First of all, paint a cage
with an opened little door
then paint something attractive
something of benefit for the bird
Sometimes the bird arrives quickly
but sometimes it takes years
When the bird comes
if it comes
keep the deepest silence
wait until the bird enters the cage
and when entered in
Close the door softly with the brush
- Jacques Prévert, Birds
Greeting for Birds (set of 96) (Lot 1053) arose out of a singular cross-cultural endeavour: one between Japanese film director and animator Takahata Isao, the era-defining Japanese contemporary artist Nara Yoshitomo, and the poetry of French poet and screenwriter Prévert. In 2004, when Takahata was invited to pen an introductory essay for an audio CD album of Prévert’s poetry, he found himself inadvertently reminded of Nara’s iconic drawings. For Takahata, the simple, unpretentious purity of the French poet’s idealism and child-like sentiments found perfect resonance in Nara’s visual aesthetic, which likewise shone light, empathy and tender affection on young children and little animals—the weaker yet chaste creatures of the world. Takahata thus initiated the project of a combined collection of Prévert’s poems, translated to Japanese and accompanied by Nara illustrations. Takahata personally picked certain Nara works to match each poem, and Nara later contributed to the project by replacing some of the selections and producing fresh illustrations for the book. The collection was published and printed in 2006; prior to this, Nara personally reproduced each page of the book, illustration plus poem, into a set of 96 drawings on paper, and the entire set was exhibited at the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art in 2004.
The present lot, titled after Prévert’s favoured bird motif, is thus an enchanting fusion of art and poetry that represents a transnational reverberation of sentiment and spirit. Artist and poet both articulate an instantly evocative language of poignant vulnerability and purity, proclaiming personal and universal feelings of nostalgia, melancholy and hopeful idealism. Born in 1959 to emotionally distant workaholic parents in post-war Japan, and growing up as the youngest of three sons by a drastic age difference, Nara’s childhood was for the most part spent alone. Transforming his feelings into art, Nara immortalized his feelings in striking portraits of young solitary children set against simple bare backgrounds, building a distinctive and universally resonant oeuvre that quickly gained a worldwide following. While Nara’s style on canvas evolved progressively throughout the years, his drawings on paper always retained an undiminished freshness and encompassed styles, genres and motifs from all periods. Featuring a comprehensive set of drawings chosen and produced specifically as a collection, Greeting for Birds (set of 96) is a rare collectible that constitutes a captivating summation of the artist’s entire epochal career.
Transposing Nara’s iconic two-dimensional aesthetic into a three-dimensional connoisseur’s item, Dancing (Lot 1052) exhibits the artist’s signature 2000s-aesthetic of solitary young girls against flat blank backgrounds. Endearingly defiant, the little girl scowls and glares at us as she strikes an almost obligatory dance pose – an archetypal example of Nara’s iconic aesthetic that fuses anime, Pop Art and the darker angsts of punk rock. Much like his characters, Nara’s fragile vulnerability is paralleled with a rebellious streak; the famously soft-spoken artist was once arrested for drawing graffiti in the New York underground. Conceptually, the artist’s oeuvre can be seen as “both a detached commentary on the pressures of Japanese adolescence and a symptom of it”;1 while his revolutionary aesthetic constitutes a seamless unification of Eastern and Western themes and motifs. In American critic Roberta Smith’s words, meanwhile, Nara is “one of the most egalitarian visual artists since Keith Haring”, with art that bridges “high, low and keitsch; East and West; grown-up, adolescent and infantile” and is “so seamless as to render such distinctions almost moot”.2
Formally, Nara’s works evoke hints of traditional Japanese forms from the East; as Stephan Trescher writes, “[…] the full-body portrait in front of a neutral background, the relationship between figure and the picture plane, the image-object and the empty surrounding space, the connection between the image sign and the text sign, the blurring of the boundary between printmaking and painting – all can be found in Nara’s art as well as in colored prints from the 18th and 19th centuries by Hiroshige, Hokusai or Utamaro”.3 The Japanese critic Matsui Midori, on the other hand, opines that Nara’s work 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”.4 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 constituted a radical mixture of influences 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”. The artist himself says: “I don’t think too hard about it. This is just what comes out”.5
1 David McNeill, "Yoshitomo Nara: neo-pop artist who defies categorisation", South China Morning Post Magazine, March 5, 2015
2 Refer to 1
3 Stephan Trescher, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog”, in Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, Michael Zink Gallery, Munich, 2002, p.11
4 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
5 Refer to 1
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