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

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  • Saucer Tales


    Painted by one of the leading contemporary Japanese artists of his generation, Yoshitomo Nara’s The Flying Nun is a compelling example from his internationally acclaimed oeuvre. This work was first exhibited at the artist’s Saucer Tales solo exhibition hosted at the Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York in 2002, and subsequently also participated in the touring exhibition Nothing Ever Happens in 2003-2005 shown at museums in Cleveland, St. Louis and Honolulu.



    Installation view of the current work (right) at
    New York, Marianne Boesky Gallery, Saucer Tales, 19 October – 16 November 2002
    Image: Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen


    Saucer Tales included twelve paintings that were wall mounted fiberglass saucer shaped structures, overlaid with a patchwork of small pieces of canvas. A giant advertisement of a coffee company at Nara’s commercial fabricator inspired the artist to make paintings in saucer shapes, paving the way for a new direction in Nara's artistic practice. Drawn to the freedom of pictorial representation within this circular, roundel form, the artist has noted that ‘if the things I have been drawing in a square were placed in it, it becomes less of a picture - it might look as if there’s a hole in the wall. Because the depth perception becomes ambiguous, I thought perhaps I could achieve the effect that looks as if there actually is an opening, and inside there is a child.’ i



    A Glowing Roundel


    Thanks to its shape, title, and imagery, the present work carries strong religious connotations, immediately reminiscent perhaps of the circular dome of the Sixteenth Century St Peter’s Basilica housed in the Vatican. Depicting St Peter floating atop a celestial cloud, this central figure gestures benevolently toward his right, surrounded by a cloister of cherubs. The use of the circular form is also similarly used in many other instances of religious paintings to draw attention to the divine, or other central ecclesiastical motifs as can be seen in pieces like Botticelli’s Madonna with Lillies and Eight Angels.




    Left: Dome (detail of centerpiece), St Peter's Basilica, Vatican, Rome, 1590

    Right: Sandro Botticelli, Madonna with Lillies and Eight Angels, 1477
    Collection of the Staatliche Museum, Berlin
    Image: Scala, Florence/bpk, Bildagentur fuer Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin


    Unlike most of the other dishes in the Saucer Tales exhibition that featured Nara’s kima-kawaii devilish children, The Flying Nun stands out thanks to its subject matter. Situated at the centre of a three-dimensional, concave plate that blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture, the Flying Nun, donning a white headdress, sits in the centre of the saucer in profile with a downturned line of a ruby-red smirk, floating and gliding towards the left of the composition on an aeroplane labelled as Flying Nun in red. Focused on her destination, the nun’s large bulging eyes concentrate on her direction ahead, and does not engage with the viewer.


    The title Flying Nun also inevitably draws associations to the novel by American author Marie Teresa Ríos (known as Tere Ríos), titled The Fifteenth Pelican - The Original Adventures of Sister Bertrille, which was later adapted into TV sitcom The Flying Nun. The story recounts the tale of an American nun—Sister Bertrille, a novice at the convent San Tanco in San Juan, Puerto Rico, who at only 75 pounds discovers  by accident that she can fly, when her headdress is caught by the wind. Coupled with religious iconography, and perhaps lending itself to an ironic reading of its source material, our diminutive nun is the artist’s unique reimagining of an established motif and topic.



    Mastering Layers


    In the present work, Nara lays a patchwork of small pieces of canvases on top of the saucer shaped structure, these pale-light green painted pieces further extending into the background’s sky. This technique recalls the stitched, torn, and burned burlap sacks used by Alberto Burri who repurposed such objections found during his captivity during World War II. When taken in tandem alongside the present lot, another work by Nara created in the same year, Flying Nuns (which depicts angry nuns unleashing missiles from within planes), one cannot ignore Nara’s strong pacifist stance against the act of war, a notable theme that has remained throughout his body of works.



    Alberto Burri, Sacco e Rosso, 1956
    Artwork: © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome


    Born in 1959 in the city of Hirosaki near the military base of the 8th Division of the Imperial Japanese Army, which was partially turned into the Misawa Air Base by the U.S. ally during World War II, Nara spent his childhood surrounded by reminders of war. Listening to the base’s Far East Network (FEN) radio’s broadcasting on the Vietnam War in Japanese, and American rock and folk, Nara viscerally experienced the aftermath of war, eerily recalled by the artist as an ‘entire area was filled with debris and ghosts’. ii The impression was deeply burned into his mind that even when watching mere footage of war, he felt as if he was experiencing it in real time. Because of this, Nara developed a strong conviction of always creating what innately rings true to him personally iii, recalling similar determination in Nara’s favourite war-protest song from the time —'Universal Soldier’ (1964) that calls on individuals to take responsibility for war.


    “He’s the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame / His orders come from far away no more/ They come from here and there and you and me / And brothers, can’t you see / This is not the way we put an end to war.”
    — Lyrics of “Universal Soldier” (1964), Nara’s favourite war-protest song from his youth

    Collector’s Digest


    Born 1959 in Hirosaki, Japan, Yoshitomo Nara stands as one of the defining icons in contemporary art today. He completed his master’s degree at Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music in 1987. Testament to the universal appeal of Nara’s oeuvre, works by the artist are now housed in over sixty public collections worldwide. Notably, this includes the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art; Aomori Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; National Museum of Art, Osaka; National Museum of Art, Tokyo; 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa; and Yokohama Museum of Art.


    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.


    The current work was included as part of Nara’s second solo exhibition in New York, Saucer Tales at the Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York in 2002. It also toured with the Nothing Ever Happens exhibition to Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; San Jose Museum of Art; Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis; Contemporary Museum Honolulu in 2003-2005.



    Yoshitomo Nara, quoted from H magazine

    ii Yoshitomo Nara, quoted in Mika Kuraya, “Where the Wild Children Are,” Once in a Life: Encounters with Nara, Hong Kong, 2016, p. 124

    iii Yoshitomo Nara, Nara Yoshitomo: The Little Star Dweller, Tokyo, 2004, p. 16

    • Provenance

      Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York
      Private Collection, New York
      S|2 Gallery, Hong Kong
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Marianne Boesky Gallery, Saucer Tales, 19 October – 16 November 2002
      Cleveland, Museum of Contemporary Art; Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania; San Jose Museum of Art; St. Louis, Contemporary Art Museum; Honolulu, Contemporary Museum, Nothing Ever Happens, 12 September 2003 - 22 May 2005, pp. 76, 94 (illustrated, pp. 70, 71, 77)
      Hong Kong, S|2 Gallery, The World According to Nara, September 2014

    • Literature

      Noriko Miyamura and Shinko Suzuki, eds., Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works Volume 1: Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs 1984-2010, Tokyo, 2011, no. P-2002-003, p. 388 (illustrated, p. 183)


Flying Nun

signed, titled and dated '"The Flying Nun" Nara [in Japanese] 2002' on the reverse
acrylic on cotton mounted on fibre-reinforced plastic
diameter 54.6 cm. (21 1/2 in.)
Executed in 2002, this work is registered in the Yoshitomo Nara Online Catalogue Raisonné under registration number YNF3061.

Full Cataloguing

HK$3,800,000 - 5,800,000 

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