Artsy: Yoshitomo Nara on Turning His Cute Characters into Art World Icons

May 16, 2023

Petra Loho

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Yoshitomo Nara’s love of music, and the intense feelings it arouses in him, are part of his working practice. Though it was perhaps unconscious, music also influenced the way he arranged his latest exhibition at the Albertina Modern in Vienna. 

In the museum, the drawings dance like musical notes up and down on the white wall’s invisible staves, always harmonious in their arrangement. The wall text offers a guide for interpretation—like a musical clef might, in a score. Running through November 1, 2023, Nara’s “All My Little Words” is the first major exhibition in Europe for the 63-year-old, world-renowned Japanese artist in over 10 years. 

The exhibition, which comprises over 400 pieces, focuses on Nara’s multifaceted drawing practice, which the artist developed over 40 years. The artist also prepared a 21-song Spotify playlist to go along with the exhibited works, nodding to the artist’s wide-ranging musical taste. 

The musical overture begins at the entrance to the exhibition rooms, reached via ruby-red steps. A billboard shows a picture of a girl with a page-boy haircut and a fierce look—an illustration style that Nara developed for his characters during his time in Europe. 

In 1988, when he had already completed a master’s degree program at Aichi University of the Arts, Nara went to Germany to enroll at the Düsseldorf Art Academy for further studies. 

“I actually wanted to go to London,” Nara said, adding that he didn’t have enough money. Due to his lack of language skills and the associated difficulty in communicating, Nara felt a deep sense of isolation. Nonetheless, he stayed in Germany for 12 years. 

“It allowed me to enter into a dialogue with myself, with my inner self,” Nara said of this period of his life, during which he created his distinctive aesthetic. Heavily stylized images of wide-eyed girls with grim expressions became his trademark. 

With their childlike cuteness, these figures, reminiscent of comics and cartoons, range from snotty brats to naïve, sweet-looking characters. Though at first glance, they appear innocent or even cutesy, these creatures hide a punk attitude—in a critical rather than a destructive sense. 

Nara’s characters are strong little personalities who are ready to rebel. They seem to defy the adult world and, somehow, their own growing up, revealing their opinions with the honesty that is unique to children. 

The steps leading into the exhibition’s lower area serve as a curtain leading into the third act. It’s the room showing works created after Nara’s return to Japan, a transition which, in the beginning, challenged his self-perception. 

“From graduation in 1994 until 2000, I always felt like a student,” Nara said, adding that he resisted becoming a professional artist. “I asked myself if I wanted that. I thought, ‘I’m not a student anymore; I’m an artist now.’ But I was scared whether I could survive as an artist or not.” 

Then, in March 2011, the powerful Tōhoku earthquake hit Japan’s Pacific coast, leading to Fukushima’s nuclear disaster. The tsunami caused by the quake devastated vast stretches of land. Nara, who lived near Fukushima at the time, was, like so many others, overwhelmed by grief and helplessness. He felt incapable of creating, and couldn’t see how he could make a meaningful contribution with his art, coming to terms with all this. 

Gradually, however, Nara began working again, processing his emotions in works such as Solid Fist (2011), Nuclear energy (2011), and Grievous Angel (2012). 

Nara’s artistic approach has shifted over the years, evolving from an isolated view of his inner world to a more open practice that invites people to participate in his view of the world. “When I started making art, I didn’t even know what to paint,” said Nara, explaining that he used drawings like diaries. 

He points, as an example, at Hyper Enough (to the city): “This is a work from 1996,” Nara said. “She has a knife in her hand.” But, now, he explained, the little girl has grown into a young woman capable of telling in-depth stories. “So, she no longer needs utensils like knives,” explained Nara. Instead, he sees the eyes, he explained, as a window into her soul, that can tell the better, deeper story. In Miss Margaret (2016), a portrait that takes up an entire wall, the character has wide-open eyes—gentle, colorful, and inviting. 

These changes to his artistic approach came with a new focus on his own judgment: “I no longer feel pressured to think about how the viewer or the critic will receive my work,” he said. “I want to create something I can be happy with myself.” 

One sign of Nara’s level of happiness is the number of paintings he completes, and last year, he only painted two pictures on canvas. “So, I assume I was happy last year,” said Nara, adding that most of the time he had been traveling to non-touristy areas such as refugee camps in Jordan, and Indigenous villages in Taiwan. 

“If I had been unhappy, I might have painted more pictures,” he said. “But when I think about it, I’ve never really been unhappy,” he added, with a short, mischievous laugh. Now, he explained, he can embrace life’s ebbs and flows. 

“My conviction is that conditions don’t last forever. If you’re unhappy, a better moment will come,” Nara said. “That’s what I think. And that’s my hope.” 

Perhaps that’s why Nara chose to visually distinguish his fourth, and final, act from the other areas of the exhibition. Painted a saturated dark blue, the room radiates a deep calm, presenting the installation My Drawing Room (2008), ceramics and some of Nara’s latest works on cardboard, including the large Girl with Drum sticks and Girl with Guitar (both 2019). 

The guitar in this last work is the instrument Nara played until he was 24, before he gave it up in favor of painting. 

For Nara, the idea of making music professionally, and the requirement to produce something new every year, seemed too difficult. Art, on the other hand, offers him a clear path: “I can always keep painting,” said Nara. “That’s easier for me.” 

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