Yoshitomo Nara | Under the Hazy Sky
U nder the Hazy Sky (2012) is a sensitive, thought-provoking work by Yoshitomo Nara, presenting two of Nara’s most famous motifs—the figure of the large-headed little girl, and the two-leaf sprout. Created after the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake on 11 March 2011, this painting is a poignant image of hope, a vision of the artist’s desire for peace and prosperity. Executed in the luminous, tonal aesthetic definitive of his later works, Under the Hazy Sky features the figure of a little girl in a red dress, elements of blazing orange shining through Nara’s delicate layers of semi-translucent paint. Standing out against the warmth of her dress, the girl clutches two fastidiously executed green sprouts in her hands, staring down at them with an air of sadness and contemplation. Significantly, the work was exhibited at Nara’s acclaimed A bit like you and me… exhibition, inspired by the Beatles song of the same name, at the Yokohama Museum of Art between 14 July and 23 September 2012. This marked his first show back at the Yokohama Museum of Art since his seminal solo exhibition there in 2001, I DON’T MIND, IF YOU FORGET ME, signaling his return to Japan from Germany and catapulting his career to dizzying new heights. Testament to its success, A bit like you and me… travelled to the Aomori Museum of Art where it was on display between 6 October 2012 and 14 January 2013, before finishing in Kumamoto at the Contemporary Art Museum from Kindchenschema 26 January to 14 April 2013.
Further, the work was selected as the only painting on the cover of Foil’s exhibition catalogue, Nara Yoshitomo: a bit like you and me..., first published in Japan in August 2012, and was featured on the limited edition of posters produced for the show.
The sprout is a favoured motif that can be found throughout Nara’s oeuvre, appearing in both his large-scale canvas works, such as his famous The Little Ambassador (2000) sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2016, and in smaller-scale works on paper and cardboard, including Sprout the Ambassador Mini (2011) and Sprout the Ambassador (2011). Having grown up in the small town of Hirosaki, located 400 miles from Tokyo and near a US Air Force base, Nara has long been engaged with Japan’s complex and painful history with war and nuclear weaponry. Not alone in his exploration of World War II’s enduring impact on society, many artists of his generation have sought to examine the war’s legacy through their work, exemplified by Takashi Murakami and his theory of “Superflat”, reflective of the consumer culture that arose after World War II. Articulating his deep-rooted sentiments opposing war and conflict, Nara’s works often express his sincere desire for peace. For Nara, the sprout, specifically the sprout of an olive tree, is a symbol of hope and peace, as well as an emblem for the United Nations, a peace-keeping body set up after the war that aims to maintain international peace and security (Kamiya Setsuko, “An Artist Drawing on Peace”, Japan Times, 30 March 2003). The logo of the United Nations includes two olive branches, the ubiquitous symbol of victory, prosperity and peace deriving from Greek mythology, which tells the legend of the goddess Athena planting an olive tree during her contest with Poseidon, providing the city of Athens with food, oil and wood. Therefore, Nara’s important series of sprout paintings embody the artist’s desire for peace, unity and emancipation, while perhaps also suggesting that these ideals have not yet been obtained but are values that we as a society must work towards together.
In his trademark works of big-headed girls, Nara establishes a distinct language for cuteness, creating worlds in which the childlike exists amongst the dangerous. 1991 marked a turning point in the artist’s oeuvre, inaugurating his paintings of rebellious little girls with his seminal Girl with a knife in her hand. After this point, Nara focused almost entirely on representing the individual figure of the child, portrayed with jellybean-shaped eyes, large heads, curved contours and red and green dresses that became Nara’s signature.
Nara’s cute characters exemplify key traits outlined in 1943 by Nobel Prize-winning ethnologist Konrad Lorenz in his analytical model for cuteness—Kindchenschema (baby schema). In this model, Lorenz identifies a big head, round face and large eyes as cute characteristics, “triggering protective behaviour that increases the likelihood of offspring survival” (Yeewan Koon, Yoshitomo Nara, New York, 2020, p. 57). By adopting these key characteristics decisive of kawaii, Nara is able to evoke strong empathetic, emotional reactions in the viewer, while fully engaging them in the narrative of the work. Art historian Yeewan Koon argues: “Nara’s work translates this notion of kawaii into a process of aesthetics and affect in which the works he creates can cultivate responses that summon emotions and imaginations that feel familiar and can prompt empathetic connections” (Yeewan Koon, Yoshitomo Nara, New York, 2020, p. 57). Koon contends that Nara achieves this connection between viewer and child in three ways; firstly, by employing rudimentary, almost pastel colours identified with children and uncomplicated compositional structures; secondly, by limiting background scenery and placing the focus solely on the figure; and thirdly, by representing the full range of attributes connected to the notion of kawaii—the amalgam of loveliness and innocence with elements that suggest the pitiful and pathetic. Under the Hazy Sky is therefore a primary example of Nara’s kawaii girls, depicted with a large spherical head, button nose and red dress, standing in front of a plain cream background, characterised as both sweet and pitiful.
2012 was a significant year for the artist, coming to terms with the disastrous effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 11 March 2011. Deeply connected to the northeastern part of Japan which was hit worst by the earthquake, Nara’s artistic output in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy waned as the artist adjusted to what had happened. Approximately 20,000 people lost their lives, and communities across the northern region lost their homes to structural damage. Additionally, the earthquake triggered a tsunami which damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant, a major disaster which caused radiation to leak from the plant and 150,000 people to evacuate from the area, with some areas remaining off limits today. In particular, Nara felt strongly disappointed by the Japanese government’s endorsement of nuclear energy.
Reflecting back on the earthquake in 2016, the artist explained: “I think what is different about those artists who were affected by the earthquake is that I grew up in Aomori, which is on the border of Fukushima. The whole area between us and Fukushima was devastated; the whole scenery I was familiar with has been destroyed. For some people with no relation to the area, they may be affected as an artist, but in my case I was a lot more affected on a personal level because I know people who were lost. I was quite depressed and unstable for quite some time, but then I saw people from that devastated area starting to come back and they started again” (the artist in conversation with Catherine Shaw, “Yoshitomo Nara”, Ocula Magazine, 9 May 2016, online).
Nara created few works in 2011, but significantly, he turned back to his sprout motif once again. Indeed, the majority of works from this pensive period between 2011 and 2012 explore the themes of growth and rebirth, as seen in Miss Spring (2012) part of the collection of the Yokohama Museum of Art and featured on the exhibition poster for Nara’s exhibition, A bit like you and me…, at the Aomori Museum of Art between 6 October 2012 and 14 January 2013. Further, Nara participated in a range of charity activities after the earthquake, donating artwork to The Great East Japan Earthquake Charity Art Sale held between 16 and 17 April 2011, organised by the Mori Art Museum to raise money and provide aid to the victims of the disaster. Significantly, Nara donated the poignant pencil and acrylic on paper, Sprout the Ambassador Mini (2011), a delicate image of a little girl gazing longingly down at a small sprout that she cradles in both hands, a vision that evokes both sadness and optimism. Executed a year later, the little girl in Under the Hazy Sky also clutches two small sprouts in her hands. Possibly signaling the enduring effects of radiation which can stunt plant growth, but perhaps also a positive symbol of growth and recovery after the devastation of the previous year, the little green sprouts of Under the Hazy Sky are subtle, yet powerful motifs that epitomise Nara’s ability to reconcile seemingly innocent imagery, with undertones of anger and anxiety.
One of the most prominent artists working today, Yoshitomo Nara is unparalleled in his ability to establish emotional connections and generate empathy in the viewer. A leading figurative painter in contemporary art, the affective capacity of Nara’s oeuvre stems from the artist’s ability to reconcile the complex dichotomy of childlike innocence with the anxiety and anger more often associated with the adult experience. In Under the Hazy Sky, Nara masterfully establishes a connection between the viewer and the central figure, allowing the viewer to share in the girl’s introspection, while simultaneously experiencing feelings of hope and optimism.
Missing in ActionYoshitomo Nara, Missing in Action, 2000, Sold by Phillips Hong Kong on 8 June 2021 for US$ 15,944,149, 奈良美智，《行蹤不明》，2000年作，2021年6月8日售於香港富藝斯，成交價：15,944,149 美元
Frog GirlYoshitomo Nara, Frog Girl, 1998, Sold by Sotheby's Hong Kong on 19 April 2021 for US$ 12,397,826, 奈良美智，《青蛙女孩》，1998年作，2021年4月19日售於香港蘇富比，成交價：12,397,826 美元
Hothouse DollYoshitomo Nara, Hothouse Doll, 1995, Sold by Phillips Hong Kong on 3 December 2020 for US$ 13,302,929, 奈良美智，《温室女孩》，1995年作，2020年12月3日售於香港富藝斯，成交價：13,302,929 美元
Agent Orange (In the Milky Lake)Yoshitomo Nara, Agent Orange (In the Milky Lake), 2009, Sold by Christie's Hong Kong on 2 December 2020 for US$ 8,511,036, 奈良美智，《等不及夜幕降臨》，2009年作，2020年12月2日售於香港佳士得，成交價：8,511,036 美元
Knife Behind BackYoshitomo Nara, Knife Behind Back , 2000, Sold by Sotheby's Hong Kong on 6 October 2019 for US$ 24,962,179, the auction record for the artist, 奈良美智，《背後藏刀》，2000年作，2019年10月6日售於香港蘇富比，成交價：24,962,179 美元，為藝術家拍賣紀錄
Can't Wait 'til the Night ComesYoshitomo Nara, Can't Wait 'til the Night Comes, 2012, Sold by Christie's Hong Kong on 23 November 2019 for US$ 11,869,161, 奈良美智，《等不及夜幕降臨》，2012年作，2019年11月23日售於香港佳士得，成交價：11,869,161美元
敏 感細膩而耐人尋味的《Under the Hazy Sky》是奈良美智創作於2012年的作品，以大頭女孩及雙葉小樹苗這兩個藝術家最著名的意象為主題。本作創作於2011年3月11日東日本大地震天災之後，而這幅令人揪心的畫作寓意著希望，反映了藝術家對和平及繁榮的渴求。奈良在《Under the Hazy Sky》中，以他後期作品中標誌性的明亮色調，描繪一個身穿紅裙的小女孩，在一層又一層的半透明顏色的塗層之下，滲透著熾熱的橙黃色調。小女孩兩手緊握著的小樹苗，在溫暖的紅裙映襯下格外突出，襯托著充滿愁緒，凝視著小樹苗沉思的小女孩。本作曾於奈良在2012年7月14日至9月23日於橫濱美術館舉辦的「有點像你，有點像我」展覽中展出，展覽的名字啟發自披頭四的同名歌曲，而是次展覽亦是自他於2001年在同一個地方舉辦歷史性的「如果你忘記我我不在意」個展後，再次回歸該美術館。「有點像你，有點像我」其後於2012年10月6日至2013年1月14日在青森縣立美術館展出，亦在2013年1月26日至4月14日於熊本市立現代美術館展出，印證了該次展覽的成功。本作成為該次展覽的限量版海報圖案，亦被用作Foil畫廊為奈良在2012年8月於日本出版的《奈良美智：有點像你，有點像我》展覽圖錄之封面。
小樹苗是奈良備受喜愛的主題，在他著名的《The Little Ambassador》（2000）——香港蘇富比曾於2016年拍賣此作——等大型畫布作品，或《Sprout the Ambassador Mini》（2011）及《Sprout the Ambassador》（2011）等小型紙本及卡紙作品中，都可見到小樹苗的蹤影。奈良出生並成長於弘前市，這個小鎮離東京約400英里並位於一個美國空軍基地附近，因此日本與戰爭及核武器之間複雜又痛苦的歷史，對奈良而言絕不陌生。他並不是唯一一位以藝術探討第二次世界大戰對社會長期影響的藝術家，他的許多同儕藝術家亦透過他們的作品檢視戰爭遺留下來的影響，村上隆用以反映及回應二戰後衍生的消費者文化的「超扁平」理論正是其中一個例子。奈良的作品訴說著他從心而發的反戰、反衝突情緒，亦闡述了他對和平由衷的渴望。對奈良而言，小樹苗——特別是橄欖樹的樹苗——是希望與和平的象徵，同時也是聯合國這個在戰後成立、用以維持國際和平及安全的組織之徽章（神谷說子，〈繪畫和平的藝術家〉，《日本時報》，2003年3月30日）。聯合國的標誌包含了兩枝橄欖枝，是希臘神話中代表勝利、繁榮及和平的象徵。所以，奈良的小樹苗畫作也體現了藝術家對和平、團結及解放的冀望，亦暗示著理想目標尚未達到前，社會應為此努力的祈願。
奈良在他的標誌性的大頭女孩畫作中，建立了一種代表著「可愛」而獨特的藝術敘事手法，並創造出一個天真存在於危險之中的世界。1991年標誌著奈良美智創作上的一個重大轉折點，當年他筆下的叛逆小女孩，在他的標誌性作品《執刀的女孩（Girl with a knife in her hand）》中正式面世。從此以後，奈良的畫作幾乎完全集中於呈現小孩單獨的身影，他筆下的小孩有著 啫喱豆形狀的大眼睛、大頭、圓滾滾的輪廓、身穿紅綠裙，這些均成為了他筆下招牌元素。奈良大頭、圓臉及大眼睛的人物「會觸發出成年人的保護行為，從而提高下一代存活的概率」（官綺雲，《奈良美智》，紐約，2020年，頁57）。藝術學者官綺雲認為奈良以三種手法讓他筆下的角色與觀眾產生同理心的連結：首先，奈良採用了容易令人聯想起孩童的柔和色調及簡潔構圖；其次，他減省了背景，讓觀眾的目光及注意力集中在人物之上；最後，他呈現出各式各樣與「可愛」（kawaii）相關的特質，結合了可愛與純真，卻又惹人憐愛及同情的元素。而《Under the Hazy Sky》是奈良的「可愛」女孩之完美典範，它有著大頭圓臉、鈕扣般的鼻子及身穿紅裙等元素，女孩站在純奶油色的背景中，展現出既甜美又憐愛的特質。
奈良在2011年只創作了少量作品，但值得留意的是，他再次回歸到小樹苗這個主題上。在2011至2012年這段他充滿著哀思的時間，他大部分作品都圍繞著生長及重生的主題，當中包括展出於橫濱美術館、並在其後成為了青森縣立美術館的「有點像你，有點像我」奈良個展（2012年10月6日至2013年1月14日）之展覽海報的《Miss Spring》（2012）。除此之外，奈良在地震後亦參與了一系列的慈善活動，包括捐獻畫作予「東日本大地震慈善藝術義賣」，這個活動由森美術館於2011年4月16及17日舉辦，旨在為地震受害者籌款及為他們提供援助。奈良更捐贈出《Sprout the Ambassador Mini》（2011）這幅絕美的壓克力及鉛筆紙本創作，畫作描繪一個小女孩熱切地凝視著她以雙手捧住的小樹苗，這個精緻的畫面同時勾起觀眾的憂傷與樂觀的情緒。在此作面世一年之後，奈良在本次拍品《Under the Hazy Sky》中呈現另一個雙手握著小樹苗的小女孩，畫中的小樹苗微妙而強烈，既暗示著輻射正持久地妨礙植物的成長，但又同時是悲劇後代表的生長及復甦的象徵，體現了奈良將天真無邪的意象，與潛藏的憤怒及焦慮結合的超卓才華。
奈良美智是當代其中一位最舉世知名的在世藝術家，而他在與觀眾建立情感連結及觸發觀眾同理心的造詣上更是無人能及。作為當代藝術界中數一數二的具象畫家，奈良在畫作中所展現的情緒感染力，來自他將孩童的天真與成人的憤怒焦慮這兩樣複雜而對立的元素揉合在一起的獨特能力。在《Under the Hazy Sky》中，奈良巧妙地讓觀眾與畫中的人物產生連結，令觀眾投入畫中女孩的沉思，並與她一同感受當中的希望與樂觀。