There are two types of artists. One who puts a message into their work and tries to convey it to the viewer. The other type is the one who draws for himself and does not want to convey a message. Mr. NARA is the latter type.
（Interviewer: NISHIKAWA Megumi, Date of interview: September 2017, First appearance “The International Takifuji Art Awards 40 year’s Anniversary (published in 2020)”）
First solo exhibition with prize money
——What made you decide to apply to the TAKIFUJI Art Award?*¹
I was in the class of Mr. SHIMADA Shozo*² at Aichi University of the Arts, but I didn’t like to get together with the teacher like everyone else, and I would rather go to the house of the teacher who was not my homeroom teacher. I felt like an outcast in the SHIMADA class. The students who were attached to Mr. SHIMADA were having their drawings looked at, and I was envious in my heart. But I kept my distance, thinking that there was no way he would see my paintings. However, when I was in the fourth grade, Mr. SHIMADA told me, “There is an art award like this, why don’t you apply for it? If you want, I will write you a letter of recommendation”. It was a bolt from the blue. I realized that he had been watching me working very hard on my paintings and had brought the idea. Compared to myself, who was somewhat repulsed by him, he was much more mature.
——Were you confident that you would win the award?
I didn’t think I would be accepted because so many students had applied. When I was informed of the result, I was more surprised than happy. The teacher said it would be okay, though.
——Do you remember what you used the scholarship money for?
With the 300,000 yen scholarship money, I bought several cases of beer and had a party with a group of younger students who lived nearby. At that time, I was living in a barn-like hut built by a farmer beside the university as a hobby, and my friends’ huts were scattered around the area.
As the senior, the juniors had been taking care of me by making the evening meals, and I knew that the award was not only mine, so I wanted to thank them. With the money left over, I rented a gallery in Nagoya and held a solo exhibition. It was my first solo exhibition.
*1 Founded in 1980. In 1991, the name was changed to the International Takifuji Art Award.
*2 Japanese Western-style painter and printmaker. Member of the Japan Art Academy. President of Aichi University of the Arts and Director of Yokosuka Art Museum.
Read novels, listen to music, and look at pictures
——I heard that you read a lot as a child.
The first full-length story I remember reading properly was “Kotan no Kuchibue” by ISHIMORI Nobuo, which my mother bought for me when I was in the third or fourth year of elementary school. It was a story about an Ainu child, indigenous people around the northern part of the Japanese archipelago, especially in Hokkaido, growing up while fighting against discrimination. I think I felt it was realistic because the climate was similar to Aomori where I lived and there were similar stories around me.
——Did you like more than just literature?
I also read a lot of poetry by NAKAHARA Chuuya, KANEKO Mitsuharu, KAJII Motojiro, and others. I did not like MISHIMA Yukio. I could understand his beauty and splendor, but there was something different from me. I could understand it in my head, but my heart wouldn’t get it. Rather, I was more taken with DAZAI Osamu, who used to write such trivial things about himself and turn them into novels.
——NARA-san, you also became familiar with music early on.
I was fascinated by the music on the radio and listened to jazz, rock, folk songs, and old English and Irish folk songs. I didn’t recite poems or novels, but as I read them, the words disappeared and became images. With music, too, I can’t trace the sounds, but they swirl around in my head as images. In this respect, reading a novel and listening to music are similar.
——When you were in high school, a friend gave you an art book as a gift. You later said, “How to read something that is not written, it was just a matter of shifting my ears that had been listening to music to my eyes. The fact that I could enjoy the same emotions from pictures that I get from listening to music was a surprise like Columbus’ egg”. This feeling is interesting.
I have always loved painting, but when I try to look deeper into a picture, an image comes to me. And this image takes shape in the picture in front of me. In the same way, the content of a novel emerges as an image from letters. However, I can’t handle letters or words very well. I don’t have much confidence in my own words. When I explain my work to people, I don’t think the words are getting through. I think that is why I am now using painting as an expression.
——When you were 20 years old, you made your first trip abroad. Why did you choose Europe?
Because Paris is the center of modern art, and I thought that Paris and the rest of Europe would be the first places I would visit. If there was an art museum in a town, I always visited, but in the end, I felt that Europe itself was an art museum. Rather, I enjoyed the conversations with the people I met at the cheap hotels I stayed at everywhere I went.
After the war, Japan received various information from the U.S., so we had a common ground to talk with Americans, but we couldn’t communicate with Europeans when we talked about Snoopy. Also, they know the movie “Gone with the Wind” but not “The Wizard of Oz” directed by Victor Fleming, and such discrepancies were interesting and revealed many things to me. After leaving Japan, I realized that seeing things from Mt. Fuji is completely different from seeing things from Mt. Everest.
——So, what you gained was significant.
When I came back from three months in Europe, after visiting museums and walking around the stone-pavement town, the people I thought were great looked small. Also, the Japanese oil paintings that the Japanese of the Meiji era had learned with a few years of practice looked poor. I wondered again what kind of eyes I had been looking at art with. I became aware of a much larger world beyond the categorized world of art. Not all painters whose names are well known are great. Music is not necessarily good just because it is popular. It was this trip that changed my sense of values in many ways.
The reason why the boy disappeared
——When did you start drawing girls?
For my graduation project at university, I had to submit two paintings, one of a boy and one of a girl. That’s how it started, but at the time, the figures were in the landscape. During the two years of graduate school, I did some experiments by drawing pictures without figures and so on. Toward the end of graduate school, I started drawing people, and then I went to Germany to study abroad, the landscape disappeared. Around the second year, I got the feeling I have now.
——Why didn’t the boy stay behind?
Sometimes it was a hassle to draw them because I had to make them wear pants. However, there are boys who are not wearing pants in the pictures I drew in Germany. Sometimes there are boys with their dicks out peeing. Girls are easy to draw because they just need to draw a skirt and have their legs sticking out. And the hairstyles allow for a lot of variation. However, I think I started drawing more girls not because I was thinking about it, but because I enjoyed drawing their hair.
——You chose the Academy in Dusseldorf, Germany*³ as your study destination.
It was simply for financial reasons. I really wanted to go to England, but the tuition in Germany was free. Also, there were good teachers and there were people who became good artists. I did some part-time work there, but the student dormitory was 20,000 yen , and trains and buses were free with my student ID card. Glasses and medical expenses were also free. Prices were also cheaper than in Japan. It was a student paradise.
——The period between 1988 and 2000, when you were there, was a time when East and West Germany were unified*⁴ and Germany was gaining a strong presence.
Dusseldorf, where I was staying, was on the western edge of West Germany, and everyone was reluctant to unify. They wondered what would happen if people from East Germany came. Now there is no difference, but in the past you could tell if you were from the West or the East by what you were wearing. Also, people from the East didn’t know how to handle the ticket vending machines at train stations and were surprised by the automatic doors.
——What kind of people are Germans?
They are very serious people. When I worked as a part-timer at a trade fair, I worked very hard and finished at 4:00 p.m., an hour earlier than scheduled. When I said to the German guy I was working with, “Let’s go home,” he asked the person in charge, “Everything is done. Is there anything else we need to do?” I thought he was an idiot, but he was very serious. The post office closes at 6:00 pm. If I was ten or twenty seconds late, they wouldn’t let me in. If someone says it’s okay once in a while, that person is a good person. They are serious people, so as long as I do what I am supposed to do, such as submit the necessary notifications to the authorities and paying taxes and insurance, they will not say anything.
*3 The Art Academy of Dusseldorf, Germany. NARA studied under German painter, printmaker and sculptor A.R. Penck (real name: Ralf Winkler).
*4 In November 1989, the Berlin Wall, which had separated East and West Berlin, came down. In October of the following year, East Germany was annexed by West Germany, and German unification was realized.
Painting is a dialogue with myself,
but it reaches people.
——Are you trying to convey a message to the viewers through your paintings?
I don’t intend to put a message into my work at all, it’s more like a dialogue with myself. In a sense, my works are self-portraits of myself. When I was younger, my works were spiky, lonely, rebellious, or shouting, but recently they have become quiet. When I paint, I always think that the canvas is like a mirror, and that I am reflected in it. By tracing myself, I create a picture.
It just happens to take the form of a girl, or a dog, or an animal, and almost ninety percent of the time I think I’m drawing a self-portrait, and I’m interacting with it. So I don’t have anything to appeal to. It’s more like I’m keeping myself by drawing, or I’m purifying myself, or I’m calming down my anger and feeling peaceful. So in my case, it is different from expressing myself to anyone watching.
——There are many artists who put messages into their works.
That’s what I find different when I talk with other artists; most of them are doing things with the audience in mind thinking that they want to express something like this, convey something like this, or surprise them. I’m not like that at all. I’m okay with that as long as it’s something that makes sense to me. But I also feel it’s reaching people.
——How do you see Japan today?
To be honest, I am more focused on the small parts of the local area than on Japan itself right now. I think I used to try to know the world and the big things, but lately it has become more important for me to know more about the local area.
——Was Tohoku Earthquake (March 11, 2011) an opportunity for you?
Yes, it was. My mother is the only one who lives at home in Aomori prefecture now, but I loaded up my car with leftover towels, dishes, and other items that we received as year-end gifts and took them to the disaster area. I thought to myself, “What am I doing? “. I live in the northern part of Tochigi prefecture, so when I drive back to my hometown, I think a lot as I pass through Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefecture. Now I’m hoping that I can do something in a small community with friends who know each other.
Born in Aomori Prefecture in 1954. In 1984, he received the 5th TAKIFUJI Art Award. Completed the master’s course at Aichi University of the Arts in 1987. He is a painter and sculptor, and is known for his images of children with glaring expressions. In 1988, he studied in what was then West Germany, and returned to Japan in 2000. In 2010, he became the first Japanese artist to win the New York International Center Prize, and in 2013 he received the Minister of Education’s Art Encouragement Prize. In 2017, a large-scale retrospective exhibition “for better or worse” was held at the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art in Aichi prefecture.