Nara's monumental portrait of doe-eyed girl to lead Sotheby's HK spring sale with an estimate of US$10.2m

Yoshitomo Nara is currently a sensation in the Asian art market, and his little-girl painting titled Knife Behind Back (2000) previously set a record-breaking price of HK$195 million (US$25 million), making him the most expensive artist in Japan. Even today, Nara's artworks featuring little girls continue to perform strongly, with seven pieces having sold for over HK$100 million.

In the upcoming Sotheby's Hong Kong Spring Auction, Nara's 2017 artwork, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, will be offered. It is estimated to sell for between HK$80 and 120 million (US$10.2 and 15.3 million).

Compared to Nara's earlier works depicting doe-eyed girls, this particular piece showcases the girl with less anger and rebellion, instead exhibiting a more introspective and complex emotional state. The atmosphere appears serene and peaceful, reflecting Nara's artistic transformation after experiencing the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.

In recent years, Nara's retrospectives have been held at prestigious venues such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Shanghai Yuz Museum, and the Aomori Museum of Art in his hometown. This artwork has been a central feature in all of these exhibitions, and its significance is evident as it graces the cover of Nara's 2020 monograph.

Lot 1539 | Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959) | I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, Acrylic on canvas
Executed in 2017
220.2 x 195.3 cm

  • Pace Gallery
  • Private Collection, U.K.
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$80,000,000 - 120,000,000 (US$10.2 - 15.3 million)

Regarding his iconic motif of the little girl, Yoshitomo Nara once mentioned all of his artworks are self-portraits of his inner self, a dialogue with himself. Therefore, although the little girl in his paintings never grows up, she reflects the different facets of the artist's life journey.

Nara was born in 1959 in Hirosaki, Aomori, a remote town in Japan known for its snowy winters. As a child, Nara was sensitive and introverted, often immersing himself in his imaginative world indoors. For his working-class parents, Nara was a child who did not cause them much worry,

which is not surprising considering the independent and quirky characteristics often found in the characters he portrays.

In his artworks from the 1990s to the early 2000s, the little girls had sharp expressions, a mix of cuteness and cunning, with slanted eyes and a hint of anger, reflecting their complex psychological environment during childhood. An example of this is the aforementioned Knife Behind Back.

Knife Behind Back (2000), 234 x 208 cm | Sold: HK$195,000,000 

Yoshitomo Nara

As time passed, Nara entered his mature years, and he grew from a resentful boy to a grey-haired man. He remains sensitive and delicate, but his artistic style has undergone changes, especially in the gaze of the depicted characters.

The anger and rebellion have diminished, replaced by a more contemplative and complex emotional presence, giving rise to a sense of tranquillity and serenity. This transformation is closely related to a major disaster that occurred in 2011.

On March 11, 2011, a powerful earthquake struck eastern Japan. Nara's birthplace was within the affected area, and the Tochigi Prefecture where he was living was only 100 kilometres away from the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Witnessing the disaster through constant television broadcasts, Nara was overwhelmed with grief and powerlessness, unable to paint as usual. This catastrophe led him to question and reflect on the meaning of his artistic creations. After several months of introspection, he picked up his brush again, hoping to create artworks that bring happiness to people.

The present work in the artist's studio

Richard and Linda Thompson's 1974 album I WANT TO SEE THE BRIGHT LIGHTS TONIGHT

Since then, Nara has started experimenting with new colours and tones, meticulously layering translucent pigments to create a shimmering and semi-transparent effect.

Exemplifying Nara’s mature painterly accomplishments, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight reveals a patience in its making that belies the emotional complexity behind its creation.

Exhibiting a formal harmony and sensitivity of colour and brushwork, the figure’s face takes on an almost aqueous quality as it is made and unmade by the traces of Nara's brush. The delicate presence of the figure, her extremities made permeable under Nara’s intricate brushwork, communicates the artist's own vulnerability.

Nara describes his artistic process as follows: "In the past I would have an image that I wanted to create, and I would just do it. I would just get it finished. Now I take my time and work slowly and build up all these layers to find the best way."

The work was chosen as the cover image of Yoshitomo Nara's definitive 2020 monograph

The present work (left) on view at Aomori Museum of Art 

It is well-known that Nara has a deep love for rock music. When he is alone in his studio late at night, he often plays punk rock music at a high volume and smokes cigarettes while concentrating on his painting.

The title of the artwork, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, is derived from the 1974 album of the same name by British folk-rock duo Richard and Linda Thompson. The painting features a yellow-green background, paying homage to the album cover.

Completed in 2017, this artwork has been a prominent piece in Nara's retrospectives held at prestigious art institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the Kunsthall Rotterdam, and the Aomori Museum of Art in Nara's hometown. It has also adorned the cover of the artist's definitive 2020 monograph, underscoring its significance.

Lot 1544 | Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959) | Untitled, Acrylic on board
Created in 2008
231.1 x 286.7 x 12.7 cm

  • Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
  • Private Collection 
  • Christie's Hong Kong, 24 November 2012, Lot 30
  • Private Collection, Hong Kong
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner 

Estimate: HK$28,000,000 - 35,000,000 (US$3.6 - 4.4 million)

Alongside this piece, another artwork by Nara, an untitled woodblock work from 2008, is also being auctioned. This particular piece explicitly reveals the artist's love for rock music.

Nara's passion for rock music dates back to his youth in the rural countryside of Aomori. During his formative years, he frequented rock cafes, developed a strong affinity for rock music, and even formed a rock band. In his autobiography, Nara recalls encountering rock music as early as the 1970s, with records by Canadian artist Neil Young and the New York punk band Ramones among his favourites.

During his high school days, Nara would allocate the money given to him by his parents for reference books to purchase records instead. He also nurtured a dream of becoming a rock singer, although that aspiration was ultimately unfulfilled.

Nevertheless, Nara found inspiration in album cover designs, which played a role in his successful admission to Musashino Art University, where he studied painting. In the solitude of his studio late at night, Nara immersed himself in the music playing through the speakers, channelling his emotions onto the canvas. Rock music served as an artistic awakening for him.


Yoshitomo Nara once formed a rock band 

1, 2, 3, 4! It’s Everything! (Aomori Version) | Artist's collection entrusted to the Aomori Museum of Art

The influence of rock music is evident in Nara's artworks, with depictions of girls holding guitars and incorporating rock song lyrics as iconic elements. Created in 2008, Untitled portrays Nara's signature motif with a guitar. The little girl's expression is innocent while fierce, resulting in a bold and vivid image. 

Despite the guitar being an indispensable visual component of Nara’s oeuvre, only eight works from the acclaimed series of billboard paintings feature the artist’s heroine holding a guitar, with the present work's twin composition, 1, 2, 3, 4! It’s Everything! (Aomori Version), belonging to the artist’s own collection entrusted to the Aomori Museum of Art.

The last time Untitled appeared at auction was in 2012 when it fetched HK$7.22 million at Christie's Hong Kong. This time, it is estimated to be sold for between HK$28 and 35 million, representing a value appreciation of over 3.8 times in the span of 12 years.