Takashi Murakami, a World Apart


WordsClémence Leleu

Round, fine-rimmed glasses, a salt-and-pepper goatee, hair often tied up in a high bun and a clothing style that’s as colourful as his canvases, plastic artist Takashi Murakami imposes his crazy universe in all respects. It’s a pop universe, one that moves between Buddhist iconography and manga heroes. ‘That’s how I arrived in the art world’, Murakami explains in Libération. ‘When I was a student, I wanted to make manga, like all the great creators of the time. But as I wasn’t talented enough, I decided to study more classic themes and techniques. And it was only once I became an artist that I was able to go back to manga by working with it as a starting point’.

Takashi Murakami's kawaii pop aesthetic

Takashi Murakami may fill his canvases and other creations with saturated colours and psychedelic patterns, but the artist trained in classic painting at Tokyo University of the Arts. He notably trained in Nihonga, a movement born at the end of the 19th century and which is a hybrid of Japanese and European art. This training allowed him to go in search of a more personal style, particularly in reaction to the absence of a modern Japanese scene and the cultural domination of the United States.

And so the outlines were drawn of what would become, for the following centuries, his trademark: a kawaii pop aesthetic, but one which incorporates many Japanese political, cultural, religious and social elements. Tsunamis, bombing, earthquakes… There are numerous historical references, often surrounded by thousands of multicoloured flowers. Takashi Murakami therefore became one of the leading figures in Japanese neo pop, known as Superflat, claiming the heritage of Warhol. He even created his own factory in 1995, Hiropon Factory, which changed its name to the Kaikai Kiki Corporation in 2001, and which supports young artists and creates and sells related merchandise.

A Japanese troublemaker in Versailles

Murakami’s greatest feat was perhaps the installation of his works in the Château de Versailles, where he took over the Royal Apartments and the Hall of Mirrors. A huge Mr Dob, giant balloons made from coloured plastic and monumental works contrasted sharply with the classical nature of the premises. Much like when Jeff Koons was invited a few years before, purists considered this extremely controversial, not wanting Versailles to give in to the siren calls of pop culture.

A real businessman lies behind this artist who was named one of Time magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ in 2008. ‘I realised that the art market could be compared to that for fashion’, Murakami explains to a journalist from L’Express. ‘It varies, it changes every month. I’m reactive and respond to this market’. Behind his impressively large canvases lies a multitude of assistants, 70 to be precise, who work on the artist’s prolific output each day. The back of the canvas shows the names of all the people who participated in its creation, much like the credits for a film.

An artist with multiple collaborations

This artist, who likes to hide behind his avatar Mr Dob, a character inspired by different figures including Doraemon, Sonic and Mickey Mouse, with a round, moon-like face and ears like saucers, has also increased his partnerships. In 2003, for example, he collaborated with Louis Vuitton during the Marc Jacobs era. Musician Kanye West then appealed to him to create the artwork for his album Graduation, and to direct his video for Good Morning. More recently, Murakami collaborated with Billie Eilish, one of the biggest artists of the moment, on one of her videos, and even created a limited edition figurine of the artist. This wealth of creativity is popular with some and criticised by others, but Murakami clearly has no intention of stopping as, in 2019, he held his 14th exhibition at the prestigious Perrotin gallery in Paris.