Takashi Murakami is Taking Contemporary Art to New Heights

Browse By

Takashi Murakami is one of the biggest names in the global art scene right now, and for good reason. His style and approach to art is very much cohesive (and possibly tailored) to his massive popularity, however his works still maintain a wealth of artistic value.

From psychedelic paintings of colourful dreamscapes to re-imaginings of centuries old classics to massive golden statues to even a full feature length-film, Murakami has done it all over his three-decade-long career. His most famous works however, the things that have allowed him to become a well-known figure even beyond modern art spheres, are his countless collaborations. 2003 marked the beginning of his collaboration with Louis Vuitton, one of if not the single most successful collab in the brand’s history. Equally notable is his role designing the album cover for Kanye West’s third studio album, Graduation (2007). Add on his similar contribution to Kanye and Cudi’s Kid’s See Ghosts (2018), and you get my introduction to Murakami, one that I bet is shared by many others.

His sculptures range from a writhing mass of golden, formless monsters to an entire temple gate (The Birth Cry of a Universe and Bakuramon respectively), but my personal favourites are his Embodiment of “A” and Embodiment of “Um”. These two magnificent monstrosities are Murakamified Oni, disaster-delivering demons from Japanese folklore. Others include Oval Buddha, a glistening statue of an unrecognisably mutated Buddha, with a non-traditional pedestal inspired by the broken lotus-throne of a 10-11th century sculpture.

Among my favourite of his works are the vibrant, complex, and ludicrously massive paintings that he’s been making since the early 2000’s. How Murakami is able to incorporate such prismatic colours and incredible detail while maintaining cohesiveness and harmony is beyond me. There’s a wealth of diverse original designs and ideas in his works, and what I find particularly interesting about these is how they each take inspiration from very different places. Murakami’s style mixes the aesthetic tendencies of so many different things into a coherent and recognisable style. Professor Michael Dylan Foster aptly described this idea in relation to his monster designs specifically in his essay “Murakami’s Monsters and the Art of Allusion”. He first gives a brief historical account of Yokai (Japan’s “large panoply of strange creatures, beings, and monstrous animals”), before dissecting the techniques Murakami uses to reconstrue and abstract these designs so as to create new, memorable, and distinctly Murakami creatures. He adds that this “media mixing” (in this case allowing folkloric characters to exist just as coherently in contemporary art as in centuries-old mythology), is a mainstay of yokai today, and Murakami’s art is taking the idea to new heights.

The striking visuals of a Murakami works reels you in, and delving even slightly beyond the surface level of said work often unravels an interwoven tapestry of art, ideas, and inspirations. You first see the modern re-imagining of an idea before tracing its lineage through anywhere between years and centuries of art history, observing first hand the effects that the originals had on those inspired by them. This meta-game, which shows the development of art as it imitates both life and itself in equal measure, is a major reason that I am such a fan of Takashi Murakami.

‘In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow’ (Detail), Takashi Murakami, 2014.

With visuals like these, no explanation is needed, but let’s try and make sense of it all anyway.

Takashi Murakami is the founder of Superflat, an art movement intent on eliminating the imaginary divides between previously separate things. Superflat aims to put both high and low, traditional and contemporary, western and eastern, and fine and commercial art all on the same, level playing field. Murakami’s style of superflat often mixes techniques and imagery from traditional classic masterpieces with the aesthetic tendencies of post-war Japanese otaku subculture (e.g. anime and manga), an art that is simultaneously low, contemporary, and commercial. He then further blurs the line between fine and commercial art with extensive merchandising, and thus we’ve got each of the dichotomies above neatly packaged together in one portfolio.

Murakami explains that current day Japan has already lost all three-dimensionality. Art by Da Vinci is put on the same pedestal as that by manga artists. But this is not exactly a new phenomenon. During the Edo-period (1603-1868) large amounts of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints were being sold for low prices in the cultural centre of Japan’s capital city to normal citizens. When Japan reopened trade with the western world in 1853, these prints became immensely popular and even inspired the artists behind the impressionism movement, including household names like Monet and Van Gogh. The inherent “flatness” that had pervaded Japanese art for so long (extensive use of flat colours and a distinct lack of depth), provided a contrast to western art that caused much development. In Japan, however, Ukiyo-e was not considered to be especially valuable, neither monetarily nor artistically. Journalist Arthur Lubow notes that there was no word for “fine art” in Japanese in 1868—the idea was imported.

Of great significance to Superflat is World War II. Murakami believes that post-war Japanese artists steered clear of the realities of WWII, and these difficult truths were instead expressed in otaku art, where they were disordered and distorted. Robbed of meaning and context, these weightless, flat images pervaded the world, and nuclear disaster came to be represented by Godzilla. The recurring character “Mr. DOB” is inspired by such icons as Doraemon and Sonic the Hedgehog.

“The world of the future might be like Japan is today — super flat.

Society, customs, art, culture: all are extremely two-dimensional. It is particularly apparent in the arts that this sensibility has been flowing steadily beneath the surface of Japanese history.” – The Superflat Manifesto, Takashi Murakami.


Now that you’re all just as confused about Superflat as I am, let’s take a closer look at one my favourite pieces, The 500 Arhats. Unsurprisingly, this painting depicts 500 arhats, disciples of Buddha who have achieved a higher understanding of being and are far on the path to enlightenment but have yet to become full Buddha or reincarnation into Nirvana. Paintings of Arhats were made in the past following a disaster to spread religion to those affected, and The 500 Arhats was in particular inspired by a series of 100 hanging scrolls of the same name created by Kanō Kazunobu from 1854 to 1863. The 500 Arhats was made to promote peace and healing following the destruction caused by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the fourth most powerful earthquake ever recorded. It caused over 15,000 deaths, as well as extensive destruction and displacement. For Murakami, it caused significant reconsideration of the importance of religion in Japan as a means to come to terms with disaster and mortality, as well as the role of artists to use their art for similar goals. The painting was first displayed in Qatar, one of the first countries to offer aid to Japan after the disaster struck, followed by it’s titular place in Murakami’s first exhibition in his home country for fourteen years, where the artist has been met with much less positive reception than in the West for the vast majority of his career. The 500 Arhats acts both as Murakami’s token of gratitude to Qatar as well as a promotion of remembrance and progress to Japan. 

Did I mention that it’s 100 metres long? And this monumental painting has more going for it than it’s size alone, too. The promised 500 figures are present of course, in an exaggerated style similar to that seen in the aforementioned sculptures of the Embodiment of A and Embodiment of Um (in fact, both are visible in the “Black Tortoise” quarter of the painting). They each remain amazingly distinct from one another with their varied facial features, each of which are based on real-life historical counterparts. The hundreds of patterned robes are fascinating in of themselves for their countless motifs and colour combinations, but the same could be said of the work as a whole. As the painting travels through fires and seas and mountains and galaxies, you can’t help but be amazed by the visual complexity and depth. There’s such a plethora of distinct, striking designs that I find it difficult not to spot multiple new details each time I look at the painting. Many of these motifs would reappear in future Murakami works to great effect, as the artist’s “interest in consumerism in particular [wanes], replaced with a more macroscopic view that attempts to place the meaning of contemporary art in a continuum with the timeless artifacts that have survived centuries, and to consider the big issues of life, death, spirituality, and truth that guided artists then and occupy the daily thoughts and actions of everyday people today” (Michael Darling, Doomed to Survive).

The 500 Arhats [White Tiger], 2012  Source: http://www.bestdamnartblog.com/2016/01/24/the-500-arhats/

The 500 Arhats [Blue Dragon], 2012  Source: http://www.bestdamnartblog.com/2016/01/24/the-500-arhats/

The 500 Arhats [Vermillion Bird], 2012  Source: http://www.bestdamnartblog.com/2016/01/24/the-500-arhats/

The 500 Arhats [Black Tortoise], 2012   Source: http://www.bestdamnartblog.com/2016/01/24/the-500-arhats/

Murakami’s works are made collaboratively with about 200 assistants, employees of his company, Kaikai Kiki. The process of creating a painting like The 500 Arhats includes designs and digital sketches by Murakami himself, which then become thousands of silk screen stencils, which are used to create the physical painting. The Kaikai Kiki team seems to have increased in number as Murakami’s works have increased in complexity and success. Without such a team, many works would have taken decades to complete. (Some still do, but that seems to be more due to an extended conceptual and design process rather than a long creation period.) While the idea of an artist relying on others for the production of their art is generally held in contempt, the task of coordinating hundreds of people in order to manifest a single creative vision is not one that I envy. It’s also worth noting this painting, which was made by Murakami without the help of his assistants within the span of twenty-four hours. Accordingly, it is titled, Dragon in Clouds—Red Mutation: The version I painted myself in annoyance after Professor Nobuo Tsuji told me, “Why don’t you paint something yourself for once?”

Dragon in Clouds—Red Mutation: The version I painted myself in annoyance after Professor Nobuo Tsuji told me, “Why don’t you paint something yourself for once?” , Takashi Murakami, 2010. © 2010 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Featured image by Okazumi Chika