"Superflat" the movement combining anime and fine art


City Glow (2005) Chiho Aoshima // Courtesy of Artsy

Superflat: the art movement coined by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami that has come to blur the lines between fine art and anime. I'd support just about anything that seeks to destroy "highbrow art" but Superflat also happens to be dope af and well worth learning about. Superflat is an art style characterised by by the 'flattening' of an image so that it comes to resemble something akin to graphic design or animation. This opens the door to a new set of imagery that is heavy inspired by Japanese popular culture: traditional Japanese art (think Hokusai and Kuniyoshi), anime/manga and scifi. You might think that because the movement is heavily concerned with flattening forms that it is only applied to 2D mediums such as painting and digital works but I'd argue that the traits of this movement are made much more obvious when presented in 3D (sculpture)


The Influence of Traditional Japanese Art:

Akiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1844)
The Battle of the Uji River, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1849)
The Lantern Ghost Iwa, Katsushika Hokusai (1831-1832)

Lets take a look at the famous Japanese 'woodblock art' of the 19th century, ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e is a style in which form is defined through thick black outlines. Within these outlines, is the use of uninterrupted or what we call in the art world flat color. Depth is typically indicated through size, the further away an object is the smaller it will be. And there is also a focus on the use of negative space (called ma) where the what is not is just as significant as the what is.


I also read that it has a 'lack of a natural perspective' which is quite frankly the most broad and euro-centric claim I've seen all week and not too keen on that description. Finally, when you're not looking at serene landscapes and portraits of beauties (geisha), there is an emphasis on subjects that are dark and supernatural in origin. There is also incredibly erotic art.


Now, if we take a look at Japanese popular culture, you'll notice that you can use all of these the sentences to describe anime and manga.


The Influence of Traditional Japanese Art:

Neon Genesis Evangelion
Tokyo Ghoul

Black outlines are still used to distinguish form, and perspective is still largely indicated by placement and size within the scene. And there is definitely still a dark/supernatural undercurrent theme that runs through this subculture. In fact, I'd argue that more often than not it is the darker side of anime that is present in the Superflat art works- as a subversion of popular culture (think Neon Genesis Evangelion and Tokyo Ghoul). It is within this artistic legacy, that Superflat takes its place and is very much within the Japanese artistic identity. I'd argue that even within the humble slice of life style genre, there is definitely an element of escapism that applies. It's just cute instead of gory.


The song that never ends, Mr (2020) Gin Huang Gallery

This means that in the 21st century, we are now getting art-works that look like they waltzed straight out of an anime and in some cases, it is very hard to distinguish between the two. It is this 'flattening' and blurring of highbrow art and popular culture that is by far my favourite aspect of the Superflat movement. It places the burden of the questioning what you consider art to be directly onto the viewer. And quite frankly, if you've ever watched anime you'll know that some the animation is definitely worthy of art status- ask any Studio Ghibli fan.


Art varies amongst cultures and I think this is something that the western audience can fall prey to. This is another reason why we always need to be questioning what we are told is categorically "good." In an interview, Murakami makes an interesting point- that the manga artist is at the top of the Japanese culture scene. Within a context that sees the manga artist at the top of the food chain, why shouldn't art that takes the on same form and function be seen as fine art? I think more often than not, the answer to this comes down to fan culture and the arbitrary, good for nothing associations that people force upon sub-culture groups. But it remains that for art to stay relevant to the 2020 human, it needs to adapt and evolve. I know I wouldn't be studying art history if it was still stuck in the formal era of the Renaissance.


It wouldn't be right to talk about Superflat and not mention that is also a critique on mass consumption, the psyche of Japan after World War II but at the risk of information overload I'll leave that there. Most importantly, when looking at the works below, you don't need to try and find some hidden freudian 'meaning' in them (there is a time and a place for that)- they actually make their meaning/vibe very apparent- just go with your gut :')


Takashi Murakami

I would argue the most playful artist of the bunch, Murakami's take on the art style is high-spirited but with a nasty bite. As the founder of superflat, the aspects mentioned above relate most directly to his art-work which you can see in the thick black outlines and the use of traditional and manga style imagery.


Chiho Aoshima

Chiho Aoshima is a Superflat artist that began her career working in the digital world (though she has since moved onto sculpture as well)- whether it's creating and rendering art through illustrator for it to be mounted, or creating a video installation and immersive soundscape experience. Many of her works focus on yokai (Japanese spirits), graveyards and the passing of time which come together to create art that you can't seem to pull yourself away from. Honestly it's hard to do video installations justice so if you're interested, the video below is marked at the point where you can see some of her amazing work in action! (HIGHLY RECOMMEND).


Mr.

Mr is a Superflat artist that is arguably the closest in form to manga. Being a true fan or otaku of the subculture has led Mr to utilize and subvert the visual cues we associate with anime. Each artwork varies, some of his work is very kawaii and yet there is often a dark, and unsettling references to domestic abuse and mental health.

Yoshitomo Nara

Children are repeatedly used as a motif throughout Nara's work- the works are teeming with an uncomfortable energy that you can't quite put your finger on. When you think about it, aren't children kinda terrifying sometimes? You hear stories of parents waking up to see that their child was watching them sleep, these paintings give me the same vibe. "I don’t paint when I am happy. I only paint when I am angry, lonely, sad, when I am able to talk to the work."

Aya Takano

Aya Takano who creates art, truly unlike anyone else I've seen. The environment in which her creations (typically young girls who are simultaneously highly sexualised but completely innocent) exist is heavily influenced by the hardboiled scifi of the 1950s. Depending on what era you're looking at, her works can speak to a grim reality of being a teenage girl in Japan, or a beautiful jelly civilisation where everything looks soft and delightful.

books:

Murakami, Takashi. Super Flat. Tokyo: Madorashuppan, 2000. Print.


Favell, Adrian. Before and after Superflat : A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art, 1990-2011. Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher, 2011. Print.


website links about superflat:

https://www.japan-zone.com/features/032_japanese_pop_art.shtml

https://hyperallergic.com/11659/wtf-is-superflat/

https://www.theartstory.org/movement/superflat/


links about the artists:

http://en.gallery-kaikaikiki.com/category/artists/mr/

http://en.gallery-kaikaikiki.com/category/artists/aya_takano/

http://en.gallery-kaikaikiki.com/category/artists/takashi_murakami/

http://en.gallery-kaikaikiki.com/category/artists/chiho_aoshima/

https://www.perrotin.com/artists/Takashi_Murakami/12

https://www.perrotin.com/artists/Mr/31#news

https://www.perrotin.com/artists/Aya_Takano/15#news

https://www.pacegallery.com/artists/yoshitomo-nara/


video links:

Live on: Mr's Japanese Neo-pop

Takashi Murakami, as a Tour Guide of His Own Exhibition

Chiho Aoshima: Rebirth of the World

Aya Takano "The Jelly Civilization", Perrotin Paris


Banner image: Takashi Murakami, close up of Kaikai Kiki and Me- the Shocking Truth Revealed (2010) Courtesy of @BFLV

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