Takashi Murakami - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 14, 2022 | Phillips
  • "Japanese people of my generation grew up reading manga and watching anime and special effect films, so these things are thickly in our flesh and blood."
    —Takashi Murakami 
    With works teeming with smiling sunflowers, manga characters, and fashion icons, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s visual style is immediately recognisable in its eclectic combinations of historical, contemporary and futuristic references. Stemming from a wider series of pieces reflecting his own cultural roots, Murakami’s Sage is rich in symbolism, its glittering, psychedelic composition combining acrylic, gold, and platinum leaf. First shown in a 2015 exhibition presented by Blum & Poe in Ibiza, the work exemplifies Murakami’s drastic change in style and subject in the early 2010s, having shifted from an aesthetically driven, 'Superflat' practice towards a more esoteric, reflective artistic expression.


    Left: School of Katsushika Hokusai, Sage, 18th–19th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Annette Young, in memory of her brother, Innis Young
    Right: Detail of the present work


    Manga and the Graphic Tradition


    Visually sumptuous, Sage represents the largest tondo format work by the artist to have come to auction. Recalling the graphic style of Japanese manga drawing, at the centre of the composition sits a mystical, cross-legged figure atop a pile of skulls, his technicolour robes in keeping with the glistening polka dot details and supercharged palette of the piece. The central figure’s head, dominated by six, symmetrically arranged eyes is crowned with a tree, itself encircled by seven smaller floating figures, all rendered in a similarly animated visual language. In its arresting graphic quality, the ensemble calls to mind the distorted proportions and wildly imaginative characters of the highly celebrated Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 film Spirited Away, a further nod to the role played by animation and manga in shaping Murakami’s visual vocabulary.  
    Despite these more contemporary pop culture references however, the title of the work identifies this mystical figure as a Sage, a sacred character in Japanese folklore whose wisdom transcends the temporal, revealing spiritual truth and guidance to others. Drawing inspiration from Eastern religious iconography, the Sage is shown here in seated posture and dressed in traditional robes, a burnished psychedelic halo behind him that recalls depictions of the Buddha, the smaller figures then recontextualised as Arhats – his enlightened disciples. Amalgamating various sources central to Buddhist thought, the composition at once evokes the Seven Stages of Buddha and the enlightenment of Buddha beneath the Bodhi Tree.


    Left: Buddha and the 16 Arhats, 17th century, Oglethorpe University Museum of Art, Atlanta
    Right: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve, 1526, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Image: © The Courtauld / Bridgeman Images

    As this episode is so central to Buddhist teaching, it is not unusual to see Buddha depicted seated beneath a tree, and yet the prominent inclusion of apples here also draws on more Western allusions. A powerful symbol in Christian iconography, the apple tree appears throughout the history of European religious paintings as a symbol of knowledge, immortality, and temptation. Here, the inclusion of the tree coincides with the symbolic meaning of the sage, both implying divinity and intellectualism and condensing multiple signifiers together to crater a new, multicultural sign. Embracing these overlapping cultural symbols in Sage, Murakami ushers in a more globalised view of cultural complexity and commonality.


    Confronting a Disturbing World 


    From the year 2011 onwards, Murakami’s practice has seen a drastic shift from a brighter style comprising smiling sunflowers and kawaii anime characters towards more solemn subject matters of skulls, distorted figures, and religious icons. This introspective change in style and subject marks Murakami’s response to the heart-breaking 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the ensuing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
    "I used to think of religion as something kind of false and hypocritical, but after the earthquake disaster, I realized in a time like that, religion and fairy tales and things like that are actually a necessity."
    —Takashi Murakami
    Executed in 2014, Sage is related to Murakami’s celebrated Arhats series, a selection of which were also presented alongside the present work in Murakami’s 2015 exhibition with Blum & Poe. A motif Murakami relentlessly incorporated in his post-2011 works, an arhat refers to a Buddhist figure who spread Buddha’s teachings to save humanity from its dangerous desires. It is used by Murakami to illustrate the wish to recover from the painful aftermath of the 2011 tragedies.

    As in Sage, the Arhats are focused on these mystical human figures, the uncanny distortions of their bodies evocative of the mutations suffered by organic beings under nuclear exposure. Creating a symbolic space for viewers to confront a disturbing world in which horror and hope are intermingled, Murakami’s works express a deeply humane and honest compassion. Considering that the present work’s original presentation was alongside pieces such as a colossal Oval Buddha measuring over eighteen feet tall, it is clear that the artist intended for in-depth meditation and rumination over humanity’s plight.


    Takashi Murakami discusses his practice ahead of his 2017 solo exhibition Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg organised by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. 


    Collector’s Digest


    • Rising to fame in the 1990s, Takashi Murakami is known for intermingling fine art and pop-culture references across paintings, sculptures, installation, and textiles. 

    • His recent large-scale retrospectives were held at Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong (1 June – 1 September 2019), Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow (29 September 2017 – 4 February 2018), Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (6 June – 24 September 2017), and Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (31 October 2015 – 6 March 2016). 

    • Since 2002, Murakami has collaborated with various brands and celebrities including Louis Vuitton, Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, and G-Dragon. His works are included in major museum collections globally.

    • Provenance

      Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      HEART Ibiza presented by Blum & Poe, Takashi Murakami, 24 June - 26 September 2015

    • Artist Biography

      Takashi Murakami

      Japanese • 1962

      Takashi Murakami is best known for his contemporary combination of fine art and pop culture. He uses recognizable iconography like Mickey Mouse and cartoonish flowers and infuses it with Japanese culture. The result is a boldly colorful body of work that takes the shape of paintings, sculptures and animations.

      In the 1990s, Murakami founded the Superflat movement in an attempt to expose the "shallow emptiness of Japanese consumer culture." The artist plays on the familiar aesthetic of mangas, Japanese-language comics, to render works that appear democratic and accessible, all the while denouncing the universality and unspecificity of consumer goods. True to form, Murakami has done collaborations with numerous brands and celebrities including Kanye West, Louis Vuitton, Pharrell Williams and Google.

      View More Works



signed and dated ‘Takashi 2014’ on the reverse
acrylic, gold leaf and platinum leaf on canvas mounted on wood panel
diameter 200 cm (78 3/4 in.)
Executed in 2014.

Full Cataloguing

£400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for £478,800

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 14 October 2022