The Collectible Characters of Pop and Street Art
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From the Catalogue:
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'Fortunately nowadays it’s no longer forbidden to be into kitsch and kid’s stuff, and only people who want to be “very” grown up can’t relate to such things’ (Yoshitomo Nara, quoted in Stephan Trescher, 'My Superficiality Is Only a Game: A Conversation between Stephan Trescher and Yoshitomo Nara', pp. 103-07, Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, exh.cat., Institut für Kunst Nürnberg, Nürnberg, 2002, p. 105).
The girl in Yoshitomo Nara’s Last Warrior / The Unknown Soldier gazes at us with a fixed, determined stare that belies her age. The cutesy charm of this doll-like figure is undercut by the downturned mouth, the pursed lips, the clenched fist and the frowning eyes, which fix us to the spot. She has been shown at an angle that emphasises the act of a child looking up—and in this case, confronting her audience. With this steely attitude, the girl well deserves her title of Last Warrior. She also clearly deserves her place within the extensive cast of bellicose youths who have become so iconic in Nara’s work, leading to his becoming one of the most celebrated Japanese artists of our age.
Dating from 2000, this picture perfectly demonstrates the intoxicating allure of Nara’s paintings, and his subjects. This is a subversive sweetness, tapping into the kima-kawaii wave that had emerged in the 1990s, shortly before Last Warrior / The Unknown Soldier was painted. Kima-kawaii is cuteness with an edge, often with a hint of either ugliness or, as here, violence. In Last Warrior / The Unknown Soldier, it simmers beneath the surface, percolating through the girl’s rigid glare.
Last Warrior / The Unknown Soldier was painted at a pivotal point in Nara’s career, when his engaging paintings of subversively adult children were garnering him increasing international attention and acclaim. Only the previous year, his images had been used for a book by the celebrated author Banana Yoshimoto, as well as on album covers. In 2000, he was granted his first one-man show at an American museum, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It was also in 2000 that Nara moved away from Cologne in Germany, which had been his base since 1988.
Nara’s time studying and then teaching art in Germany—in Western Europe, rather than Japan—is evident in the sheer craft and skill that have gone into making Last Warrior / The Unknown Soldier, as a closer inspection of its surface will attest. While the visual language of Nara’s paintings mimics anime, manga and children’s illustrations, explaining why he is so often associated with Japanese Neo Pop, Last Warrior / The Unknown Soldier and many of its sister-pictures are painstakingly created using layers of oil on canvas in techniques that echo those of the Old Masters and 20th-century painters. The essentially monochrome background of Last Warrior / The Unknown Soldier is deliberately made to resemble a sheet of paper left in reserve, or a page, the figure floating against it. At the same time, it fills the picture with a luminosity that recalls some European frescoes painted in tempera on plaster. The figure itself has been rendered with an eloquent economy of means, deliberately mimicking the appearance of print media and cartoons despite the sheer effort that has gone into painting it. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Nara insists on this direct involvement with his pictures, employing no studio assistants, but instead painting with a single-minded determination (see for example G. Harris, ‘Interview: Japanese Artist Yoshitomo Nara’, Financial Times, 10 October 2014, reproduced online).
This reveals the wide panoply of influences at work in Nara’s pictures. While manga, anime and Disney may be more obvious references, Nara is also touching upon the history of art in both the East and the West—and of course their crossover. After all, born in the 1950s, Nara was raised in a Japan that had been flooded with Western, and particularly American, culture, and which had responded by assimilating elements of it, co-opting it to its own purposes, for instance in anime series such as Speed Racer. Nara himself has discussed how his upbringing in a rural area of Northern Japan had an influence in the way that he responded to all these influences. 'In the area I'm from there was no museum - and there still isn't,’ he has explained. ‘I received my visual stimuli more from television, from Japanese and American comic books, and from European children's books. That's why comic books have a greater reality for me than the European painting that I later came to know and study intensively' (Yoshitomo Nara, quoted in Stephan Trescher, 'My Superficiality Is Only a Game: A Conversation between Stephan Trescher and Yoshitomo Nara', pp. 103-07, Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, exh.cat., Institut für Kunst Nürnberg, Nürnberg, 2002, p. 104). Likewise, punk and folk music would have an impact on Nara—the girl’s pose and haircut in Last Warrior / The Unknown Soldier recalls pictures of the Ramones, the band he revered.
During his childhood, Nara was largely isolated and left to his own devices. The solitude and independence he experienced have filtered into his pictures of defiant girls shown smoking, holding weapons or scowling as in Last Warrior / The Unknown Soldier. After all, as he has explained, ‘They are all self-portraits in a way. But the emotions that I feel can, of course, be universal’ (Yoshitomo Nara, quoted in J. Lindon, ‘Kultureflash Interview’, kultureflash, 1 March 2006, online).
—Courtesy of Phillips
Signature: signed, titled and dated '"LAST WARRIOR / THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER" Nara [in Japanese] 2000' on the reverse
London, Frahm Ltd., In Your Face, 3 February - 21 March 2003
Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, exh. cat., Institut für Kunst Nürnberg, Nürnberg, 2002, p. 164 and p. 199 (illustrated)
Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works Volume 1: Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs 1984 – 2010, Tokyo, 2011, no. P-2000-018, p. 168 (illustrated)
Tomio Koyama Galleries, Tokyo
Frahm Ltd., London
Red Dot Ltd., New York
Museum Works Galleries, Aspen
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Influenced by elements of popular culture such as anime, manga, Walt Disney cartoons, and punk rock, Yoshitomo Nara creates paintings, sculptures, and drawings of adorable-yet-sinister childlike characters. Painted with simple bold lines, primary colors, and set against empty backgrounds, these small children and animals often share the canvas with text, knives, plants, and cardboard boxes, among other recurring elements. As one of the fathers and central figures of the Japanese neo-Pop movement, Nara’s work expresses the struggle to find an identity fractured by war, rapid modernization, and an omnipresent visual culture. Nara’s sculptures, made primarily from fiberglass, and his drawings on postcards, envelopes, and scraps of paper, further this exploration using the same elegance of line and simple palette as his paintings.
Japanese, b. 1959, Hirosaki, Japan
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