Daruma the Great is a stunning and monumental example of Takashi Murakami’s portraits representing the 6th Century monk Bodhidharma, known as Daruma, the Indian sage founder of Zen Buddhism. The present work encapsulates Murakami’s signature style of filtering Japanese traditional subjects with his trademark contemporary aesthetics. The legend about Daruma – who is a very popular figure in modern Japan – says that after meditating for nine years facing the same wall, the monk briefly fell asleep, and in order not to make it happen again he cut off his eyelids and went back to staring at the wall for two more years without ever blinking. In the present unconventional representation where the monk’s head is hyperbolically enlarged and flattened, Murakami also echoes the style and technique of the 18th Century eccentric Japanese painter Soga Shohaku, whose two aliases - Kishinsai, Dasokuken - are marked above the artist’s name in the right side of the work. Murakami masterfully bridges the gulf between the new representational aesthetics and the greater pre-modern classical tradition indigenous to Japan. In the words of the artist: "My aim is to bring about a creative process which will build a bridge between the past and the future" (the artist cited in: Jill Gasparina, 'Murakami's Conquest of Ubiquity' in: Exhibition Catalogue, Versailles, Château de Versailles, Murakami Versailles, 2011, p. 161).
Extending over three and half meters and designed by the artist to be a six-panel painting, Daruma the Great pays tribute to Japanese tradition of screen-representation together with the artist’s desire to include elements of 'design' in his pictorial language. Since the history of Japanese painting has been traditionally based on decorative arts and on two-dimensional perspective, through his spectacular and flat depiction of the monk’s head, Murakami emphasizes his own reading of Japanese classical representation which fuses hyperbolic characters, religious themes, popular culture and design. From this perspective Daruma the Great's series becomes even more relevant if considered in relation to the artist’s latest body of work The 500 Arhats and the new direction of the artist’s practice. In response to the devastating earthquake that struck Japan in March 2011 and created in its wake a massive tsunami causing more than 18,000 fatalities and disastrous economic effects, Murakami revisited the subject of 500 Arhats or rakan - men devoted to the cult of Zen Buddhism - depicted by the artist Kano Kazunobu in a monumental series of paintings after the 1855 Great Asei Edo earthquake. When Murakami’s The 500 Arhats series of works - divided in four sections each 25 meters long - was unveiled in his acclaimed Murakami Ego exhibition in Qatar this year, it was a breakthrough moment revealing the inner spirituality of the artist combined with his overwhelming sense of spectacle.
Daruma the Great represents a pinnacle of Murakami's career that summates the developments of his style and subject matter. In the 1980s Murakami studied at the Tokyo National University for a doctorate in 'nihon- ga', the hyper-stylized branch of Japanese art that came about in around 1890 and was intended to restore traditional Japanese painting while promoting the idea of a pan- Asian cultural continuity. Inevitably, vestiges of this training have lingered on to colour aspects of his later working practice, from his impeccably perfectionist method to the inclusion of particular motifs. Indeed, one of the most evident traces of influence is his recurrent motif of eyes together with the crowds of smiling flower-faces. Murakami's original aesthetic relates to the pre-eminent anime and manga visual cultures of 1980s Japan, but developed to deal in otaku, which describes a computer-based, virtual lifestyle that becomes a substitute for reality. However, from the mid 1990s, Murakami moved away from the more confrontational, aggressive and sexual atmosphere of otaku and started to embrace the cute cartoon style of kawaii as a more subtle medium for his contemporary socio-cultural scrutiny. Emblematic of this change in direction was the name change of his studio in 2001 from the 'Hiropon Factory' to 'Kaikai Kiki'. Murakami has declared, "Japanese don't like serious art. But if I can transform cute characters into serious art, they will love my piece" (the artist cited in: Arthur Lubow, 'The Murakami Method', in: The New York Times, 3rd April 2005).