Yoshitomo Nara is one of Japan’s most beloved artists. He has developed a cult following around the world because of the universal appeal of the underlying less-than-innocent children depicted in his paintings and sculptures.
Early Life and Education
Yoshitomo Nara was born in Hirosaki, part of the Aomori Prefecture in the north of Japan. He was the youngest of three sons, his two much brothers much older. Nara’s parents, like many adults in post World War ll Japan, had busy work schedules and so Nara became a latch-key kid in a very rural area.
In a 2010 program at Princeton, Nara said that he was a sensitive child, bringing home a stray cat and even, ‘feeling sorry for the weeds’ that he trod on when walking home from school. He said that at around the age of six, he drew a story book of himself and his cat traveling around the world.
Nara says he was not only influenced by Japanese cartoons like Astro Boy and Speed Racer, but also by Disney cartoons. He listened to punk rock on the American radio station that he was able to get from an nearby U.S. Army base and, as a teenager, became as fascinated with the album cover art as with the music.
Nara attended the Musashino Art University in Tokyo, then received his BFA and MFA from the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music in Nagoya, Japan. He chose to study at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf in Germany for his doctorate. Among his teachers was German neo-expressionist artist (and drummer) A. R. Penck.
Nara remained in Germany for twelve years, teaching and honing his craft. He collaborated on a book with celebrated author, Banana Yoshimoto, and his work began to receive increased exposure. His drawings of children, who at first glance seem wide-eyed and innocent, but on closer inspection are often angst-filled, isolated and angry, touched a nerve with a wide audience.
In 1998 Nara accepted an invitation to serve as Guest Professor for a graduate course in painting at the University of California, Los Angeles, then returned to Japan to set up a studio in Tokyo.
He has created album art for R.E.M., Jim Black and the Japanese punk groups Shonen Knife and The Star Club and his work has been exhibited in museums and galleries through the world.
Nara says that his work has changed since the 2011 earthquake that devastated Japan, especially the Aomori Prefecture where he grew up. “In the past I created out of happiness and sometimes I created out of sadness.” he said, “After the earthquake, rather than focus on the fun stuff, I started to focus on how we can overcome the sadness. I began to think of creating something much calmer but more powerful.”
In 2013, a private collection of Nara’s work was auctioned at Sotheby’s for more than $5.2 million, more than double the pre-sale estimate.