Exquisite, endearing and intensely captivating, Portrait of AE by Nara Yoshitomo features the legendary Amelia Mary Earhart – the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Executed in 2009, Portrait of AE displays the most distinctive feature of Nara’s mature canvas paintings – the strikingly clear, brilliantly lustrous eyes. Earhart’s luminously prismatic pupils in Portrait of AE are almost immersive in their ability to mesmerize and engulf the viewer, drawing us into an otherworldly realm of joy and hope, vulnerability and fear, and everything in between – in other words, the heartwrenchingly fragile wonderment of childhood. Nara’s ability to characterize, capture and make tangible the true essence of youth comes through consummately in the present portrait, which depicts a child-version of Earhart in a pilot’s helmet, with doe eyes, a sweet face and a mysterious Mona Lisa-esque smile. With eyes that shine like the shimmering iridescence of many galaxies, Nara’s Amelia Earhart tells the tale not only of the American heroine but of the most universal story of all time – the story of each person’s childhood.
Born into a post-World War II Japan that was effectively occupied by the United States, Nara’s formative years were deeply influenced by American culture and ideals. At a young age, the artist was exposed to American forms of entertainment such as Walt Disney and Warner Brothers, whose cartoons provided much inspiration for his early creations. For the young Nara, as with any child who dreamed of going on adventures to foreign lands, the story of Amelia Earhart – a popular fixture in American culture after she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean – would surely have commanded a magical appeal. The present portrait of Earhart embodies precisely the magical surreality of a childhood dream; as critic Matsui Midori observes, the distinctively mysterious and universal allure of Nara’s creations lie in his ability to “give priority to the emotional truth of the dream-vision” (Matsui Midori, “Art for Myself and Others: Yoshitomo Nara’s Popular Imagination”, Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, exh. cat. Asia Society Museum, 2010, p. 13).
Nara is able to achieve such a ‘dream-vision’ by absorbing and synthesizing diverse influences. According to Matsui, Nara’s oeuvre belongs to the family of “strange figuration”—a style “formed after Cubism, enriching the pictorial plane simplified after abstraction” by “reclaim[ing] the importance of personal emotion” (Matsui Midori, “A Gaze from Outside: Merits of the Minor in Yoshitomo Nara’s Painting”, in exh. cat. Nara Yoshitomo: I Don’t Mind, If You Forget Me, Japan, 2001, p. 168). According to Matsui, one of strange figuration’s foremost representatives was Balthus, whose portraits of young girls communicated a “unique mixture of tranquillity, classic stylization, and fantasy”. In a similar manner, Nara’s paintings of children are guided first and foremost by his “ability to recapitulate essential emotions” through the emphasis on naiveté, which “enhances the style’s poetic concentration and its capacity to incur the viewer’s imaginative projection”.
Other traceable sources include two of Nara’s most important influences, Giotto and Pierro della Francesca. In the present work, Earhart’s porcelain face is pearly and translucent, imbued with an enchanting soft luminosity, echoing the treatment seen in the works of the two artists. The painting’s fairy-tale world effect creates a uniquely captivating visual effect described by philosopher Yoshimoto Takayuki as “the function of another unconscious eye”: one that at once pervades everything and distances itself, “as if it were a recollected vision” (Ibid., p. 171). As Matsui observes, since 1996 Nara’s emphasis gradually changed to be on the formal perfection of the picture plane: coinciding with the artist’s production of FRP sculptural pieces since 1995, his pictorial figures “beg[an] to attain the illusion of three-dimensionality, coming out of the pastel background buoyed up by luminous shadows. The new style demonstrates Nara’s moving toward ‘Italian’ tranquillity and classic balance”.
Starting from around 2005, Nara’s portraiture evidenced a further maturation seen in his treatment of his subjects’ eyes. What he once rendered strictly two-dimensionally he began to depict more realistically, imbuing them with more detail, light and shadow. Around 2007-2008, towards the creation of the present work, Nara further matured his practice, perfecting his technique of prismatic kaleidoscopic eyes. Commenting on the change, Nara admitted: “They say human eyes are the mirror of the soul, and I used to draw them too carelessly. Say, to express the anger, I just drew some triangular eyes. I drew obviously-angry eyes, projected my anger there, and somehow released my pent-up emotions. [Afterwards] I became more interested in expressing complex feelings in a more complex way” (the artist cited in “An Interview with Yoshitomo Nara”, Asymptote Journal, Hideo Furukawa, moderated by Sayuri Okamoto, November 2013).
Gazing at us with her sparkling soulful eyes, little Amelia Earhart entices the viewer to join her on her special journey. With every prospect of journey and adventure, however, comes danger, risk and peril; and as we are all aware, Earhart disappeared from the face of the earth during a circumnavigational flight of the globe in 1937. Earhart’s legend inspires fascination and fear in equal measure, and in Portrait of AE, little Amelia is portrayed engulfed in unfathomable depths of darkness that seem to symbolize the more complex existential truths of childhood – the most important of which, perhaps, is the loss of youth. Every child yearns to grow up, and yet growing up inevitably entails the loss of precious purity and innocence. Dare we go on the journey?