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New Phaidon monograph on Japanese contemporary artist Yoshimoto Nara tells the fascinating story behind Nara’s best-known work The Girl with the Knife in Her Hand (1991), “a seminal work that marked the beginning of his paintings of big-headed girls.”, which exemplify a form of art that stands in a space between cuteness and grotesque, empathy and disorder. 

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Yoshimoto Nara, Book cover, Phaidon Press 2020.


Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959, Japan) featured nearly 40 solo exhibitions since 1984 around the world; at the Asia Society, at the MoMA, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) and, in 2020, a major retrospective of his work - including 100 pieces from 36 years - is going to be exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as soon as the institution will reopen to visitors.

Growing up in Honshu - Japan’s main island and home to the capital, Tokyo - Nara has always painted what he heard on the radio. Over Far East Network, an American military radio station, he listened to Western music, Pop music,Folk music, Rock musicand, of course, Punk music. When he was just eight years old, Nara bought his first single, by the popular Japanese band Takeshi Terauchi and the Bunnys. The combinations of sounds and the visual appearance of his first collected records’ album covers trained Nara’s imagination, making up the foundations of his artistic journey. Later on, Nara would provide cover art for bands including R.E.M, Shonen Knife and Bloodthirsty Butchers. 

Nara developed his signature style in the 1990s, during art school, at the prestigious Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Germany. With a strong influence deriving from Japan’s Pop Art movement, the subject matter of his sculptures and paintings seems deceptively simple and innocuous. But these pastel-hued children and animals, appear at a first sight to be cute and even vulnerable, sometimes brandish weapons like knives and saws. "Look at them, the weapons are so small, like toys. Do you think they could fight with those?" Nara says. "I don't think so. Rather, I kind of see the children among other, bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives". 

Rendered in acrylic with cartoonish proportions with little background, “those big-headed girls” are actually self-portraits. His large-eyed menacing figures reflect the artist’s memories of childhood, music, literature, and are not influenced by manga, surely. The town where Nara was born lies close to Mount Iwaki - known for its sacred powers for children and the unborn - where his protector, the popular bodhisattva Jizō, is frequently depicted with childlike features, in ruby-red cloaks or hats that ask for good karma. Nara’s Girl With a Knife in Her Handcertainly fits this description, as many of his bizzarre girls do.


Yoshimoto Nara, The Girl with the Knife in Her Hand, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 59 1/4 × 55 1/8 in. (150.5 × 140 cm), collection of Vicki and Kent Logan, fractional and promised gift to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy and © Yoshitomo Nara.


They embody the concept of kawaii - the cult of cuteness, a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture -, mixing, in a dark manner, innocence, small dimensions and pathetic connotations. A little kawaiigirl, with a very round face and wide-open almond-shaped eyes (the conformation of the girls' faces and their particular look with sharp and protruding eyes are reminiscent of a frog) staring up at her audience. And then we notice the knife in her hand. Not very dangerous, but still a blade. The surface of the drawing is tinged with a sinister atmosphere. The child lives in a middle world, between uncertainty, a certain degree of anguish, and unexpected comedy. She lives on the ambiguous ridge between materiality and, at the same time, flatness of Nara’s painting.

Such contradictions have made Yoshimoto Nara the most beloved Japanese artists among his generation. Nara became also the most expensive Japanese artist and Knife Behind Back(2000), a large-scale painting, just sold at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong for Record-Smashing $ 25 million.


Yoshitomo Nara, Can't Wait 'til the Night Comes, 2012. Courtesy of Christie’s.
Yoshitomo Nara, Knife Behind Back, 2000. Courtesy Sotheby’s.


* Title of a song by Takeshi Terauchi and the Bunnys, 1999.

Cover image: Yoshitomo Nara, Peace of Mind, 2019, © Yoshitomo Nara 2019, photo by Keizo Kioku, courtesy of the artist. Collection of Andrew Xue.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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