“When I work this way there’s a lot more of a conversation that I have with the image, or with the person who’s depicted in the image. That’s really me having a conversation with myself. It allows me to draw out parts of myself that I’m not even aware are there.”
Adieu Fille d'Automne presents a monumental, arresting yet tender vision – a supreme paradigm of Nara Yoshitomo’s mature painterly practice. Larger than life, our heroine emerges from a background bearing the singular shade of chartreuse, while her hair and clothes reveal softly iridescent kaleidoscopes of autumnal hues. The chromatic complexity of the painting exudes an absorbing golden glow reminiscent of the shimmering surfaces of Gustav Klimt that ultimately accentuates portrait’s most singular feature: the girl’s asymmetrically coloured irises of baby blue and emerald green. In the catalogue Yoshitomo Nara: Self-Selected Works, curator Kuraya Mika specifically comments on the differently colored eyes of the present work, observing that this anomaly introduces a temporal element to the portrait. Such a temporal element, created by “piecing together multiple expressions from different moments” (Yoshitomo Nara: Self-Selected Works, p. 151), is poignantly echoed in the work’s title – the girl’s bidding farewell to autumn alluding to the closing of a season and the passing of time. Perfected over two decades of diligent reprisals, it is through the iconic subject of the young girl that Nara has captivated the imaginations and gained the respect of museums and collectors worldwide, indisputably certifying him as Japan’s most internationally acclaimed living painter. Aided by the combined efficacy of its monumental scale, delicately virtuosic brushwork and bold compositional choice of incongruous eyes, the present work, executed in 2014, exemplifies Nara’s mature, more meditative and introspective aesthetic underscored by deeper contemplations on the self and the world.
While in the early 1990s Nara used the emblem of the young girl to explore hostility, rebellion and playful violence, at the close of the decade and into the early 2000s the artist softened his characters’ fickle temperaments. Mirroring these tendencies in his aesthetic, Nara sweetened his palette and dissolved harsh lines to create a sensuous effect of ethereal depth that finds its apotheosis in the present example. As Matsui Midori observed, since 1996 and coinciding with the artist’s foray into sculpture, Nara’s figures began to attain “the illusion of three-dimensionality, coming out of the pastel background buoyed up by luminous shadows” (Matsui Midori, “A Gaze from Outside: Merits of the Minor in Yoshitomo Nara’s Painting”, in exh. cat. Japan, Yokohama Museum of Art (and travelling), Nara Yoshitomo: I Don’t Mind, If You Forget Me, 2001, p. 168). A few years later, starting from around 2005, Nara’s treatment of his subjects’ eyes experienced an important shift: what he once rendered strictly two-dimensionally he began to depict more realistically, imbuing them with more detail, light and shadow. Towards the end of the decade, Nara perfected his technique of prismatic kaleidoscopic eyes, admitting around the time: “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).
Executed in 2014, Adieu Fille d'Automne exemplifies Nara’s mature accomplishments of these technical enquiries, exhibiting sentimental nuances of color and brushwork that achieve a shimmering translucency. The chartreuse ground complements the rusty warmth of the girl’s autumnal palette, while the shocking emerald of her left iris presents a jarring tonal discord that accentuates her piercing gaze. Such a consummate visual spectacle is achieved via an extended painterly process of repeated patient layering; in contrast with his earlier mode of operation, Nara’s creative process in the present decade has slowed down to become more meticulous, meditative and introspective. In the artist’s own words: “In the past I would have an image that I wanted to create, and I would just do it. I would just get it finished. Now I take my time and work slowly and build up all these layers to find the best way” (the artist cited in Robert Ayers, “‘I Was Really Unthinking Before’: Yoshitomo Nara on His Recent Work and His Show at Pace Gallery in New York”, Artnews, 14 April 2017). Elsewhere Nara attributes the reason for the shift in his artistic practice to the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 at the beginning of the decade: “I have become more serious after the earthquake. In the past, I created things out of fun. Sometimes they are based on a momentary emotion such as sadness. Now I want to think about how to overcome the sadness with something powerful” (the artist cited in ‘Japanese artist has a taste for Hong Kong’, South China Morning Post, 9 March 2015).
Nara continues: “When I work this way there’s a lot more of a conversation that I have with the image, or with the person who’s depicted in the image. That’s really me having a conversation with myself. It allows me to draw out parts of myself that I’m not even aware are there” (Ibid.). As such, Nara’s mature works in recent years display greater depth and introspection via much subtler and restrained expression: instead of contextual motifs, such as the cigarettes, knives, torches and fangs frequently found in his earlier works, Nara communicates a heightened poignancy via line and colour alone. Here, in Adieu Fille d'Automne, the magic is found in the devilish gleam in the left eye – one that transcends our terrestrial realm and intimates an inherently otherworldly reach; and also in the girl’s ambiguous mouth; in the artist’s own words: “You can’t tell instantly if she is angry or smiling” (the artist cited in ‘Japanese artist has a taste for Hong Kong’, SCMP, 9 March 2015). Joining an epic lineage of mysterious female sitters throughout art history – epitomized perhaps by Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa – who refuse to reveal their inner disposition, Adieu Fille d'Automne epitomizes the epochal spirit of Nara’s epochal oeuvre.