Yoshitomo Nara

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Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959) is a Japanese artist. He lives and works in Tokyo, and first came to the fore of the art world during Japan’s Pop art movement in the 1990s.

The subject matter of his sculptures and paintings is deceptively simple: most works depict one seemingly innocuous subject (often pastel-hued children and animals drawn with confident, cartoonish lines) with little or no background. His artwork was featured in the album titled ‘Suspended Animation’ by experimental band Fantômas.

But these children, who appear at first to be cute and even vulnerable, sometimes brandish weapons like knives and saws. Their wide eyes often hold accusatory looks that could be sleepy-eyed irritation at being awoken from a nap—or that could be undiluted expressions of hate. Nara, however, does not see his weapon-wielding subjects as aggressors. ‘Look at them, they [the weapons] are so small, like toys. Do you think they could fight with those?’ he says. ‘I don’t think so. Rather, I kind of see the children among other, bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives…’ Lauded by art critics, Nara’s bizarrely intriguing works have gained him a cult following around the world.

The manga and anime of his 1960s childhood are both clear influences on Nara’s stylized, large-eyed figures. Nara subverts these typically cute images, however, by infusing his works with horror-like imagery. This juxtaposition of human evil with the innocent child may be a reaction to Japan’s rigid social conventions. The punk rock music of his youth has also influenced the artist’s work. Recalling a similar – if more unsettling – image of rebellious, violent youth, Nara’s art embraces the punk ethos.

That said, Nara has also cited traditions as varied as Renaissance painting, literature, illustration, ukiyo-e and graffiti as further inspiration. But perhaps most significantly, Nara’s upbringing in post-World War II Japan profoundly affected his mindset and, subsequently, his artwork as well. He grew up in a time when Japan was experiencing an inundation of Western pop culture such as comic books, Walt Disney animation, and rock music. Additionally, Nara was raised in the isolated countryside as a latchkey child of working-class parents, so he was often left alone with little to do but explore his young imagination. The fiercely independent subjects that populate so much of his artwork may be a reaction to Nara’s own largely independent childhood.

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