Lot 1064
  • 1064

Nara Yoshitomo

8,000,000 - 12,000,000 HKD
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  • Nara Yoshitomo
  • In the Darkland
  • executed in 1999
  • acrylic on canvas


Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo
Acquired by the present owner from the above


Japan, Nagoya, Nagoya City Art Museum, Mindfulness!, April 12 - June 8, 2014, p. 36
Japan, Tokyo, Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, Takahashi Collection: Mirror Neuron, April 18 - June 28, 2015, p. 37


Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works 1984 - 2010, Bijutsu Shuppan Sha, Tokyo, Japan, 2011, p. 153


This work is generally in good condition. There is minor wear in handling marks around the edges. Having examined the work under ultraviolet light, there appears to be no evidence of restoration.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Transcendence through Art: The Takahashi Collection

In April of this year, 140 works from the eminent collection of Dr Takahashi Ryutaro were shown at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery. Drawing enormous crowds, “Takahashi Collection: Mirror Neuron”, was the third public Takahashi exhibition to show selected pieces from the Takahashi Collection. This season, Sotheby’s has the honour of presenting Nara Yoshitomo’s In the Darkland (Lot 1064), the first piece of artwork ever to appear at auction to bear the eponymous designation of Dr Takahashi Ryutaro, the renowned collector and the mastermind of the Takahashi Collection.

 Dr Takahashi’s collection is the largest, most important archive of contemporary Japanese art in the present day, and over the past two decades, it has grown to house more than 2,000 important pieces. The collection’s depth is encyclopedic and unparalleled, covering the full spectrum of the artistic development of contemporary Japan, spanning from the post-war era to present day. His assemblage of works includes the likes of contemporary giants such as Kusama Yayoi, Nara Yoshitomo, and Murakami Takashi, as well as the perhaps internationally lesser known but art-historically important artists such as Aida Makoto; pioneering ink master Inoue Yui-chi; photographer Araki Nobuyoshi; and even young emerging artists such as Kato Izumi. Driven by passion but led by an unrelenting commitment to the preservation and dissemination of contemporary Japanese art, Dr Takahashi’s collection is an extension of his discerning eye for pieces of great iconic value and rarity, and when taken in its entirety, showcases his unparalleled sense of taste and judgment. Ever-growing and showing no signs of losing speed, the collection is unrivalled in its specialist curation and variety.

Dr Takahashi was born in 1946, and is a Neuropsychiatrist—albeit one with an artistic twist. According to the doctor, an innate and deeply engrained sense of collecting was forged within him from a young age, and his fascination with insects, stamps, and fossils became a foundation for an extensive “collection” as a young child. His first encounter with actual art collecting would not occur until Dr Takahashi was thirty-three years old in 1979, purchasing his first ever artwork, by Goda Sawako. His first milestone purchase however—and the beginning of an extensive, passionate, and philosophical journey—would be Kusama’s Infinity Nets No. 27, bought in the late nineties when the doctor was in his early fifties. For the doctor, the work immediately rekindled memories from the late sixties, when the Japanese Student Revolts he took part in coincided with Kusama’s anti-war “Happenings” performances in New York. The potency of Kusama’s pacifist sentiments would then stir in Takahashi a profound sense of affinity, and upon bringing her work home three decades later, the passionate doctor commented on the extraordinariness it injected into his ordinary life. That art was no mere object but one that was both palpable and sentimental to the doctor uncovers his commitment to his art. According to him, “Even if I were to live in a matchbox, I would probably still have done the same.”1

Over the course of the past nearly two decades of collecting, Takahashi has amassed so many works that he has shifted between three separate art spaces, which were created in large part as a reflection of the deep sense of social responsibility he feels to share his artworks with the public: “I created [the] Takahashi Collection as a viewing room, feeling a sense of duty to make my collection accessible to the public.”2 His works have been on numerous loans to various museums across the country for the same reason. This same sense of responsibility is also the reason why many of the artists in Takahashi’s collection are young, emerging ones who are perhaps lacking in representation. At the heart of the collection is thus a primary goal of raising the visibility of contemporary Japanese artists, and to elevate the understanding of their art forms. According to Dr Takahashi, there are still gaps in the understanding of the various trends in contemporary Japanese society when it comes to contemporary art.   

One major breakthrough in eradicating the misconceptions towards contemporary Japanese art was achieved by the first major exhibition of the Takahashi collection in 2008, entitled “Neoteny: Japan”. This comprehensive first exhibition can be considered as one of the most important shows to display contemporary Japanese art, which was previously thought of as both difficult to comprehend and incapable of drawing large crowds. “Neoteny: Japan” was a turning point for the Japanese art scene at the time, responsible for simplifying contemporary art and presenting it to an audience in a comprehensible manner. It is still widely considered as a pivotal event to have drastically altered the then established mindset. Captured in its title is also Dr Takahashi’s opinion that post-war contemporary Japanese art reflects “neoteny”, the condition whereby an adult animal still retains childlike features. This belief is so potent that the doctor has even commented that the West possibly views contemporary Japanese art as akin to axolotls, forever trapped in childhood. The work we offer this season, namely in Nara Yoshitomo’s In the Darkland, is perhaps one of the works that best signifies this condition. Dr Takahashi’s reflection on “neoteny” is no small statement, but rather an all-encompassing declaration that captures the essence of his entire oeuvre.  

The Takahashi Collection has shown a singular preoccupation with art itself—this focus has gained incredible momentum in the past few years alone. Following “Neoteny: Japan”, Takahashi organised “Mindfulness!” in 2013, as well as “Takahashi Collection: Mirror Neuron” this year. This focus will be the driving force behind yet another exhibition in October of this year, namely, “COSMOS \ INTIME”, which will be presented in the Maison de la Culture du Japon à Paris, and is the first international show for the collection itself, indicative of Dr Takahashi’s continued and ambitious wish to promote contemporary Japanese art beyond just the Japanese region.

Ultimately, art itself is the doctor’s primary passion: “Of course, the artworks themselves will remain, but, more importantly, the beauty embodied within them is eternal.”3  Through his artworks, something akin to transcendence of time will be achieved. As Dr Takahashi believes, “[It is] possibly, this very quality of eternity that speak to us mortals the most.”4

1 Published in Takahashi Collection: Mirror Neuron, Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, 2015, p. 150

2 “A Collection with a Personal Edge: Ryutaro Takahashi, Takahashi Collection”, Art Space Tokyo, 2010

3 Una Meistere, “An Interview with Japanese Art Rollector Ryutaro Takahashi in Tokyo”, Arterritory, January 2015

4 Refer to 3

From Me to You; From You to Me: Nara Yoshitomo’s Captivating Portraits

The powerful personal touch and compelling universality of Nara Yoshitomo’s portraits of infants and animals have been felt by both his admirers and critics alike. The dreamlike quality inherent to each of the artist’s works—filled with figures displaying varying amounts of mischief, drollness, and even apathy—has tugged at the heartstrings of countless individuals. The artist’s great success commercially has been matched by an extensive repertoire of exhibitions at significant global institutions, including countless international group shows, as well as solo exhibitions held at the likes of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, as well as the Aomori Museum of Art in the artist’s hometown. On offer in the present Evening Sale are two striking and distinct works from two periods of Nara’s artistic development, which showcase different techniques as well as styles rare to be found in Nara's oeuvre. The two works include In the Darkland, painted during the late nineties, as well as Let’s Talk about "Glory", painted in 2012. When taken together, these two works are powerful enquiries into Nara’s artistic philosophy, and reveal the artist’s adept employment of various mediums and themes, at two very different junctions of his career. Moreover, In the Darkland stems from the prestigious Dr Takahashi Ryutaro's collection, and captures Nara's unparalleled artistic style, and is a rare piece to find on the market.

Nara was born in 1959 in Hirosaki in the Aomori Prefecture. His formative years were marked—if not marred—by intense feelings of isolation and loss, sentiments so penetrating that they would resurface in his later years as an adult artist. Growing up as the vastly younger sibling of three sons born to emotionally distant parents in post-war Japan, Nara’s childhood was for the most part spent alone. Several fragmented memories have recurred in the artist’s many interviews, including the adult Nara admitting, “When you are a kid, you are too young to know you are lonely, sad, and upset…Now I know I was.” It is unsurprising that this feeling would be immortalised in endless portraits of young solitary children, set against innumerable nebulous landscapes. One such work is In the Darkland from the Takahashi Collection, an uncommon work that possesses various unique aspects of Nara’s style. 

Lightness in Spirit and in Brush: Nara’s Little Sprites
An unidentifiable little girl stands at the left hand side of In the Darkland (Lot 1064), looking somewhat indifferent, as if she is about to disappear off-canvas. She dons a pale blue dress with a crisp white Peter Pan collar, and wears a bandage-like hair band, not dissimilar to a head scarf of sorts. Her beady green eyes are slanted and inquisitive, her arms held abreast from her body, in a comical stance resembling a flitting fairy, about to take flight. It likewise recalls the sleep-walking child in Night Walkerpainted in 2001, who is completely at peace and safely wandering in the realms of sleep. The present work has been purposefully rendered in a whimsical, slightly blurred manner, and resembles in many ways a watercolour work rather than a painting in oils.

Towards the late nineties, Nara produced a few works with darker colour palettes, though In the Darkland is the only work of that year to showcase so much of the artist’s chosen figure’s form. The little girl’s upper torso is portrayed in its entirety in the work, allowing the audience to feel in their full extents her isolation and aloneness. And yet, the little girl does not seem perturbed at all by her surroundings; on the contrary, the expression she wears is of alarming coolness. Such is the magic of Nara portraiture: though the works rouse deep feelings of sympathy or even concern for the children featured within, all apt representations of the artist’s own memories of loneliness, each child is safe in his or her own innocence, oblivious to any adult notions. 

Often Nara marries these contraries on the same canvas: while the children in his portraits are, for the most part, innocent, he places them in unknown lands, sometimes with obscure words and phrases. In the work In the Darkland however, one detects many rich layers, and showcases Nara's deft but rare application of thin layering. Each individual layer is applied thinly onto the canvas to create an effect of lightness and transparency of light. In its feathery and soft finish lies the very essence of childhood itself, perpetually capturing the fairy-like quality of the child. In the Darkland also displays a likeness to pastel works, which predates even Night Walker painted two years later, which exhibits the same technique. In this way, he is most successful in achieving a mix between childlike innocence and adult cynicism by using a watercolour style finish. The dreamlike texture to the figure blurs the line not only between mediums, it also adds a sense of magic that makes the work both relatable—in the sense that it reminds one of fairy tales or of a dream—and distant—the hazy quality to the work makes it remote and hard to pinpoint. The employment of this technique is extremely unusual in Nara’s oeuvre, which accentuates the rarity and allure of In the Darkland

In many ways, this work and the techniques inherent to the piece are highly reminiscent of Balthus’ works, and in particular, Chassy by the Fireplace at Workshop (1955). In the work, dark hues cradle a huddled figure who faces away from the audience, sat in front of an extinguished fireplace. Balthus, whose own oeuvre famously featured a vast array of young children and cats, is a befitting comparison to Nara, whose works heavily revolve around youth and animals. The most telling similarity however is that in their almost singular preoccupation with their most famous motifs, they have successfully ascribed an adult gaze to inherently innocent figures. Driven by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, many of both Balthus and Nara’s most committed fans find in their works both an irretrievable sense of innocence as well as adult mischief. It is this seemingly irreconcilable difference that has made their portraits so endlessly relatable. Perhaps more so than Balthus, Nara has perfected this technique to an even greater degree, and has created works that are neither Eastern or Western, and universally accessible by all. Although works such as In the Darkland are based heavily upon his own childhood, there is something undeniably familiar about the work. 

A Childhood for All of Us
By the time Nara creates Let’s Talk About "Glory" (Lot 1063), the style of his portraiture had greatly changed. It had moved away from the self-reflective portraitures of the late eighties and nineties that were intimately personal. Writing in 2012 for the preface of ‘a bit like you and me’, the very show that would exhibit Let’s Talk About "Glory", Nara revealed, ‘Up until now, I have been feeling that my works were a part of my body, for they were inseparable from me no matter how physically far away they actually were…Whether I like it or not, the things I make [now] are no longer self-portraits, but belong to the audience who find themselves, their friends or children they know in my paintings.’ Painted after the 2011 earthquake in Japan, the important of collective memory has also become all the more apparent in Nara’s works.  

This sentiment is reflected in sundry ways in Let’s Talk About "Glory". The depiction of the child at the centre of the work has been heavily refined, and was created using many faint layers of different colours and outlined in a cartoonish dark line. This time, the child holds its audience’s gaze, staring emotionlessly outwards. This feeling is similarly emphasised by the pursed thin lips portrayed as a mere red line, and the slightly awkward, hunched posture of the figure. The eyes have likewise been simplified: they appear as an elongated set of narrow, flattened ovals with a dark olive-coloured centre. The image of the child has been distilled: it is an abridged version of sorts, even rendered in a child-like manner: the disproportions, the helmet-like three dimensionality of the hair, the simple colours. 

Yet, this work is powerfully universal. The androgynous nature of the child makes him, or her, an immediate potential reflection of anyone. The simplicity of its depiction likewise boosts this sensation; and the artist’s use of a recycled billboard as the canvas of the piece adds a certain degree of attainability and relatability to the work. Moreover, Let’s Talk About "Glory", even in its title, beckons a reciprocal relationship between painter and viewer. Coupled with the fact that the piece has been created on a billboard, an added level of proximity has been created.

Both In the Darkland and Let’s Talk About "Glory" are significant works that underscore the exploration of Nara’s development of portraiture. While the former is figurative, and injects an illusory aesthetic in order to create a fanciful sense of nostalgia, the latter is a bold work; a distillation of the artist’s most recognisable themes, and even in its use of title and canvas, is the very embodiment of universality. While these two works differ in many ways, they are strong and distinct representations of Nara’s constantly evolving style. Through these two works, one can feel the full extent of not only the artist’s compelling narrative of his own childhood, but the ones of all adults. As Nara explains, his portraitures are both an extension of his own selfhood, but also a part of all of his audience. It is this mélange of both the personal and public that has garnered the artist an immense amount of international support and admiration since the beginning of his career, and one that will no doubt continue to do so for the remainder of his legacy.