Yoshitomo Nara - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle Hong Kong Thursday, December 1, 2022 | Phillips

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  • “…[A] pure white image that covers everything in winter. At the time, I didn’t think about beauty or anything like that, but it left an impression on me.”
    — Yoshitomo Nara

    The novelist Banana Yoshimoto once surmised, ‘Like every cell in his body, each line that Yoshitomo Nara draws contains all the data of his life.’i An apt description of the present work, the serene and sentimental Nachtwandern (‘Night Walking’) makes its debut at auction this autumn and is an exemplary work from the artist’s early years of production. Painted in 1994, just one year before Nara’s seminal solo exhibitions at SCAI the Bathhouse and Blum & Poe, Nachtwandern is a piece filled with latent talent, the product of a young artist on the cusp of enormous international renown.



    A Lonely World in White


    A defining example capturing Nara’s signature powdery white backgrounds filled with multilayered clouds of soft pastels, Nachtwandern’s titular somnambulant infant floats with a curious backwards glance at a solitary lightbulb, suspended aglow to the right of the frame. Donning a soft white nightgown, the child—their nightie trailing behind them like that of a cartoonish ghost’s tail, or perhaps resembling the emergence from a puddle of water—has a disproportionately large forehead betraying their youth. Cheeks flushed as if braced against the snow, our protagonist’s bean-like eyes focus on the glowing light, and the hint of a peevish grin forms on their face. The immediate effect of the work is an overwhelming calmness amidst plunging solitude; a combination of lightness and darkness that has become synonymous with Nara’s creations, one which draws deeply from a lonely childhood.


    “His work evokes in me the smells of a cold night spent in a foreign country, the scent of rain seen through a window in childhood, a stifled breath while studying a bug in the grass, the sadness of a white-walled room with a wooden floor…Having plunged into the ambience of this kind of world makes me feel born again, as from a soak in a hot-spring bath.”
    — The novelist Banana Yoshimoto on Yoshitomo Nara’s work


    Speaking in an interview in 1995, Nara remarked on a largely isolated upbringing. The youngest of three brothers, the artist grew up in a remote neighbourhood with not many small children within close proximity. Mostly left to his own devices while his parents worked full time jobs, Nara looked back on an empty home and only animals for company. Particularly, he spoke about a profound memory that resurfaced to him in his later years in Germany, “…[A] pure white image that covers everything in winter. At the time, I didn’t think about beauty or anything like that, but it left an impression on me. I’ve been living in Germany for eight years, but when I first started living there, I felt the atmosphere of my hometown when I was young. It was as if I had slipped back in time, and I was also rediscovering lost values in an unexpected place.”ii



    Utagawa Hiroshige, Evening Snow at Kanbara, from the series "Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō", circa 1833–34
    Collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York
    Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Howard Mansfield Collection, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1936, JP2492


    That Nara painted Nachtwandern during these years of deep reflection is significant. When exploring Nara’s nineties-era paintings, and indeed the present work, we are immediately struck with their affinity to 20th century children’s books. As the artist has recently stated, ‘My works’ roots are my childhood, not pop culture…Around me there were orchards, sheep and horses; I read fairytales rather than comics.’iii Nachtwandern’s lonesome child for instance recalls scenes from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl, or perhaps even J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Additionally, a particular whimsy permeates our work, recalling maybe even the poetic lightness of Wilhelm Müller’s ‘To Wander is the Miller’s Delight’, later set to music by Franz Schubert, no doubt well known in Nara’s adopted home country Germany during the nineties. 


    Fittingly, the artist’s works from this time exuded a certain graphic nature, achieved through Nara’s original commitment to bold linear renderings akin to Japanese woodcut pieces. Moreover, it is fit that one should consider the influence of Japanese woodcut: full-bodied figures depicted against neutral backgrounds and the use of empty space can be traced in Nara’s oeuvre, recreated some two centuries later in a powerful capturing of nostalgic remembrance.


    “O wandering, my delight,
    O wandering!
    Master and mistress,
    let me go my way in peace,
    and wander.”
    — Stanza taken from Wilhelm Müller’s “Das Wandern ist des Müller’s Lust” (“To Wander is the Miller’s Delight”)

    Frolicking in the Dark


    Nara’s work has frequently been described as kima-kawaii: cuteness with an edge, often with a hint of underlying darkness. It is thus unsurprising perhaps that Nara sought inspiration from Renaissance artistsiv, whose canonical employment of chiaroscuro links symbolically with the tensions between light(ness) and dark(ness), explored both literally and metaphorically in the artist’s works. Taken in this light, Nachtwandern is an ironic twist on its title: though it suggests a nighttime meander, the child portrayed walks in a white room basking in light, a clear departure from other similarly titled “Night Walking” works in Nara’s repertoire. The painting also has a tongue-in-cheek quality not unlike that of Raymond Pettibon’s works, whose cover art for bands such as Sonic Youth and Black Flag would not have been unknown to the rock-obsessed Nara.



    Rembrandt, An Old Scholar Near a Window in a Vaulted Room, 1631
    Image: Nationalmuseum, Stockholm


    Coming from a whole host of other similarly enigmatic figures—some portrayed seated in the dark, others yet sleepwalking—the artist’s famous somnambulating children are paradigmatic of Nara’s engagement with the themes of sleep, consciousness, and boundless childlike imagination. Each wanderer’s liminal existence between states of interior dreams and external exploration perhaps embody an infantile sense of curiosity that guides our consciousness from the cradle into adulthood. Whether taken individually or collectively, these dreaming, sleepwalking, roaming figures betray an underlining sense of self-discovery and self-imaging teetering between childhood and adulthood, good and evil, innocence and maturity: intimate snapshots of an artist whose own journey of reflection was (and remains) very much crucial in his artistic process. 



    Yoshitomo Nara, The Longest Night, 1995
    Collection of The National Museum of Art, Osaka
    Artwork: © Yoshitomo Nara

    “In some of Nara’s earliest works made in Düsseldorf, allegories of good and evil collapse, and innocence becomes one with destruction itself.”
    — The art critic Noi Sawaragi on Yoshitomo Nara’s work

    Beans for Eyes, Flowers for Lamps


    Grasping Nara’s propensity for repeating certain motifs in his earlier works is crucial in understanding his artistic creations. Key stylistic features including a particular type of line, compositional considerations, colour palettes, are just some of the distinct identifiers for the artist’s nineties works. However, the symbols that truly set apart his works from this era are rather the visual aids sprinkled through his pieces like proverbial breadcrumbs—whimsical, fairytale-like—all that enhance what can be seen as universal markers of childlike sensibilities.  


    As the oft-repeated truism goes, ‘windows are the eyes to the soul’. Trite though it may be, Nara’s work constantly explores this phrase through steadfast attention paid to the execution of his characters’ eyes. Whether open or closed, eyes are often the first indicators as to which period a Nara painting is from. In Nachtwandern, our little hero’s narrowed jelly-bean eyes verge on suspicion and capture a heightened sense of kima-kawaii. Deeply emblematic of the artist’s earlier pieces when he preferred pared down and tightly lined eyes, it is almost as if Nara deliberately presented such impenetrable slivers—onyx, jet-black with but a hint of emerald—as a pointed effort to remain obscure and hidden.



    John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1885
    Collection of Tate Britain, London
    Image: akg-images


    One only needs to look as far as the titles of some of Nara’s 1994 solo exhibitions to comprehend the artist’s personal sentiments when he painted Nachtwandern. Titles such as lonesome babies (Hakutosha, Nagoya), Hula Hula Garden (Galerie d’Eendt, Amsterdam), and Christmas for sleeping children (Itoki Crystal Hall, Osaka) fill his exhibition biography at the time, and a clear focus on childhood and children—sleepy, lonesome ones—can be detected. In the work Hula Hula Garden (also created in 1994), lifelike dolls donning flowing dresses lie face-down in a garden of flowers, calling to mind Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s frolicking in amongst enchanted flowers, or even John Singer Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, bearing a striking resemblance at least thematically to our little night walker.

    In his initial creations, flowers constantly appear at the end of sprawling green vines and sprout throughout Nara’s early works. The floral vines were often metaphorical, such as the intertwining ones in Lampflowers (currently in the collection of the Aomori Museum of Art), which housed lightbulbs, held aloft by twins in matching golden dresses. As summarised by Yeewan Koon, ‘…the lily flower, recalling a specific type found in northern Japan, references Nara’s upbringing, [and] plays an important compositional role as well, its fragile coiling pulling the viewer back toward the centre of the canvas.'v



    Yoshitomo Nara, Hula Hula Garden, 1994
    Collection of the Aomori Museum of Art
    Artwork: © Yoshitomo Nara


    Similarly, the lightbulb commands our attention in Nachtwandern and references the same vines: suspended by a distinctly green vine-like rope, its effervescence is indicated by a few straight lines next to the bulb itself, an allusion to the glow it emits. An allegory unto itself—light being an indication of life, much like the presence of plants—the lightbulb/lamp flower is a trope that Nara’s little heroes constantly engage with during the nineties: they can be seen watering, serenading, cutting, pulling, hiding under such glowing lamps and/or flowers. The repetition and persistence of this motif is much like the employment of emblems in fairytales, and it acts as a powerful anchor for an audience to ruminate over. 


    With their saucer eyes and pursed lips, Nachtwandern’s little sleepwalker radiates skepticism, ambivalence, and perhaps a little apprehension. According to the curator Mika Yoshitake, ‘People refer to them as portraits of girls or children, [b]ut they’re really all, I think, self-portraits.’vi It is not hard to make this connection when one thinks particularly about Yoshitomo Nara’s own recreated studios: tight, small white spaces lit by single lightbulbs. Painted during a time of intense self-reflection, Nachtwandern is a unique work that provides profound insight into the longings of a young artist, and is a perfect embodiment of Nara’s inimitable bottling of nostalgia itself. 



    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.


    Nara’s most recent 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 was exhibited 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.



    i Banana Yoshimoto, ‘The Lines He Draws’, translated from the Japanese by Charles Worthen, and published in Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, exh. cat., Institut für Kunst Nürnberg, 2002, p. 47

    ii The artist quoted in ‘Yoshitomo Nara: Living a Quiet Life Ordinarily’, first published in Bijutsu Techo Monthly Art Magazine, vol. 47, no. 7, July 1995, p. 34 [translated from Japanese, original: 「(そう。)冬なんかだとすべてを覆い尽くす真っ白なイメージ。当時はきれいとかそういう童識はないんだけど、とにかく印象に残ってる。」]

    iii Yoshitomo Nara quoted in Skye Sherwin, ‘Yoshitomo Nara: “My works’ roots are in fairytales, not comics”, The Guardian, 7 January 2022, online

    iv Stephen Trescher, ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog’, published in Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, exh. cat., Institut für Kunst Nürnberg, 2002, p. 11

    v Yeewan Koon, ‘Those Big-Headed Girls’, in Yeewan Koon, ed., Yoshitomo Nara, New York, 2020, p.53

    vi Mika Yoshitake quoted in Nick Marino, ‘Yoshitomo Nara Paints What He Hears’, 24 July 2020, online

    • Provenance

      Galerie d'Eendt, Amsterdam
      Private Collection, Amsterdam
      Pace Gallery at Chesa Büsin, Zuoz, Switzerland
      Private Collection, Asia
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Zuoz, PACE Gallery, Carte Blanche, 20 February - 30 March 2014




signed, titled, dated and inscribed '"Nachtwandern" -2 Nara [in Japanese] 94' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
100 x 100 cm. (39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1994, this work is registered in the Yoshitomo Nara Online Catalogue Raisonné under registration number YNF1161.

Full Cataloguing

HK$16,000,000 - 25,000,000 

Sold for HK$19,005,000

Contact Specialist

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

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle

Hong Kong Auction 1 December 2022