S otheby’s London’s second sale dedicated to contemporary Japanese printmakers and photographers celebrates the pioneers of the Neo-Pop movement and explores their global influence. The online auction features prints and multiples by iconic creators such as Yoshimoto Nara, Takashi Murakami and Yayoi Kusama, who have each synthesised Japanese and Western popular culture with their own signature aesthetic.
Alongside their editions, provocative photographs by artists from Nobuyoshi Araki to Rinko Kawauchi unveil shibari philosophies. Altogether these works bring subcultures from otaku to kinbaku to London, from Japan with love.
Yayoi Kusama’s instantly recognizable pumpkins have become fixtures of contemporary art and popular culture, making her one of the most recognisable Japanese artists on the global stage. Kusama began drawing pumpkins as a child in pre-war Japan, where her family owned a plant nursery that farmed kabocha squash. Her obsession only grew with time, and pumpkins have since been a staple of her works such as Pumpkin 2000 (Red) and Pumpkin (BSQ) inviting the viewer into Kusama’s polka dotted visions.
“I was enchanted by their charming and humorous form. What appealed to me most was the pumpkin’s generous unpretentiousness.”
Sturdy and strong yet tender to the touch, they are representative of stability, comfort, and modesty for Kusama, reflecting Japanese values and the artist’s own humble upbringing.
"The world of the future might be like Japan is today – super flat."
Murakami is often referred to as Japan’s Warhol. Just like the Pop artist, he embraces and encourages contradictions, thriving on disruptions of logic. Kaikai Kiki, Murakami’s art production and management company in Tokyo, is often compared to Warhol’s Factory. The cultural contradictions Murakami refers to can be traced back to the US occupation in Japan after WW2, when the merging of Eastern and Western culture dramatically changed the country, giving rise to consumer products and phenomena that embraced and celebrated western influence.
"Murakami’s ‘Superflat’ concept seeks to explain these cultural attributes: ‘In his theory…distinctions between high art and low culture had become irrelevant in postwar Japan, metaphorically flattened by the atomic bombs into cartoon exaggerations of history."
Murakami’s imagined futuristic Superflat world is inspired by anime eyes, jagged teeth, camouflage patterns, Mr. DOB, technicolour flowerballs, psychedelic mushrooms, and candy-coloured landscapes where the otaku (obsessed with kawaii, games, anime, and manga) became the true drivers of contemporary culture, where human desires and anguish are embedded into the characters.
Japan's "kawaii", or "cute", culture (think Hello Kitty and Pokémon) entered into the global artworld lexicon in the early 2000’s, introduced by Murakami, Nara and KAWS, who embraced the “Aww” factor in their work.
Kawaii has a wide semantic range, as the following definition suggests, from being sweet and lovely, to pitiable and pathetic:
"kawai-i (adjective): (1) looks miserable and raises sympathy. pitiable. pathetic. piteous. (2) attractive. cannot be neglected. cherished. beloved. (3) has a sweet nature. lovely. (a) (of faces and figures of young women and children) adorable. attractive. (b) (like children) innocent. obedient. touching. (4) (of things and shapes) attractively small. small and beautiful. (5) trivial. pitiful. (used with slight disdain)."
Through these complexities of expression, Nara created his own distinctive style and visual language. The ‘Nara’ girl is the ultimate embodiment of kawaii. With a big head, round face and large eyes, her childlike expressions are juxtaposed with adult emotions. By combining different attributes of kawaii into a single work, Nara’s prints nurture emotions and imaginings that resonate with us, creating an empathetic response. Similarly, KAWS created a simultaneously endearing and sinister world populated by X-eyed characters.
Murakami, the champion of the cheerful nature of Kawaii, infused elements of the movement into his work in the late 1990’s, inspiring a series of smiling daisies in candy-coloured hues (Lot 1). The artist stated that his early exploration of Kawaii inspired his breakthrough into Superflat culture:
“It’s never just black or white, good or bad; it’s ambiguous.”
Anime and manga have become chief cultural exports of Japan, sweeping the globe one television screen and graphic novel at a time. Anime, short for ‘animation’, and manga, which translates literally to ‘whimsical drawings’, combine traditional storytelling techniques and casts of imaginative contemporary characters, from monsters to superheroes. In recent years, series and comics like Pokémon and Dragon Ball have enjoyed wide appeal and inspired world-renowned artists to explore the surreal and the cartoonish.
American artists, such as KAWS, who began his career as an animator for Disney, and Daniel Arsham, have paid homage to the world’s most endearing “pocket monsters”, like the iconic Pikachu (Lot 78) . With his Companion figures, KAWS has introduced a new selection of grotesque and charming collectible toys in the spirit of anime and manga figurines, creating artful consumer goods (Lot 32).
Japanese photography has always challenged the limits of censorship and social mores. Eroticism is a recurring theme in many contemporary artists’ work, capturing the essence of personal relationships in explicit contexts, dealing with themes such as sex, death and the transitory nature of life.
Araki’s work is inspired by ancient and modern Japanese traditions, in Kinbaku, 1980-2000 (lot 22) the artist explores the art of shibari or rope bondage, evoking themes of eroticism, gender and sexual representation. Araki is also known for taking his experimentation with the medium a step further, as in Shiki 02 (lot 5), where he uses paints on the silver gelatin prints to create unique works accentuated by colour acrylic colours.
Many of these works pay homage to the Japanese art of Shunga. These erotic, yet humorous works did not cease to inspire artists throughout the years, as is the case in Pola Eros; and, Flower, 2010-2012 (lot 67).