I kind of see the children among other, bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives.
Monumental in scale, Yoshitomo Nara’s Knife Behind Back evinces a vision as utterly iconic, pervasive, and paradigmatic of the contemporary visual lexicon as Warhol’s Marilyns and Lichtenstein’s blonde bombshells. Ranking amongst the largest works on canvas by the artist to appear at auction, Knife Behind Back announces a double-edged warning: the painting’s title broadcasts the presence of a weapon, whose absence in the image is made more marked and more menacing. Not only is there a knife, but it is hidden with intent, primed for attack. Absence thus takes on not only a presence of its own but an amplified one – the knife’s threat made infinitely more ominous in its deliberate concealment – a strategy that underscores the unexpected insurgent power of children and the associated radical potentiality of the insignificant, the innocent, the fictionary, and the imagined. It is in this way that – like no other painting by Nara – the unparalleled Knife Behind Back superlatively condenses the grounding ideology and subversive driving force behind Nara’s epochal iconography of sullen, disgruntled, yet endearing and captivating youth. Rendered in exquisitely flawless execution, and towering at larger-than-life dimensions, our radiant petite heroine extends to the twenty-first century an art historical lineage of knife-wielding female protagonists from Judith to Lucretia to Charlotte Corday with a remarkable twist – by not showing her knife, she might be the most astute, the most elegant, and the most empowered, of all.
Knife Behind Back was executed in the watershed year of 2000 – the year Nara finally returned to Japan after twelve years abroad in Germany. In 1988, the year after he graduated from the Aichi University of the Arts, Nara undertook a six-year artistic apprenticeship at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf under the mentorship of A.R. Penck and thereafter stayed in Cologne until 2000. In the mid-1990s, Nara was already showing works occasionally in Nagoya and Tokyo. The artist’s paintings in this period feature thick black outlines, a richly vibrant palette reminiscent of Neo-Expressionism, and the flat, rough-hewn or ‘primitive’ aesthetic of sketches, drawings, and manga; nevertheless, they already reveal hallmarks that define his mature aesthetic. As Midori Matsui summarizes: “These paintings all featured the single image of a girl or sexually ambiguous child with a large head and piercing eyes, involved in situations of predicament or solitude” (Midori Matsui, “A Child in the White Field: Yoshitomo Nara as a Great ‘Minor’ Artist”, in Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works, Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs, Vol. 1, Tokyo 2011, p. 334). Matsui continues that these early works already demonstrated “the allegorical ability of Nara’s painting to express narratives through singular images endowed with powerful emotional appeal and enigmatic fragments that evoked associations” (Ibid); while Eriko Osaka, then senior curator at Art Tower Mito, attributed Nara’s unique style to the artist’s modification of Neo-Expressionist influences combined with recollections from childhood (Ibid).
Towards the late 1990s, Nara gradually developed and refined his painterly technique: his surface work became increasingly fine, emanating gentle depth and luminosity. Inspired by a range of artists ranging from early Renaissance painter Giotto to Balthus, Nara softened his palette to pastel hues and dissolved the harsh outlines of his previous work to create a progressively sensuous effect. As Matsui observes, starting from 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” (Midori Matsui, “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). Most importantly, Nara accomplishes these painterly feats while still keeping with his masterful deployment of minimal narrative, minimal composition, and minimal pictorial framework to convey incisively perceptive emotive effects. During this time, the extended solitude of Nara’s residence in Germany contributed to a heightened introspection. The loneliness of living abroad not only catapulted the artist back to the days of acute loneliness in his childhood; it also, as the artist writes, enabled him to restore a “sense of [his] true self” that he had almost forgotten, because of his sense of “being watched by other people” while living in Japan (the artist cited in Exh. Cat. Nara Yoshitomo: A Bit Like You and Me…, Japan, 2012, p. 129).
Further pronounced shifts occurred in Nara’s works from 2000 onwards, coinciding with the artist’s return to his native land. First, employing large format canvases, Nara commenced full body portraits of little girls set against luminous pearly grounds that have since become highly distinctive for the artist. Achieved through advanced brushwork and repeated layering, the tenebrous hue conveys a complex ambiguous vacuity when juxtaposed against the solid substantiality of the figure – a metaphor for a little self as situated within a vast, indifferent and alienating world. Matsui observes: “In these paintings, backgrounds formerly rendered as voids, indicating the depth of the unconscious, now suggested an illusionistic three-dimensional space in which his characters could dwell” (Midori Matsui, “A Child in the White Field: Yoshitomo Nara as a Great ‘Minor’ Artist”, in Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works, Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs, Vol. 1, Tokyo 2011, p. 344). Secondly, when compared to the grossly exaggerated heads and fragmented body parts from the early 1990s, Nara’s girls now demonstrate “visible signs of humanization: their heads grew smaller, their expressions gentler, their body proportions approaching that of a real child, and their attitudes reflecting that of a thoughtful adolescent” (Ibid). Rendered with virtuosic brushwork with carefully sculpted outlines, the painterly quality of these 2000s girls recall the bewitching portraits of Balthus that likewise communicate a “unique mixture of tranquillity, classic stylization, and fantasy” (Midori Matsui, “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). Thirdly and finally is the most distinct development: gone are the prominent knives, chainsaws, pistols, and clubs of the 1990s. From 2000 onwards, Nara saves the brandishing of weaponry for his works on paper, leaving his canvases pristine and calm. The overall effect is that of a newly serene atmosphere combined with paradoxical theatricality and suspense: bathed in subtly glowing light, these paintings from 2000 onwards achieve a consummate spectacle of psychological complexity enshrouded in enchanting visual aura.
Such a captivating, accomplished, and iconic painterly phenomenon is displayed to full effect in the present Knife Behind Back, an unrivalled exemplar and critical milestone in Nara’s enduring and prolific oeuvre. Painted in 2000, the declared absence of the knife in the present work is extraordinarily significant: only from the previous year do we see paintings embodying the unequivocal violence of The Girl with Black Eye, 1999, Pistol, 1999, and the expletive emblazoned Fuck!, 1999; whereas a few works on from the present painting, we encounter girls only clutching peace-symbolizing cloverleafs (The Little Ambassador, 2000), whimsical wands (The Little Judge, 2001), and enigmatic blank sheets of paper (Come on, 2001). Positioned at the juncture between contrasting narrative modes, Knife Behind Back functions as a signpost of sorts, explicating the artist’s evolution in psyche and artistic expression. Once, when commenting on his earlier works, Nara said: “Look at them, they [the weapons] are so small, like toys. Do you think they could fight with those? I don’t think so. Rather, I kind of see the children among other bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives…” (the artist cited in Kara Besher, “Yoshitomo Nara”, Assembly Language, online, n.p.). With this poignant quote in mind, the artist’s withholding of explicit props serves two allegorical and aesthetic strategies. First, the 2000s works convey his juvenile characters’ maturation and acceptance of their outsider status in the world: vis-à-vis the wayward naïve aggression of the earlier works, the later paintings denote their recognition of the futility of the ‘toy’ armaments and an enlightened ripening of their thoughts and perspectives. Second, by way of a more understated mode of expression, the purging of external motifs foregrounds the characters’ pensive and expressive inner worlds, heightening viewers’ senses and acuity to associated imaginings and narratives.
Reductive in both figurative style and pictorial motif, Knife Behind Back is a classic archetype of the artist’s strategy that draws on Modernism’s sign-like shorthand language of images to leave endless space for resonance and fantasy for both the child and adult viewer. Merely by standing innocuously with one arm behind her back, our little heroine summons a rich vocabulary of art historical imagery symbolizing the gallantry and valour of the weak or the marginalized: young David slaying Goliath; Judith beheading Holofernes; Charlotte Corday assassinating Marat. Knife Behind Back thus epitomizes Nara’s use of the ‘minor’ child as a vehicle for oppositional and subversive allegory, be it the profound purity and insight of a child’s innocence in a corrupted world, or the rich potentiality of a child’s imagination to disturb accepted views of reality. Further, the saccharine sweetness of Nara’s figurative lexicon enacts a language undeniably redolent of Pop, anime, cartoon, and manga – one whose extraordinary emotive power endorses “the paradoxical strength of ‘minor art’, including ‘kitsch’ imagery’s ability to express the emotions of contemporary people” (Midori Matsui, “A Child in the White Field: Yoshitomo Nara as a Great ‘Minor’ Artist”, in Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works, Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs, Vol. 1, Tokyo 2011, p. 349). Quoting Walter Benjamin, Matsui asserts the revolutionary potential of the ‘kitsch’, the ‘popular’, and the ‘heart-warming’, elucidating the era-defining phenomenon of Nara’s ‘minor’ visual lexicon. Confronted by the glowering scrutiny of our little sage in her cutesy red dress, we raise our eyes to meet her penetrating gaze, seeking not only to be absolved for our own discontents, angers, and aggressions against a fatally imperfect world, but to be enlightened and empowered, as she is, in spite of it all.