JapanGroup
2011Bye Bye Kitty!!!Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art, Japan Society, New York, USAGroup
2011Creating the New Century: Contemporary Art from the Dicke CollectionThe Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, OH, USAGroup
2011The 53 Stations of Tokaido: From Hiroshige to Artists of Our DaysMusée Bernard Buffet, Mishima, Shizuoka, JapanGroup
2010Yoshitomo Nara: New EditionsPACEPRINTS, New York, USASolo
2010Nobody's FoolAsia Society Museum, New York, USA (catalogue)Solo
2010Ceramic worksTomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo, JapanSolo
2009The Crated Rooms in Iceland - Yoshitomo Nara + YNGReykjavik Art Museum, Iceland Duo
2009UntitledMarianne Boesky Gallery, New York, USASolo
2008ZINK Munich, GermanySolo
2008Yoshitomo Nara + grafCemeti Art House, Jakarta, Indonesia; touring to BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Newcastle, UK (catalogue)Duo
2007NARA + GRAFCentro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, SpainSolo
2007Berlin Baracke Galerie Zink, Berlin, GermanySolo
2007Yoshitomo Nara + grafMuseum of Contemporary Art, Den Haag, The Netherlands Solo
2007Johnen + SchoettleCologne, GermanySolo
2006Moonlight Serenade1st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan Solo
2006A to ZYoshii Brick Brew House, Hirosaki, Japan (catalogue)Solo
2006Yoshitomo Nara + grafStephen Friedman Gallery, London, England Solo
2006Arndt & PartnerZurich, Switzerland Solo
2006April SongThe Sculpture Garden Museum VANGI MUSEO, Mishima, JapanSolo
2005Home, graf gmOsaka, Japan (catalogue)Solo
2005Over the Rainbow: Yoshitomo Nara and Hiroshi SugitoPinakothek der Moderne, Munich, Germany; toured to the K21, Düsseldorf, Germany Solo
2005BridgeKenji Taki Gallery, Nagoya, JapanSolo
2004Yoshitomo Nara: New WorksBlum & Poe, Los Angeles, USASolo
2004Yoshitomo Nara-From the Depth of My DrawerHara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, JapanSolo
2004Yoshitomo Nara-From the Depth of My DrawerYonago City Museum of Art, Tottori, Japan; Yoshii Brick Brewhouse, Hirosaki, JapanSolo
2004Yoshitomo Nara-From the Depth of My DrawerRodin Gallery, Seoul, South KoreaSolo
2004Nowhere LandGalerie Johnen & Schöttle, Cologne, Germany Solo
2004Shallow Puddlesgraf gm, Osaka, Japan Solo
2004Over the Rainbow Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, GermanySolo
2004SomewhereGalerie Zink & Gegner, Munich, Germany; toured to K21, Düsseldorf, GermanySolo
2003Yoshitomo Nara: New Drawings Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo, JapanSolo
2003S.M.L., grafOsaka, Japan Solo
2003The Good, the Bad, the Average and UniqueLittle More Gallery, Tokyo, Japan Solo
2003Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, OhioSolo
2003Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, USASolo
2003Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens Contemporary Art Museum St Louis, St. Louis, USASolo
2003Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, (Hawaii), USASolo
2003New DrawingsTomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo, JapanSolo