Masters on the Market: Yoshitomo Nara

Nazia Safi
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Yoshitomo Nara. Image from The Japan Times.
Yoshitomo Nara. Image from The Japan Times.

Yoshitomo Nara never thought of being a painter until he was 18 years old. Even while studying art in Germany, he was unsure about choosing painting as a career. It was not until 1993 that Nara started pursuing painting seriously. Soon, he got his first assignment to produce promotional posters for the Swedish film Lotta Leaves Home. During this time, the artist developed his signature style: cartoonish paintings of animals and children. Indebted to American twee and Japanese kawaii, these works depict a range of emotional complexities, from rebellion and resistance to contemplation and stillness.

Nara has exhibited internationally, finally bringing his work to the United States in 1995. In 2019, Yoshitomo Nara became the most expensive Japanese artist when his painting Knife Behind Back sold for a record-smashing USD 25,000,000 at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong. Since then, his works regularly appear at auctions from Sotheby’s and other major auction houses.

Yoshitomo Nara, Knife Behind Back (2000). Image from Sotheby’s.
Yoshitomo Nara, Knife Behind Back (2000). Image from Sotheby’s.

Yoshitomo Nara’s Missing in Action from 2000 will head to auction this June with Phillips and Poly Auction. Before the bidding begins, Auction Daily takes a closer look at Nara’s career.

Music as Inspiration 

Nara was born in Hirosaki, Japan to working parents and grew up in the rural community of Aomori. The artist is the youngest of his brothers. With an age gap of over ten years between his siblings, Nara turned to Japanese TV shows and comic books for solace. “I was so lonely and only surrounded by apple trees… I could talk to nobody except nature,” said Yoshitomo Nara in an interview for ArtReview. “So I talked to the trees, the dog and the pigs.”

At the age of eight, Nara began listening to the radio broadcast from a nearby US Air Base, eventually developing an interest in American and European pop, punk, and folk music. Although he did not understand the lyrics of these songs, he found them inspirational and liberating. Nara soon collected the American and European records that shaped his artistic style.

After completing his education in Tokyo, Nara went to Germany. From 1988 to 1993, he studied at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. In 1994, he settled in Cologne, where he stayed for a long period. Nara undertook a series of collaborative projects in the late 1990s, including cover art for The Star Club and Shonen Knife and a book cover for novelist Banana Yoshimoto.

Album cover for Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour (1998), designed by Yoshitomo Nara. Image from Phaidon.
Album cover for Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour (1998), designed by Yoshitomo Nara. Image from Phaidon.

Back to the Roots

After staying for 12 years in Germany, Nara returned to Japan. There, he associated himself with Superflat, an avant-garde group of Japanese contemporary artists founded by Takashi Murakami. The group is known for its bright palettes and critical attitude toward pop culture and consumerism. For Superflat, Nara drew inspiration from traditional Japanese masks, manga-style books, and historical Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

Nara’s American twee pop and Japanese kawaii-influenced characters look innocent at first glance. However, a closer look reveals their darker side. These characters often share the canvas with knives, text, flaming torches, and crucifixes, among other recurring elements.

By the turn of the century, Nara participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions in America and Japan that propelled him to new heights. In 2019, Phillips sold Nara’s 1995 painting Hothouse Doll for $13,200,000.

Yoshitomo Nara, Hot House Doll, in the White Room III, 1995. Image from Phillips.
Yoshitomo Nara, Hot House Doll, in the White Room III, 1995. Image from Phillips.

Change of Direction

In 2013, Nara decided to change the direction of his career. “I felt uncomfortable with being given a certain label, whether it was positive or negative,” the artist told Ocula in 2016. “I realised that I’d long neglected the ‘conversation with myself,’ which had been the foundation of my creative activity. So I quit collaboration works and started working with ceramics to restart the conversation.”

Around the same time, Nara turned to photography, documenting his journey. The 2017 exhibition Takeshi Motai: The Dream Traveler at the Chihiro Art Museum showcased some of these photography works. He also released a collection of ephemera from his life and travel, titled Yoshitomo Nara Photo Book 2003-2012.

Nara continues to create paintings, sculptures, and drawings at his studio in Tochigi Prefecture. Today, his images of sinister childlike characters are among his most sought-after artworks. These compositions feature primary colors and simple, bold lines against empty backgrounds. The upcoming Phillips x Poly Auction event will present one of these iconic works with an estimate upon request. Nara’s Missing in Action (2000) depicts a girl wearing an oversized green dress and looking over her shoulder in a reproachful manner.

Yoshitomo Nara, Missing in Action, 2000. Image from Phillips.
Yoshitomo Nara, Missing in Action, 2000. Image from Phillips.

Live streaming of Phillips x Poly Auction’s 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale will begin on June 8th, 2021. Register to bid on Phillips’ website.

Want to read about other masters on the market? Auction Daily recently explored the career of American cinematic artist John Alvin.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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