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Nara’s Nexus of Music and Art


I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight: Nara’s Nexus of Music and Art
By Nicholas Stephens | Mar 25, 2024
As a major artwork by Yoshitomo Nara comes to auction, Nicholas Stephens probes its musical inspiration, and the unsung meeting points of art and music.

Y oshitomo Nara’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (2017) is a painting of large scale and of big-hearted gentleness. The painting was chosen as the primary image for two major surveys in recent years: the first at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which travelled to the YUZ Museum in Shanghai, the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Kunsthall Rotterdam. The second survey was at the Aomori Museum of Art in Nara’s hometown.

The painting’s title takes its name from a 1974 album by Richard and Linda Thompson. Richard Thompson’s first album had been met with little success, and in the wake of that disappointment, he met session singer Linda Peters. His second album and their first as husband-and-wife was, after a slow start, hailed as an outstanding folk milestone, desolate and haunting. The colour scheme of its album cover, finger-painted on a luminous pane of glass, finds its echo in the hues of Nara’s painting.

Nara bought his first record at the age of eight. He has been an avid collector ever since: his LACMA retrospective filled a wall with 352 collected albums. He has designed album covers for bands including REM and Shonen Knife. Music evokes its own mood, and the serenity of the little girl’s gaze perhaps reflects the gentle influence of folk music, rather than the punk rock that influenced Nara earlier in his career.

The links between art and music are manifold, and Nara is not the first artist for whom music is a major inspiration. Abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky, a violinist since childhood, observed the following after a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin: “I saw all my colours in my mind, they stood before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me... It became quite clear to me that art in general was far more powerful than I had thought, and that painting could develop just such powers as music possesses.” In the US, jazz music was to inspire creativity across media. The children’s website of New York’s MoMA points out that Jackson Pollock “listened to jazz music as he moved around the canvas. Some people even think his art looks like the movements of a dance.” In fact, doesn’t art put rhythm into our heads and urge us to express ourselves in our own ways? The text continues with the exhortation: “Now, make up your own movement or dance inspired by this painting!”

Music and dance can work as a duet or pas de deux with. When we write about art, we use the language of music – harmony, rhythm, energy and balance are shared concepts. Sometimes, the language from the two sides combines into one word. In the early 20th century, Alfred Schoenberg, the Austrian composer and self-taught artist, coined the glorious German composite word Klangfarbenmelodie (sound-colour melody). For a boundary-challenging protagonist in both atonal music and expressionist painting, the elision of the two senses took on a particular poignancy.

Schoenberg is no great exception in a history replete with examples of talented people who were both artists and musical composers or performers. Celebrated artists Leonardo, Tintoretto, Ingres and Delacroix were all known as outstanding musicians, to name but a few. In more recent times, these bonds continue. Many post-war musicians have taken up the baton and exhibited paintings, including Bob Dylan (who also adds the distinction of a Nobel Prize in literature), David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Swizz Beatz.

Let us turn back to I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. Nara’s depiction of a young girl is a meeting point, a crossover of two souls. It is a chance to seek out empathy, to gauge emotions, to quell disquiet, and to make a connection with a life force just out of reach. Gazing at Nara’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is to stand at the threshold of intimacy with another human. It is also to stand at the threshold of music and dance.

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  •  Yoshitomo Nara, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, 2017 | Estimate: 80,000,000 - 120,000,000 HKD
    Yoshitomo Nara, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, 2017 | Estimate: 80,000,000 - 120,000,000 HKD
    Sotheby’s Auktionshaus