Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara is acclaimed for his childish yet sinister images of small children and animals. His figures are anonymous, ambiguous, often androgynous, of no particular race, and they mix childhood play with emotions of despair and violence.

Working both in painting and sculpture, Nara has created a unique and distinctive world of large-headed infants. Sometimes blank-faced, sometimes scowling, these figures have the simplicity of the art of children, but also sum up the curious ambivalence of the very young, amoral yet innocent, playful and funny yet destructive.

Sometimes, the children adopt the costumes of birds or dogs, whether playing or hiding. Other times they are armed with knives, as in "Dead Flower" (1994), where a girl wearing a "Fuck You" slogan t-shirt stands over a single beheaded plant, in the harsh glare of a bare lightbulb.

Another image, "Rain Rain Go Away" (1995) shows a girl in a red dress with a nail in her head. In the background, a figure dressed in white like an angel bows his or her head, either in disapproval or shame. Is this a tale of good and evil? The simple lines of the picture and the bold colors contrast with the ambiguity of the image (the unreadability of the faces) and the implied violence and horror.

As well as children, he depicts animals in a simple cartoonish style. "Dog with Coffin" (1995) shows a cute canine wearily bent over under the weight of his own casket strapped to his back.

Often his work seems to express despair, such as "In The Deepest Puddle I" (1995) which shows a girl in blue uniform beneath a huge billboard bearing the slogan of the title. A number of his other works make use of English-language expressions like "Kill your timid notion" or "Nothing ever happened". Nara has said that in these cases, the words come first, and the image after.

His sculpture is also distinctive, recalling in some ways the work of Jeff Koons in its bold forms and smoothly-finished plastic surfaces. However his work is far from kitsch. Works like "St Michael The Dog" (1995), which shows a boy in a dog suit, are like his drawings made three-dimensional. Other installations are more complex, jumbling together a mass of his little figures.

Just as his paintings have something of the quality of commercial art (cartoons, images on packaging), his sculptures have the external form of child's toys; but the emotions they conjure up are quite distinct, strange and troubling.

In thematic terms, his work deals profoundly with the status of children and with their nature: are children born innocent as noble savages, or are they dark and destructive needing to be tamed by civilizing forces? And the violence of childhood is in many ways no different from the violence of adult life; the confusion doubt and gleeful destruction of his figures are things that run from cradle to grave.

In interview, Nara has spoken of how he is influenced by music, film, literature and current events, as well as art. He has described the positive, "hopeful" aspect of pictures such as "The Girl with a Knife" (1995) as follows:

The children in my works are not aggressive. With the knives-the kids can generate power over their lives. I'm not making art to give the viewer hope. I'm creating this generation that has no power. I'm articulating or producing a scream for them. Kurt Cobain was not making songs to give hope he was just simply articulating that generation's scream. They understood this in a deep way, they rejected other music because it seemed like such a lie. I'm expressing current conditions. People who see it understand it. People almost get hope by default. Maybe they start seeing a commonality with hopelessness, then they get hope because other people are in despair like themselves... all of this is not conscious on my part.

He has also said that Giotto is his favourite artist, for his deformation which presents an inner realism:

Giotto's figures are deformed, kind of like when a child draws their father, they love him so much they draw his head really big. It's not deformation at all it's scale.
In modern culture, the worlds of the child and the adult are becoming jumbled: from the Teletubbies to Harry Potter, adults are turning to children's entertainment, while children have access via television, video and internet to an ever greater range of adult life and experiences. In such a world, the question of what it means both to be a child and to be an adult must often be asked.

It seems that adults and children are identifying with each other more than ever before. Nara's art appeals to the adult's delight in the childish, but also questions what is youthful and innocent, and what is civilized and mature.

Yoshitomo Nara was born in Hirosaki, Japan, in 1959. He has lived in Cologne, Germany, for a number of years, and has exhibited there and in Yokohama, Seoul, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and New York.


The best online resource is at http://www.uwm.edu/Dept/inova/essay.html This includes an interview, from which the above quotations are taken, and many of his images.

Other material can be found at:

Also thanks to Jen, who first introduced me to this wonderful artist.