Takashi Murakami: Superflat and Ukiyo-e

Takashi Murakami is one of only a few contemporary artists whose work I could identify by sight before starting my art education as a college student. I owned a copy of the Kanye West album Graduation for which he designed the cover art, I had seen his designs on Louis Vuitton bags, and I admired the homage to his style in the anime film Summer Wars. I also visited one of his works on display at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. I don’t think I hold an outsider opinion when I suggest that Murakami is one of the few players in today’s art world whose work connects with a global audience of consumers, only some of whom would consider themselves art lovers.

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Image: Murakami, Takashi. Chaos. Giant Robot, https://www.giantrobot.com/products/takashi-murakami-chaos.

Murakami splashed onto the global art scene in the early 2000s with a signature art style he refers to as superflat, a style characterzied by playful, vibrant graphic designs and planes of bold color (Steinberg). The name ‘superflat’ refers to Murakami’s perception of his own cultural heritage as a Japanese artist; when asked about the name, he explained that “when I was making my debut as an artist, I felt that it was very important that I try to combine the background of my own culture, my people, and the country into the contemporary art world. So that’s how I came up with the term ‘superflat'” (Murakami). Murakami’s work is often playfully self-aware and engages with Japanese art history, blending Murakami’s influences of anime and pop culture with traditional art forms such as yamato-e and ukiyo-e (Drohojowska-Philp).

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Image: Murakami, Takashi. Manji Fuji. ArtNet, http://www.artnet.com/artists/takashi-murakami/manji-fuji-a-C_o_3W0WuTmCE4im1S3KIw2.

Murakami plays with contrast, exploring the energetic relationship between perceived opposites; his work often contrasts flat shapes with dimensional forms, or combines seemingly incompatible historical and contemporary aesthetics (Drohojowska-Philp). By engaging with contrast and visually combining two disparate concepts, art can force opposites to merge, flattening the distance between them. This conceptual flattening forms the core of the superflat ideology.

Nowhere is the contrast between perceived opposites as important to Murakami as in the dichotomy of high and low art in the Western art world (Drohojowska-Philp). Despite the fame and acclaim he has received as a fine artist, Murakami is unapologetic in the commodification of his work, selling designs for profit and harnessing corporate brands to disseminate his creations to a wider market. According to Murakami, embracing both the ethereal and commercial opportunities of art is another part of his heritage, as “Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and, in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of ‘high art'” (Murakami).

Here again we see the legacy of ukiyo-e at work in a contemporary artist, as Murakami’s superflat art seeks to do precisely what ukiyo-e did hundreds of years ago: create images for mass consumption that unite fine art and commercial art into one successful product. Murakami’s work re-interprets the aesthetics of ukiyo-e, repackages the visuals to communicate with a global audience, carrying the influence of the floating world into the present day. Superflat is the child of ukiyo-e, a bold and audacious art form that resists viewers attempts to stratify the work on the spectrum of low or high art. Instead, superflat seeks to flatten out the nebulous web of hierarchies in which art is often hopelessly tangled onto a single plane of existence where art can be both high and low, worthy to both hang in museums and be sold at the gift shop.

Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. “Superflat.” ArtNet, 2001, http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/features/drohojowska-philp/drohojowska-philp1-18-01.asp.

Steinberg, Marc. “Emerging from Flatness: Murakami Takashi and Superflat Aesthetics.” McGill University, 2002.

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