Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959 Hirosaki, Japan) is a prominent painter, sculptor, and printmaker who emerged during the Japanese Pop Art movement in the 1990s. Combining the highly stylized forms of traditional ukiyo-e techniques and contemporary manga, Nara’s work often presents children and animals in simple, bold lines, although his seemingly innocent subjects may ultimately reveal themselves to be wielding sinister expressions or objects.
Nara was born and raised in Hirosaki, a city studded with historical architecture and famous for its preserved samurai houses. During his childhood, he combatted loneliness by reading comic books, listening to music, and bonding with animals. He later studied at the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music and soon after moved to Germany in 1988, where he studied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf until 1993. During his 12 years living in Germany, he immersed himself in artistic and cultural movements ranging from Neo-Expressionism to punk rock, which would shape his style. Nara also reflected on the isolation he felt as a foreigner in Europe, noting that it resembled the loneliness he felt during his childhood in Aomori.
Nara returned to Japan in 2000 and began producing works that were inspired by memories of his childhood. He created portraits of children that resembled traditional Japanese Otafuku and Okame theatre masks in poses frequently found in the anime, manga, and cartoons from his childhood. In 2001, Nara joined the avant-garde group of Japanese artists called Superflat along with Takashi Murakami and Chiho Aoshima. The group was known for its vivid colors and cartoon-like motifs, and within the group, Nara became noted for his unsettling representations of young children with knives, crucifixes, torches, fangs, and even lit cigarettes. As their darker sides reveal themselves, the children are neither discernibly aggressive nor defensive.
In 2010, Nara was the subject of a major retrospective at Asia Society in New York called Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool that introduced him to a wider American audience. Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and Pace Prints in New York have also held recent solo exhibitions of the artist.
Nara’s work has been the subject of major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK. His work is included in major public collections, among them the Art Institute of Chicago; the National Museum of Art, Osaka; and the Rubell Family Collection, Miami.