Yoshitomo Nara - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, June 8, 2021 | Phillips
  • “I was not deliberately painting any particular girl. Through painting representational features such as eyes, noses, and mouths, I wanted to express something deeper. This deeper thing cannot be described with  language. Yet, people will understand.” 
    — Yoshitomo Nara 


    Immediately commanding in its larger-than-life scale, Missing in Action is at once tender, delicate, and transfixing: a true masterpiece of technique and manner that beautifully exemplifies Yoshitomo Nara's inimitable artistic practice at its finest. Painted in the watershed year of 2000, the same year as Nara's auction record work of which Missing in Action directly succeeds in Volume I of his most extensive cataIogue raisonne, the present painting is amongst the rarest works on canvas by Nara to come to auction. Indeed, of these treasured canvases painted in 2000, only six present the favoured full-body depiction of his iconic Nara girl against a pearlescent background, as perfectly showcased before us in Missing in Action.


    The artist in his studio, 2000 


    As a singularly exquisite example of his most iconic motif—the endearing yet mischievous child whose story is shared in repeated iterations throughout his extensive oeuvre—the central figure exudes a quiet defiance that belies her age. She dominates the centre of the composition standing confident and tall, yet her large, rounded head is turned as she avoids our gaze. She's aware of our presence but chooses not to confront us directly; instead, with narrowed jelly­ bean eyes and a downturned line of ruby-red smirk, she glares away with an almost silent accusation that triggers a universal protective instinct, leaving us to wonder what it is that we did so wrong.


    Although Nara has made different claims in the past as to who his heroine is, stating she is an embodiment of his childhood reflections, a portrayal born of the emotions of his unborn sister who did not survive childbirth, but also not based on any particular individual alone - here, with her tousled curls that draw a distinct similarity to the artist's own long fringe, in many ways we can view the subject of Missing in Action as a self-portrait of Nara himself. But with there being no single correct answer in deciphering the identity of the iconic Nara girl, perhaps the better question to ask is not who she is, but rather what is it that she wants of us? And that answer, to a large degree, can be found by tracing back through each defining stage that has shaped his entire legendary oeuvre.



    The 6 Girls 


    Missing in Action is an instantly compelling image that ranks among the rarest works by Nara to come to auction, heralding from his watershed year of 2000. Importantly, it is one of only six treasured canvases from this defining point in Nara's oeuvre to depict the favoured full-body rendering of his prized heroine set against an iridescent backdrop. This series has since come to be recognised as among the artist's most desired, recognised for uniquely boasting the perfect amalgamation of traits that are most iconic to Nara.


  • Nara’s Own Childhood  



    Yoshitomo Nara as a child


    Yoshitomo Nara was born in 1959 in post-World War II Hirosaki, a rural city in the Aomori Prefecture of northern Japan. His father was a businessman and like Nara's two brothers who were significantly older, played a predominantly inactive role in the young boy's day­ to-day life. Closest to his mother, Nara would spend the majority of their  time together watching her work, as with 'the snow-covered fields of the north [being] about as far away as you could get from  the rapid economic growth happening elsewhere', she too, had to take on a part-time farming job to help support their  family. It has been suggested that it was from her that Nara adopted his strong work ethic, having created his extensive body of works without the aid of studio assistants, unlike many of his contemporaries.



    Takeshi Motai, from The Picture Book of Dreams, 1948


    Coming home from school, the only company to greet the young Nara was the stray cat his family had taken in who, along with the other animals in his hometown, Nara would speak to, considering them his dear friends. Feeling a degree of being stuck in the past in comparison to the developing cities further south, Nara had the sensation that 'the entire place was filled with debris and ghosts.' To entertain himself, his early visual stimuli came 'from television, from Japanese and American comic books, and from  European children's books', citing Aesop's Fables, Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tales and the Brothers Grimm as some of his favourites. He was also greatly inspired by Takeshi Motai (1908-1956), an illustrator, poet  and author from the same area who was well-known for his books  about the adventures of children and talking animals. In 2017, Nara even organised an exhibition in Motai's honour, Takeshi Motai: The Dream Traveller at the Chihiro Art Museum, to acknowledge the significant influence Motaihad on the younger artist's work.

    Poster for Takeshi Motai: The Dream Traveller, Chihiro Art Museum, 19 May – 20 August 2017



    Despite the loneliness, Nara remembers his childhood as a happy one where he learnt to become strong-willed and independent, largely  left up to his own devices to take himself on adventures in the surrounding area. His hometown was situated in the shadows of Mount lwaki, an inactive volcano steeped in myths of demons and powerfuI spiritual entities from the ancient Shinto religion of which his grandfather, who was a Shinto priest, and father both practised in. Whilst these stories alone would be fruitful enough to fuel the imagination of a young child's mind, the area around Mount lwaki is particularly known for its sacred power for children guarded by the beloved guardian deity Jizō, and Nara and his peers would have grown up surrounded by his image in the form of statues placed in shrines around their home.



    Jizō sculptures, Japan



    Most commonly depicted with a large head, plump-cheeks and rounded limbs, similar to the Missing in Action girl, at first glance these small statues appear a cheerful addition to the shrines and temples. However, their sweet appearance bears a mournful purpose as they are erected to protect the souls of the unborn, like Nara's sister, as well as children who have passed away, and to guard them until their parents can meet them again in the afterlife. Indeed, it is a row of Jizō sculptures little Mei from the famous 1988 Japanese film My Neighbour Totaro encounters and sits amongst when she cries, having found herself also lost and alone. With this in mind, although the title of the work, Missing in Action, is most commonly employed as wartime jargon when a soldier becomes a casualty during a time of fighting but their location and exact state remain unknown, other interpretations are introduced once we consider the themes of loss and displacement it evokes.





    Still from My Neighbour Totoro, 1988 



    The Crucial Years in Germany 


    Although Nara's early works already demonstrated a strong degree of technical skill, based on childhood memories and featuring motifs including children and animals that  we see develop throughout his oeuvre, it was not until the early 1990s  when he moved to Germany as a graduate student that  he laid down the foundations of what  would become  his signature imagery. Studying at the famous Dusseldorf Art Academy under the tutelage of German painter A.R. Penck (1939-2017), it was here that Nara's painterly aesthetic gradually refined into the playful yet bold style that is so renowned today.



    Donald Baechler, Painting with Two Balls, 1986

    Collection of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles 



    As advised by Penck, Nara pared down the simplicity of his paintings to be more  like his drawings, taking inspiration from early Renaissance artists such as Giotto (1267-1337)  and Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1429-1498) who preferred a pastel-hued colour palette and refined line, but also from contemporary artists like Donald Baechler (b. 1956), whose childlike aesthetic shares distinct similarities to Nara's work at this time. In doing so, he transitioned away from the thick, black outlines, rough-hewn aesthetic, and vibrant palette reminiscent of Neo-Expressionism that characterised his early works up until the mid-1990s, and towards the softer, more sensual hues that have since become highly distinctive for the artist.





    Antonio del Pollaiolo, Portrait of a Woman, circa 1475


    Furthermore, it was during his studies abroad  that  he dissolved from his canvases the horizon lines that  would pull your eyes horizontally across a work, and transitioned to his now  centred compositions that instead puII you in, playing with the illusion of depth. Reflecting on these crucial years in Germany, Nara recalls:


    "The six years that I spent in Germany after completing my studies and before returning to Japan were golden days, both for me and my work. Every day and every night, I worked tirelessly to fix onto canvas all the visions that welled up in my head. My living space/studio was in a dreary, concrete, former factory building on the outskirts of Cologne. It was the centre of my world... In that space, standing in front of the canvas sometimes felt like traveling on a solitary 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." 
    — Yoshitomo Nara  


    It is key to note that coinciding with his signature aesthetic coming into its full effect, which we see spectacularly in the present work, being so far away from home meant that ideas surrounding solitude and absence were consistently present on Nara's mind. This is evident in 1991 when he titles works Homesick, and also explores the theme of travel through a series of paintings where planes, cars and boats are at the forefront of each composition. Then, in 1994, Nara creates a painting called Lonesome Babies Get on the Runaway Train, its title alluding to the hit song 'Runaway Train' by American alternative rock band Soul Asylum, which was released a year prior with a call-to-action music video that featured images of missing children around the world.



    Yoshitomo Nara, Lonesome Babies Get on the Runaway Train, 1994 


    In 1995, the same year as his breakthrough solo show at SCAI the Bathhouse in Tokyo which propelled him to international acclaim, he titles his first Missing in Action painting. Other works titled Missing soon followed, as well as various paintings that also played to the idea of something being lost, including Where Is? and Where Is My Cat?, both from 1995. Importantly, when he created the present painting in Cologne in 2000, a year widely maintained as the apex of his artistic production, it was likely  to have been around the time he received a three-month eviction notice for his art studio, which was 'slated for destruction because it was falling apart'. As such, another link is made to Missing in Action when we consider this disorientation Nara undoubtedly would have felt at both an emotional and physical level, which the artist has since described:


    "Having lost the spaceship that had accompanied me on my lonely travels, and lacking the energy to look for a new studio, I immediately decided that I might as well go back to my homeland. It was painful and sad to leave the country where I had lived for twelve years and the handful of people, I could call friends. But I had lost my ship. The only place I thought to land was my mother country, where long ago [my students] had waved goodbye and, in retrospect, whose letters to me while I was in Germany were a valuable source of fuel."
    — Yoshitomo Nara 




    Yoshitomo Nara, Is There No Place Like Home, 1984


    Yoshitomo Nara, There is No Place Like Home, 1995




    The Influence of Music


    With his love of music so deeply ingrained into his psyche that it readily leads him to his creativity, it would be impossible to not also consider the ways in which music directly and indirectly manifests itself in the development of Nara's work. At the age of eight, he built himself a radio which would become a treasured companion, helping him to understand that he belonged to a wider world. Tuning into the music station of a nearby US Air Force base in Misawa, Nara unwittingly became an improbable witness to Western pop's evolution from the flower-child bliss of the mid 1960s, to the rock n' roll attitude of 1970s punk.


    "If viewers are able to see beyond the impulsive and surface-level impact of [my] work, and sense a moving quietude and depth, then, no doubt, these effects are influenced by such music." 
    — Yoshitomo Nara 


    Whilst he did not understand the lyrics of the album collection he was growing, he took the 'sounds and verses into [his] body'. As he recalls: 'for me, it was about making the most use of scant information to sharpen my sensibilities, imagination, and conviction. It might be one verse, melody, guitar riff, rhythmic drum beat or bass line, or record jacket that would inspire me and conjure up fresh imagery.' And as we notice from browsing his 'Studio Heavy Rotation Chart in May 2000', taken from Yoshitomo Nora: The Complete BT Archives 1991-2013, Nara did not limit himself to a single genre. Instead, he found that contemplative folk singers taught him about deep empathy, whereas the punk rockers schooled him in explosive expression, and as his unique stylistic vocabulary developed, it developed with a greater authenticity of self.



    Selection of Missing in Action bootleg CDs, early 1990s 


    Having admitted that 'most of [his] music is from little labels that never saw commerciaI success', if we examine how Missing in Action too, might derive from a musical source, there are plausible interpretations that arise when we delve beyond the chart hits. Most interestingly are a series of bootleg CDs created by a record label called Missing in Action, which were widely circulated in the 1990s. 'Bootleg CDs' are unauthorised albums marketed towards true music fanatics that contain a compilation of 'missing' song recordings that never made it onto the eventuaI published album, often taken directly from  live performances. With a focus on punk and rock 'n' roll bands and musicians, the Missing in Action label covered the likes of The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, John Lennon, David Bowie, and The Beatles- to name a few. All of whom are artists Nara is known to have listened to. Moreover, as each album was labelled as a different 'Act'  number, this numerical seriality marks another relation to Nara's series of Missing in Action works which he too, at times differentiates through numbers, such as the acrylic on paper  Lot 18- Yoshitomo Nara, Missing in Action 2 (2002).




    Lot 18 – Yoshitomo Nara, Missing in Action, 2002
    Estimate HK$2,500,000 – 3,500,000 / US$321,000 – 449,000 



    Nara’s Painterly Phenomenon in its Full Effect 


    Missing in Action is instantly recognisable as an unrivalled exemplar of historical significance in Nara’s prolific oeuvre, exquisitely showcasing the allure of Nara’s acclaimed practice at its pinnacle. The protagonist is presented to us with the favoured feature of a full-body depiction, the same as three of Nara’s top five auction results including that in the top position, and his Hothouse Doll (1995), which when sold by Phillips Hong Kong in December 2020, surpassed its estimates and achieved a second-place auction record.




    Sold during 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, Phillips in Association with Poly Auction on 3 December 2020, Lot 5
    Estimate HK$50,000,000-70,000,000 / Sold for HK$103,115,000


    In comparison, however, the girl in Missing in Action wears the rarer long-sleeved version of his most iconic pale teal baby-doll dress, which adds to the painting’s endearing quality as she has not quite grown into it yet. Instead, it swamps her as her sleeves hang low by her side, bringing to mind the image of another of Nara’s most beloved characters, his droopy-eared dog. 



    Yoshitomo Nara, Aomori-ken, 2005 
    Collection of the Aomori Museum of Art, Japan

    Although generously executed on a large canvas format, when viewed up close, the sheer craft of the work is striking. What initially feels to resemble a pastel wash reveals itself to be impossibly born of several coats of semi-translucent acrylic that are slowly  built upon in successive layers, following a technique reminiscent of the acclaimed painter Peter Doig (b. 1959), who later became an influential tutor at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf.


    The result of this method are innumerable tonal nuances that tease the eye to the play of delicate surface textures, emanating a soft luminosity that radiates deep from the centre of the work. Achieved through masterful brushwork, this tenebrous hue conveys an ambiguous sense of vast, three­ dimensional space, particularly so when juxtaposed against the solid permanence of the figure who stands before us - in many ways as a metaphor for the universally experienced sensation of being alone in our alienating world.


    For the eagle-eyed, a close examination around the extreme edges of the canvas provides even further insight into the complex execution methods required to compose such a painting, as we notice an intriguing bleed of dark pink pigment that is not immediately apparent in the light-toned work. As confirmed by art critic and professor Yeewon Koon, 'there is one colour [Nara] does not like which is bright fuchsia. At times, you can see the colour on the borders; it is the colour  he painted over.' And thus, although he has worked this application of fuchsia  out of the pearlescent background, in leavingit on show around the edges of the work, 'Nara invites you to see that process.'




    Detail of extreme edges of present painting


    As such, with the protagonist brought into fuller focus against the cloudy backdrop through the employment of a simplistic pictorial framework that recalls the traditionaI Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, Nara transcends the limits of time and place. And yet, whilst she is situated alone in this milky mass in a manner that novelist Banana Yoshitomo claims 'attracts many people, because they recognise their precious inner solitude within it, a solitude which has often been long lost', her gaze is determined, suggesting she is indifferent to her own fragility as she refuses to surrender to it. Indeed, there is a perfect balance caught between this fragility and her strength, and between the unprotected vulnerability and danger we would not typically associate with an image of a child,  which imbues the work with a psychological complexity that evokes  the viewer's own memories as we too, are powerfully transported back into the inner world of the child.  And with her confident stance and this childlike innocence, we too, are elevated to share the self-assurance of her empowerment and hope.



    Peter Doig, Blotter, 1993


    "Nara's roly-poly children balance on the razor's edge: they are cute embodiments of infantilism in their chubby-cheeked plumpness [...] but at the same time true individuals who will not be defeated, quiet carriers of hope." 
    — Stephan Trescher 


    Collector’s Digest 



    Having been crowned with the position of the most expensive living Japanese artist, works by Nara continue to remain highly sought after, now forming part of over sixty public collections worldwide. Including his 1995 painting Hothouse Doll, which achieved Nara's second auction record place at the time when it sold in December 2020, Nara's top sixteen auction records have been achieved in the past two years. Confirming that his unparalleled creativity continues to enrich the contemporary art visual lexicon, he has been honoured with extensive exhibitions in key venues throughout his career. Notably, this has included his first museum solo shows in America, which were hosted in 2000, the same year Missing in Action was painted, at the Museum  of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Santa Monica Museum  of Art; as well as a show titled Lullaby held at McCabe Fine Art in Stockholm, of which the present painting was presented alongside works by artists including Pablo Picasso.




    The present work exhibited at Stockholm, McCabe Fine Art, Lullaby, 29 August - 31 October 2013


    Nara is currently the subject of an international retrospective that began at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1 April - 5 July 2021) and will travel to Shanghai's Yuz Museum, Museo Guggenheim Bilbao and the Kunsthal Rotterdam. He is also currently being honoured with a well-received solo exhibition in Taiwan at the Kuandu Museum of Arts (12 March- 20 June 2021) and a monumental museum show at the Dallas Contemporary, Texas (20 March 2021 - 22 August 2021).


    • Provenance

      McCabe Fine Art, Stockholm
      Collection of Dr. Frederic S. Brandt, Miami
      Phillips, London, 14 October 2015, lot 9
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Stockholm, McCabe Fine Art, Lullaby, 29 August - 31 October 2013

    • Literature

      Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, exh. cat., Institut für Kunst Nürnberg, 2002, p. 167 (illustrated)
      Noriko Miyamura and Shinko Suzuki, eds., Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works Volume 1: Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs 1984-2010, Tokyo, 2011, no. P-2000-017, p. 168 (illustrated)

Property from a Distinguished Asian Collection


Missing in Action

signed, titled, inscribed and dated '"Missing in Action" 2000 Nara [in Japanese] 2000 Köln "MISSING IN ACTION" 2000 Nara [in Japanese] 2000' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
165 x 150 cm. (64 7/8 x 59 in.)
Painted in 2000.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate On Request

Sold for HK$123,725,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 8 June 2021