The lonely side of great artists: Yoshitomo Nara's portrait of Michael Jackson to lead Poly Auction HK's spring sales

Yoshitomo Nara has gained widespread fame in the contemporary art world with his iconic paintings of the little young girl. The highest-priced Japanese artist describes his love for rock music in his autobiography that if he had not been an artist, he would probably have become a rocker.

Throughout his career, Nara rarely names his works directly after musicians. However, there are bound to be exceptions. His painting Acid M. J., which will head to the auction block at Poly Auction Hong Kong in early April with an estimate between US$4.3 and 5.6 million, is named after Michael Jackson. As a tribute to the great musician, the little girl in the portrait also reproduces the King of Pop’s thin curly bangs and signature wavy hair.

Let us grasp this opportunity to see how Nara combines Michael Jackson's stage presence with the lovely little girl on canvas, and what the King of Pop has meant to Nara.

Yoshitomo Nara 

Lot 140 | Yoshitomo Nara | Acid M.J., Acrylic on canvas
Created in 2009
80.4 x 65.2 cm

  • Acquired directly from the artist
  • Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, USA
  • Collection of Elizabeth Blair and Michael Kelter, Michigan, USA (Acquired directly from the above in 2009)
  • Private Collection, Asia
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$34,000,000 - 44,000,000 (US$4.3 - 5.6 million)

Auction House: Poly Auction Hong Kong
Sale: Modern and Contemporary Art
Date and Time: 6 April 2023 | 11:00 am (Local Hong Kong Time)
Venue: Grand Hyatt Hong Kong

One year older than Nara, Michael Jackson was born in 1958 in an African-American performing arts family in Indiana. Ranked the eighth in the family, Michael spent his childhood with his four brothers performing in their co-founded band “Jacksons 5”. In the 1970s, he left the band and went solo, a decision that led to the road to the King of Pop.

Three singles Beat It, Billie Jeans and Thriller in his sixth album have become world-renowned classics. Michael Jackson's Moonwalk dance in the music video even shocked the world, making it the first music video of an African-American singer broadcast on the MTV channel. Many critics believed that he was the first African-American musician to break apartheid barriers.

The unprecedented musical success that Michael Jackson achieved, however, aroused endless controversy. People paid close attention to his appearance changes and questioned whether he had undergone plastic surgery or even bleached his skin. He later refuted the allegations one by one in an interview and revealed that he had a lonely childhood in which his chance to grow up with peers was exploited, due to the load of shows and performances.

Michael Jackson, the King of Pop

Michael Jackson shining bright on stage

Loneliness in childhood is perhaps what Michael Jackson and Yoshitomo Nara shared in common. The Japanese artist was born in Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture in 1959. As a sensitive and introverted latchkey kid, he had a terribly lonely childhood.

“I was in desperate solitude and felt most at ease when surrounded by music and animals. I found that I would communicate better with animals, without words, than talking to humans,” he recalled. Nara grew up in the post-war era when the western culture and rock music swept across the globe. He was also fascinated by the energetic music genre. 

Nara mentioned in his autobiography The Little Star Dweller that he first met rock music as early as the 1970s, and the records of Canadian rock star Neil Young and the New York punk band Ramones were his top picks. Back in his high school years, Nara harboured a secret fantasy of becoming a rock musician, and even spent the money given by his parents to buy records, instead of reference books for school.

Nara would probably have become a rocker if he had not been an artist

While his dream has never come true, enchanted and inspired by the design of album covers, Nara pursued another path to specialize in painting in Musashino Art University. When staying late in the studio alone, he would immerse himself in music and express himself through paintings.

As time passed, Nara exposed himself to more diverse types of music: Bob Marley’s reggae, rock songs by bands like Radiohead and Nirvana, and undoubtedly – Michael Jackson’s worldwide hits – had all accompanied him through countless hours of creation.

Acid M. J., which is going under the hammer was painted in 2009, the same year as Michael Jackson was due to hold the “This Is It” tour. The light glow of the cream shade background evokes the image of the King of Pop enveloped in the spotlight on stage, fully displaying Michael’s peak moment of performance. Unfortunately, that was also the same year we lost Michael Jackson and the opportunity to watch his spectacular live performances ever again.

The little girl’s thin curly bangs in Acid M. J. reproduces the signature hairstyle of Micahel Jackson

Untitled by Yoshitomo Nara from the series Time of My Life 1992–2000|Collection from the Museum of Modern Art, New York

In 2009, Michael Jackson was scheduled to hold his "This Is It” concert tour

Nara's little girl reproduces Michael Jackson's iconic waves and baby curls in the bangs. The artist uses layering paint of different shades that blend harmoniously to add a rare dappled golden sheen to the hair, emulating the illusion of spotlights in different colours shining on the figure's hair.

It is also worth noting that the colour purple permeates the figure through her nostrils, upper irises and clothing. In Nara’s works, shades of purple have widely been used as a depiction of isolation, such as the purple background of After the Acid Rain painted in 2006 which resonates with the title Acid M. J. of this lot.

Such an explicit portrait of a music artist is rarely seen in Nara's works. In fact, there are only two pieces by Nara titled with an artist’s name, one of which is Peter Ivers, a work executed with pencil on paper in 2021, and Acid M. J. remains his only work on canvas named after a musician, reflecting this lot’s extraordinary status in Nara’s art career.

Yoshitomo Nara | After the Acid Rain (2006), acrylic on canvas, 227 x 182 cm

Yoshitomo Nara | Peter Ivers (2021), pencil work on paper, 109 x 79 cm