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Contemporary Art

The Creative Spiral of Bourgeois and Kusama

Despite profoundly different cultural and family backgrounds, these grandes dames of contemporary art have more than a few things in common, as an upcoming exhibition at Sotheby’s London demonstrates.


Foreign-born, burdened by childhood trauma and given to intense psychological states, both Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama found some measure of relief in New York City, where they achieved recognition as major artistic figures of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. For these exceptional women, making art was always the way to salvation. Throughout her career, the Paris-born Bourgeois (1911–2010) created art that dealt with the emotions resulting from the discovery of her domineering father’s affair with her live-in tutor, all while her knowing mother turned a blind eye. Kusama – born in 1929 to a prosperous family in Matsumoto, Japan – had a difficult upbringing. Her mother’s contempt of a weak husband (who was prone to long absences and serial womanising) and her vehement and violent opposition to Kusama’s wish to become an artist exacerbated her nascent hallucinosis: a psychological condition that would become the lifelong well-spring for her obsessive-compulsive work.

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LOUISE BOURGEOIS PHOTOGRAPHED IN HER MUSEUM OF MODERN ART RETROSPECTIVE, NEW YORK, 1983.
© TED THAI/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

With a carefully curated selection of sculptures, paintings and works on paper presented in its S|2 gallery in London from 24 February to 13 April, Sotheby’s is exploring fascinating parallels and disparities between the two artists along a few salient themes: Good Mother/Bad Mother, Dislocation/Displacement, Sexuality/War and Melancholia/Mania. By way of a preview, the following pages offer some insight into two of them.  

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YAYOI KUSAMA ON THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE IN 1968, DRESSED IN POLKA DOTS.
© FRED W. MCDARRAH/GETTY IMAGES

Good Mother/Bad Mother

For Bourgeois and Kusama, the maternal figure played a complex and ambivalent role, waging traumas that persisted into adulthood and that found representation in their work. Bourgeois repeatedly alluded to the conflicting emotions elicited by her mother as well as her own difficult experience of motherhood. The violence often evoked by her work confronts a taboo on maternal aggression: instead of presenting an exclusively nurturing and passive ideal of motherhood, Bourgeois stakes a claim for a potentially ferocious and powerful mother, an empowered feminine position that challenged gendered stereotypes and patriarchal authority. For Bourgeois, this aggressive yet protective force was embodied by the spider, which was often a stand-in for her own mother, a weaver and tapestry restorer. Deprived of essential maternal love, Kusama – whose mother abused her physically, destroyed her canvases and asked her never to return from the US after leaving Japan in 1957 – developed a simultaneously comforting and frightening hallucinotic world in compensation. Kusama’s identification with annihilative modes of subjectivity, as acutely expressed in her 1967 film Self-Obliteration, is therefore not surprising.

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LOUISE BOURGEOIS’S SPIDER, 1995, WILL APPEAR IN TRAUMATA AT SOTHEBY’S S|2 GALLERY, LONDON.

Melancholia/Mania

There is a systemic bipolarity to the work of both Bourgeois and Kusama: manic repetition and obsessive production is met with depressive withdrawal and melancholic annihilation. This psychological and creative spiral – propelled by what Freud termed the death drive – persisted with growing intensity throughout their careers. Bourgeois confronted and repeated the traumatic implications of her childhood more intently over time; she was in her eighties when she began creating her powerful and iconic Cells, various enclosures filled with symbolic objects, sculptures and highly charged personal items. For her part, Kusama has increasingly sought to capture in her work the sense of total obliteration she perceives while hallucinating. Her striking mirrored Infinity Rooms recreate this disconnected state, bringing viewers inside Kusama’s vision of endless time and the absoluteness of space.

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YAYOI KUSAMA’S INFINITY MIRRORED ROOM – THE SOULS OF MILLIONS OF LIGHT YEARS AWAY, 2013,
ON VIEW IN 2016 AT THE BROAD MUSEUM IN LOS ANGELES.
© LESSANDROENCARNACAO/STOCKIMO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Traumata: Bourgeois/Kusama will be exhibited at Sotheby’s S|2 Gallery in London from 24 February–13 April. Enquiries: +44 20 7293 5744.

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