The Spellbinding Stare of Nara's Enigmatic Protagonist

The Spellbinding Stare of Nara's Enigmatic Protagonist

Yoshitomo Nara's 'Missing in Action' characterizes the artist's complex interpretations of childhood, nostalgia and solitude.

Yoshitomo Nara's 'Missing in Action' characterizes the artist's complex interpretations of childhood, nostalgia and solitude.

Yoshitomo Nara Missing in Action, 2005

The girl in Yoshitomo Nara's Missing in Action, executed in 2005, exhibits a troubled expression emblematic of the artist, creating a statement of defiant maturity mingled with childish petulance. Her features bear the hallmarks of Nara's pictorial style, including the thin-lined red mouth, the two dots for a nose and the broad expansive pale forehead. Since these traits are characteristic of babies and young children, they serve to emphasise the figure's juvenility, establishing a striking contrast with the strong piercing gaze emanating from her gleaming purple eyes. The girl's stance is obstinate, with the sleeves of her dress drawn over her hands and her feet firmly fixed to the ground, as if determined to remain anchored there.

Nara adopts a simplistic approach to figuration, using the minimum number of lines necessary to render the outline of her body. His approach to painting ensures that the girl's unsettling countenance and the relationship between protagonist and her surroundings command our attention.

In Missing in Action, the sparkling intricate background deviates from Nara's earlier treatment of similar subjects: Hues of green, orange and blue arise intermingled with the predominant deep purple of the setting, reminiscent of the celestial firmament or perhaps the legendary class of yokai, the supernatural spirits prevalent in Japanese folklore. This is one of the notable differences and developments when compared to Nara's earlier painting Missing in Action, where the girl is presented from closer quarters against a stark monochrome backdrop.

Yoshitomo Nara Missing in Action, 2000, Private Collection

Nara describes the very process of painting in similarly cosmic terms, as he recounts in 2011's Yoshitomo Nara Complete Works, "standing in front of the canvas sometimes felt like traveling on a voyage in outer space — a lonely little spacecraft floating in the darkness of the void. My spaceship could go anywhere in this fantasy while I was painting, even to the edge of the universe."

In this piece from our upcoming Evening Sale, the interaction between the figure and the elaborate world around her also has deeper implications for our understanding of the girl's consciousness and perception. Nara's careful use of the same purple which swirls around the canvas for the execution of the eyes suggests that we may be viewing her internal subconscious, the child's isolation physically manifesting itself for the viewer to read and interpret.

It is frequently commented that an overriding feeling of loneliness pervades much of the artist's work, particularly in reference to his iconic studies of young girls and dogs. There is, however, an accompanying sense of tenacious and wilful independence that prevents his characters from being interpreted in a straightforward manner. We, as a viewer, are therefore held entranced by the figure in Missing in Action and her simultaneously entreating and recalcitrant gaze, nostalgically identifying in ourselves the contradictory emotions which characterise childhood. "His work attracts many people, because they recognise their precious inner solitude within it, a solitude which has often been long lost" (Banana Yoshimoto 'The World of Nara-kun', Yoshitomo Nara Complete Works, 2011). Similarly to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince, Nara juxtaposes childlike innocence with the knowledge of an adult. Saint-Exupéry acknowledges the connection, as after all "All grown-ups were once children, though few of them remember it," he writes in 1943's The Little Prince. Nara takes influence from such illustrations, inviting the onlooker to reconnect with their inner child.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Front cover of Le Petit Prince, published by Gallimard, 1946 © Archives Charmet. Image: Bridgeman Images

Nara's paintings transcend the traditional barriers between Eastern and Western

The series of works entitled Missing in Action serve as a valuable lens through which to examine Nara's evolving style of compelling portraiture. The roots of these now iconic figures lie in the artist's experimentation during the 1990s with removing extraneous elements from the composition in order to focus upon the emotional reality of the characters. Missing in Action, 2000, represents one extreme of this exploration, as a girl wearing a familiar green dress looks over her shoulder in an accusatory manner, expressing her dislike of an unknown quantity and perhaps also of her audience, unequivocally highlighted by the bleakness of the beige background. In contrast, our work to be auctioned, executed in 2005, is a testament to Nara's interest in increasingly nuanced considerations of the solitary and youthful psyche, demonstrated through the whirls of evocative colours and their inherent interplays.

Kano Torin Nurikabe, illustration, 1802

Scholars have struggled to locate Nara's artistic heritage as a result of the innovative individuality of his creative oeuvre, citing diverse influences from Pop to Neo-Expressionist drawing and the Superflat aesthetic of Takashi Murakami. The artist himself has expressed indebtedness to the illustrations of Takeshi Motai, underlining the importance of literary motifs and narratives within his work.

Characteristically difficult to categorise, Nara's paintings transcend the traditional barriers between Eastern and Western, natural and supernatural realms and representational and conceptual art. In Missing in Action, he effortlessly encompasses this wide range of disparate elements within the spellbinding stare of the enigmatic protagonist.