Big Eyes: The Visual Language of Manga in Contemporary Art

Big Eyes: The Visual Language of Manga in Contemporary Art

“Manga is virtual. Manga is [a] sentiment. Manga is resistance. Manga is bizarre. Manga is pathos. Manga is destruction. Manga is arrogance. Manga is love. Manga is kitsch. Manga is [a] sense of wonder. Manga is…there is no conclusion yet.”
Osamu Tezuka, Japanese manga artist

T he words of artist Osamu Tezuka (1928 – 1989) ring true in the enigma that is manga today. Outside Japan, the modern concept of manga has straddled the semantic tightrope in contemporary art, used as a shorthand for its distinctive iconography.

With a history tracing back to 12th century Japan, the art form has undergone a dramatic transformation from its earliest days and has since extended its reach beyond comics, cartoons and animation. The ukiyo-e tradition popular during the Edo Period (1603–1867) offered a window onto Japanese culture, depicting scenes of everyday life, landscapes, and literature. Great masters of woodblock printing and painting, such as Katsushika Hokusai, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, and Shunbaisai Hokuei, would tell stories through such “pictures of the floating world”, a celebration of life’s ephemerality and mysteries. Popular subjects of the wood prints include portraits of beautiful women, popular kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers, monumental landscapes or seascapes, and scenes from folklore or poetry.

Manga and anime are equally rooted in Japanese and Western graphic arts. New visual ideas from outside Japan would filter in as magazines in the 19th century exposed artists to the nascent art form, and further in the 20th century when comics from North America were translated and circulated. The 1940s and 1950s proved to be the watershed, when Tezuka brought to life such works that would blend various graphic traditions, pioneering new Japanese-Western hybrids that thrilled audiences in Japan and later worldwide.

left: MR., Untitled , 2011. Estimate: 140,000 - 240,000 HKD; right: Takashi Murakami, Miss Ko_Nurse , 2004. Estimate: 300,000 - 500,000 HKD
Hikari Shimoda, Self Portrait #3 , 2009. estimate: 30,000-50,000 hkd

The images speak thousands of words largely on account of manga’s deep repertoire of iconographic symbols. Anxiety, movement, arousal, and romance are conveyed with great economy through visual tropes. There is also a significant facial vocabulary: big heads, tiny noses, round faces. Big, round eyes are a distinguishing hallmark of the art form, serving as a keyhole to a character’s emotion, mindset and disposition. The eyes vary in scale and signature typically in accordance with age. The shape of the eye is also telling – e.g. the downward cast tareme may indicate innocence and purity while the angular tsurime suggest malevolence and haughtiness.

The global reach of the art form means that for generations of artists around the world, manga is embedded within childhood imagination and memory. As a result, the distinctive visual language has been internalised and manifest in the aesthetics of contemporary art.

Stickymonger, Untitled , 2019. estimate: 80,000-150,000 hkd

August Vilella, Sakura Spirit , 2020. estimate: 40,000-60,000 hkd

The deep, sometimes dark, iconography extends well beyond the face, often indicating deeper, darker emotions in the way of ghosts, demons, zombies and other diabolical creatures. The death effect is an established theme, emblematic of emotionless characters suffering from trauma or possession by a higher spirit. Take Hikari Shimoda’s Self Portrait #3 (2009), for example. At first glance, the painting’s subject appears to be an infantile girl with hollow eyes. The vibrant, otherworldly brushstrokes, however, are a veiled commentary on the conflicts and struggles in modern society. The child, in this case, acts as a symbol of what Shimoda describes as “countless possibilities; where fantasy meets reality, past meets future, life meets death”.

South Korean-born, Brooklyn-based artist Stickymonger has a similar talent for conjuring up parallel universes through her artwork. Untitled (2019) features a face half-hidden by sparkling pink hair, which, in her own words, explores “the interplay of darkness and light, as well as the tension between innocence and fear, femininity and anxiety”. The darkness that underpins Stickymonger’s work is informed by her childhood in South Korea, where she grew up next to her family’s gas station, often playing in the shadow of oil drums and staring into bottomless barrels of black petroleum. Spanish self-taught artist August Vilella’s Sakura Spirit (2020) echoes a similar melancholy, as evidenced in the interplay of light and shadow, and the sombre, tapered eyes of its protagonist, an octopus-like creature seemingly planted to the ground.

Okokume, Untitled 2 , 2019. estimate: 30,000-50,000 hkd
Hideaki Kawashima, Silence , 2009. estimate: 60,000-90,000 hkd

Spanish-born artist Okokume’s Untitled 2 (2019) work portrays her best-known character, Cosmic Girl; the turquoise-skinned, candyfloss-haired icon who travels through space to save the environment represents a whimsical take on the current climate crisis. Similarly, Hideaki Kawashima’s Silence (2009) embodies the essence of a woman. The artwork shows a feminine figure in his traditional signature – with big almond eyes and bright lips, watered down to a muted palette – symbolic of people emblazoned deep in our memories. The element of surrealism is mirrored in Indonesian artist Roby Dwi Antono’s Kin (2020), where an amorphous creature with saucer-like eyes stares into space, inviting the observer into a universe unknown. Antono’s rendition is an ode to childhood, where make-believe beings with humanoid features exists side by side with everyday pets such as cats and dogs.

Roby Dwi Antono, Kin , 2020. Estimate: 60,000-90,000 HKD

The protean influence of manga and anime is evident across art and popular culture. Its childlike characters have become universally recognisable and the kawaii (cute) aesthetics have been deployed into designs for toys, bags and other commercial goods. While its origins may have emerged from the transitory nature of the everyday, the artform endures through its far-reaching aesthetics – straddling age and culture, decades and geographies, and appealing to all in equal measure.

Contemporary Art

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