I was not deliberately painting any particular girl. Through painting representational features such as eyes, noses, and mouths, I wanted to express something deeper. This deeper thing cannot be described with language. Yet, people will understand.
Exceptionally rare in composition, resolutely uplifting in demeanor and impressively expansive in scale, Yoshitomo Nara’s Keep Your Chin Up from 2001 features a portrait in profile – a singularly special painting from the artist’s universally resonant oeuvre. Sporting an adoring bob cut, a young girl gazes into an unseen distance. Rendered in profile, her features are thrown into stark focus: the rounded high forehead, the diminutive yet defined nose, the lips set in a determined smile, and finally the titular decisively lifted chin. Nara’s composition here recalls the distinctive tradition of profile portraits that began in fifteenth-century Florence. The genesis for the genre began with five male profile portraits; however, from around 1450, all subsequent profile portraits from Quattrocento Tuscany featured women, possibly because the profile format most aptly displayed the upright bearing of women of class and stature as well as the plenitude of their decorative ornaments and possessions. Here in Keep Your Chin Up, the sparingly spartan sailor’s suit of Nara’s androgynous-looking protagonist proffers a defiant response to the age-old tradition of Renaissance profile portraits, superlatively condensing the grounding ideology behind Nara’s epochal iconography. Rendered in exquisitely flawless execution, our radiant little sailor girl is empowered, optimistic, and hopeful, encapsulating the paradigmatic visual lexicon of one of the most renowned living painters of our time.
Keep Your Chin Up was executed in 2001 – the year after Nara returned to Japan after twelve years in Germany, where he undertook a six-year artistic apprenticeship under A.R. Penck. In the mid-1990s, Nara’s paintings featured thick black outlines, a richly vibrant palette reminiscent of Neo-Expressionism, and the flat, rough-hewn or ‘primitive’ aesthetic of sketches, drawings, and manga. According to Midori Matsui, 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” (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). Towards the late 1990s, Nara gradually developed and refined his painterly technique; 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. 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).
Further pronounced shifts occurred after Nara’s return to Japan in 2000. Employing large canvases, Nara commenced portraits against bare yet luminous 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). 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).
Executed in 2001, the enchanting and enlivening Keep Your Chin Up displays to full effect the emotive power of Nara’s iconic painterly lexicon. Reductive in both style and motif, the work 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. Keep Your Chin Up further 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 overturn accepted views of reality. Gazing upon the luminous vision of Nara’s staunch, unyielding heroine in Keep Your Chin Up, we cannot help but grit our teeth, lift our own chins, and face the world again with renewed hope, conviction, and empowerment.