Yoshitomo Nara - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Wednesday, June 22, 2022 | Phillips

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  • Introduction


    A Pioneering figure in the contemporary art scene today, Yoshitomo Nara’s portraits of young girls embody a plethora of emotional complexities -- including grief, pain, loneliness and rebellion. A celebration of introspective freedom and child-like imagination, Untitled (1991) appears to be Kawaii (cute) at first glance, yet a closer look reveals a sense of quietude and contemplation, representative of the artist’s time living in Germany from 1988 to 2000 as a foreign student and artist.


    This pivotal time overseas had a profound impact on Nara’s creations, during which he began to create deeply existential and introspective works that engaged in dialogues with both traditional Japanese art and popular Western culture, as seen in the current work.


    Painted in 1991 and fresh to the market, the current work is an early example from Nara’s oeuvre, revealing the nascent stage of his young girl portraits and commanding canonical importance with the development of the artist’s signature motif. Featuring characteristically flat colours, bold black outlines, and an absence of traditional perspective, Untitled crystallises the psychological state of isolation and nostalgia. A lone girl stands upon a puddle within an empty void, reflecting emotions of estrangement felt by the artist in a foreign land that is universally relatable.



    German Days


    “When I went to the school in Germany, I found myself again feeling alone, facing my canvas. Again, the inadequacy of the outer world enriched my inner world.”
    — Yoshitomo Nara 


    Graduating from Aichi University of the Arts with a master’s degree in 1987, Nara subsequently moved to Germany in 1988 to further his studies at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf under Neo-Expressionist A. R. Penck. Completing his studies in 1993, Nara then settled in Cologne, staying in Germany up until 2000. As a foreign student, the language barrier in Germany forced Nara to explore the depths of his subconscious in search for his identity. It was during this period where Nara began to eliminate details in the backgrounds of his works, narrowing its perspective to be increasingly flat and neutral. This allows us to focus completely on Nara’s subjects and their emotional worlds, and in turn asking for self-reflection on the part of the viewer.



    Yoshitomo Nara in his studio, 1991


    Symbolic of the sense of emptiness felt by Nara in an unfamiliar environment, these void-like spaces are prevalent within the artist’s oeuvre at the time, typified by Untitled, and works such as The Girl with the Knife in Her Hand, 1991 (Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).


    “I don’t paint when I am happy. I only paint when I am angry, lonely, sad, when I am able to talk to the work. So there is a need for storytelling before I paint.”
    — Yoshitomo Nara


    East Meets West


    As a culmination of his past and present, Nara’s paintings are influenced by Japanese manga and pop culture, but also Western punk rock music and artists. Merging influences from ukiyo-e woodblock prints and illustrations by Japanese artist Takeshi Motai, Nara outlines his protagonists with opaque, black paint, as seen in the current work.



    Takeshi Motai, I am a wild bird, 1946


    With comparable subjects and visual imagery, Takeshi Motai’s illustrations, such as I am a wild bird (1946), often depicts a lone child standing within abstract dreamscapes, devoid of traditional perspective. Both artists are drawn to the imagery of children that reflects an underlying sense of uncertainty and fear for the future on a personal level, but also within the wider contemporary Japanese society.


    “Or maybe for me, the reason why I continually create works depicting children is because I desire to forever remain childlike, as opposed to merely wanting to be the ‘selfish child’.”
    — Yoshitomo Nara 


    Under the advice of A. R. Penck at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Nara pared down the simplicity of his paintings, reflecting influence by contemporary artists such as Donald Baecheler, whose childlike aesthetic shares distinct similarities to Nara’s work at the time. As he sharpens his vision, Nara begins to steer towards a more pastel-hued colour palette, transitioning away from the thick outlines of this period and towards a more refined aesthetic with softer hues that have since become synonymous with the artist.



    Donald Baechler, Painting with Two Balls, 1986
    Collection of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
    © 2022 Donald Baechler / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Neither Land Nor Sea


    “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. [...] 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 travelling 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 


    In the current work, Nara creates a blurred distinction between the sky and ground. Soft blue pigment is seen blending and fading into the horizon line behind the protagonist, further enacting a flat perspective. This effect is created through applying several layers of impasto in subtly varied subdued hues, allowing the protagonist to appear as if she is floating in space, existing outside the constraints of time. The little girl’s feet sink deep within the puddle below, unable to move away from her physical position, whilst simultaneously implying an inability to change one’s psychological state. She gently grasps onto a ship – a vehicle that can hopefully whisk her away towards the place of her heart’s desire.



    Detail of the present work

    The recurring motif of ships and puddles appear in numerous paintings throughout his oeuvre, evoking an ambivalent in-between state, no doubt alluding to the artist’s own experience of alienation in a foreign country as he lives between two worlds and two cultures. This was especially prominent during his years in Germany, with 8 paintings and 6 drawings created in the year 1991 alone. These works capture the artist’s deepest, most inner hopes and fears, revealing a deeply poignant sense of homesickness.


    Whilst some of these portraits are devoid of facial expressions, others such as the current example feature cheeky smiles where the young girl sticks out her tongue in protest. These conniving and rebellious grimaces act as a coping mechanism, as the protagonist defends herself – and in turn the artist by extension – against feelings of sadness and isolation in a remote nation.


    Resonant with millions of people who stand on the same uncertain social and cultural grounds as he, Nara’s portraits embody the collective feelings for people who inhabit the same in-between state, conveying a moving visual narrative of nostalgia and longing.



    Collector’s Digest


    Born 1959 in Hirosaki, Japan, Yoshitomo Nara stands as one of the defining icons in contemporary art today. After completing his master’s degree at Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music in 1987, Nara lived in Germany from 1988 to 2000, returning to Japan in 2000, where he lived and worked in Tokyo and moved to Tochigi in 2005.


    In 2021, Nara was honoured with a well-received monumental museum show at the Dallas Contemporary, Texas (20 March - 22 August 2021). His current major touring museum exhibition, Yoshitomo Nara, is the artist’s largest retrospective to date, featuring more than 100 major paintings, ceramics, sculptures and installations, and 700 works of paper that span over 36 years of the artist’s career. The exhibition started from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2021-2022) and is currently exhibiting at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai until 4 September, 2022. The exhibition will then travel to the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain and the Kunsthal Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

    • Provenance

      Gallery D'Eendt, Amsterdam
      Private Collection, Amsterdam (acquired from the above in the 1990s)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

Property from an Important Private European Collection



signed 'Yoshitomo Nara' lower left and dated '1991' lower right; further signed 'NARA' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
70 x 69.9 cm. (27 1/2 x 27 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1991, this work is registered in the Yoshitomo Nara Online Catalogue Raisonné under registration number YNF7093.

Full Cataloguing

HK$6,000,000 - 8,000,000 

Sold for HK$7,510,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 22 June 2022