Yoshimoto Nara – Do not Disturb!

Knife Behind Back, 2000. Photo: Artsy.net
Knife Behind Back, 2000. Photo: Artsy.net

Contemporary artist Yoshimoto Nara is famous for the interpretation of animals and children. Born in Japan in 1959 he has roots firmly in the 1990s and links to horror imagery.

Nara is a member of the super-flat movement influenced and encouraged by fellow artist Takashi Murakami, friend and competitive art partner: but this is where the similarities end.

Being born only 14 years after the end of the war and growing up in post-war Japan has left its mark on Nara, although he is quick to tell you this is not his only reference. Nara gained his BFA and MFA (bachelor and master of art) from the Aichi Prefectural University in the suburbs of Nagoya, Japan, before moving on to study in Germany.

Reading his comments on his time in both the university and life in Germany, you get a distinct impression that he is an outsider or that he’s lonely; referenced often throughout his artwork. The children in the artwork look frightened or horrified, and the work follows this theme throughout.

Germany in 1988 was a divided country; the Berlin Wall was not dismantled until 1991. This fact must have influenced Nara; studying at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf until 1993 was both exciting and dramatic, and Nara was in the middle of significant change in Germany. Fascinated with Neo-Expressionism and punk rock, this style of pop art, we know him for becomes obvious.

Talking to the Financial Times in 2014, Nara talks extensively about his teenage years and his record collection saying, “There was no museum where I grew up, so my exposure to art came from the album covers.” Putting together what we know about Nara, it’s not difficult to see how his style evolved.

Sleepless Night (Cat), JAPAN, B. 1959. Photo: Christies


A little provocation is good for business: and titles like The Girl With A Knife In Her Side and Light My Fire depicts children, usually girls, up to no good; reflecting both the good and innocent and wicked and naughty.

The tactic has paid off. Now Japan’s most collected contemporary artist, selling the art installation Not Everything But for $5.12 million and Knife Behind Back for $25 million and the portrait of the vampire child, “Can’t wait till night comes”, for more than $10 million.

But is it any good? This is, of course, subjective; and the buyer of Knife Behind Back must certainly hope so. To answer this question, we look to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) which houses a complete set of works and a retrospective series called ‘Time of my life’ –  1992 -2000. 

Available to view online, this is an excellent place to look at the early work and check the progression to today.


It’s only in recent years when you move subject to nature that you can see the effects of his childhood, and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, you can see that Nara has grown up. The sculpture called ‘Miss Forest /Thinker’ is particularly relevant along with ‘In the Milky Lake/Thinking One’.

Yoshitomo Nara at a press conference, Yokohama Art Museum, 2012. Photo: Hsinhuei Chiou

Working in all media, Nara is a contemporary artist who can work by painting and drawing and with photography and sculpture in bronze, ceramic and fibreglass.

It’s often with age, maturity and money an artist evolves into the better part of themselves. Many may not agree, preferring the pop-art style and commercialism of his early work. Looking at When You Feel Sad, a bronze bust created in 2012, that you really see the artist. 

Talking about his art to the Pace Gallery, Nara says,  “I don’t paint when I am happy. I only paint when I am angry, lonely, sad when I am able to talk to the work.” This is also the mantra of many artists of this genre and faithful to the art world in general.

Cult Following

It’s not surprising that Nara has a cult following: it’s the same following that intrigues the advocates of manga and anime. Nara denies his work is influenced by these themes. If Nara says his work isn’t affected, then we should believe him: he’s the artist after all – I’m not convinced.

It’s easy to dismiss this cult as a group of sweaty teenage boys in their bedrooms. But the numbers don’t lie; sweat and a Peter Pan complex are very lucrative. Inevitably, now that the cult has given Nara a voice, he decries commercialism and all that entails. Unfortunately, we’ve heard this all before. Not sure who said it first, Nara or Murakami or maybe they said it at the same time – Cha-ching! 

While Nara’s art may not be to everyone’s taste, it has a cuteness without being sickly. Do Not Disturb! The long-eared dog in this print is a cute bookworm who has found a quiet spot to do some reading. Add a baseball cap and some low slung jeans, and this picture could be Nara, a self-portrait – or at least in my mind.

With many exhibitions available to view online, so why not make up your mind? 

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