In Fire, Nara places his viewer in a penetratingly cerebral encounter with a figure that embodies the very essence of childhood by conflating two important archetypes—the rebellious youth and the lonely child—in order to emphasize both naivete and mischief. The child is by herself staring at the fire in awe, which hints to a viewer that she may have been the one to start the fire or is not doing anything to try to stop it. The innocence of her youth is in juxtaposition with her arsonist actions. With her penetrating eyes, the resolute yet lonesly child in Fire Nara captures the fascinating tension between childhood and adolescence, innocence and brimming mischievousness. In the current work it’s the eyes that tell the story, as Nara cited, “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).
Following his education at the University of Tokyo and Aichi University, Nara took up temporary residence in Germany to study at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1988. Nara’s homecoming to Japan in 2000 mirrored a subtle stylistic variation in his work, which welcomed the disintegration of sharp lines and warming of his palette with pastel colors. Enchantingly enigmatic, the figure of the little girl is reflective of iterations in Japanese visual culture: the comics and graphic novels of manga and its video form, anime, and the absorption of Pop culture all powerfully collide with Nara’s unique mindscape. Ultimately, the mischievous gaze and defiant twist of the little girl’s hand from view makes her the singular most iconic figure in Nara’s overall output.
Fire shares a similar mischievous quality with Amedeo Modigliani’s later paintings of young girls. Nara has publicly admitted his life-long admiration of Modigliani’s portraits, and images of Nara’s studio reveal that the Modigliani postcard is often displayed as an inspiration for the artist. Known for his development of the modernist style, Modigliani’s oeuvre featured characters with exaggerated elongated features, which many have come to understand as the artist’s meditations on the illnesses in humanity drawn from his own ailment-laden life. In many ways, the girl’s plainness and somberness are precisely the characteristics that make her relatable to viewers, constituting a ubiquitous representation of youth—albeit one with a hint of sadness.
The depiction of the young girl is the iconic embodiment of Nara’s career-long engagement with themes of solitary boldness and innocence that define the essence of childhood. Perfected over three decades of diligent reprisals, it is through the subject of the small girl that Nara has captivated the imaginations and gained the respect of museums and collectors worldwide. For this, he is indisputably recognized as Japan’s most internationally acclaimed living painter.
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