Yayoi Kusama’s Self-Portraits: A Window Into The Artist

Yayoi Kusama’s Self-Portraits: A Window Into The Artist

As one of the Japanese superstar Yayoi Kusama’s most striking painting of herself comes to the rostrum, Nicholas Stephens charts seven decades of the artist’s self-portraiture.
As one of the Japanese superstar Yayoi Kusama’s most striking painting of herself comes to the rostrum, Nicholas Stephens charts seven decades of the artist’s self-portraiture.

Y ayoi Kusama is an artist of superstar status, one whose hypnotising dots and resplendent pumpkins are a magnet for many. Her 2021 Tate Modern “Infinity Mirror Rooms” captured the zeitgeist; a time where people, in solitary reverie, sought out the dazzling lights of infinity, the barely visible water pools of eternity, as a way to reset from the drab travails of enforced isolation.

Visitors to Kusama’s exhibitions have always sought to learn more about themselves, even as the artist herself remains elusive. There are clues to the real Kusama though: the dots that dance on the surface are a visual reminder of battles with mental health, the pumpkins, which she praises for their “generous unpretentiousness and solid spiritual base”, are perhaps themselves a form of self-portraiture.

Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin, 2016 | Estimate: 24,000,000 - 34,000,000 HKD

Portraiture in Writing and Art

Self-portraits are not always visual. Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney announced his arrival on the literary scene with his 1960s poem Digging. His poem brims with confidence and intent, drawing a line between himself and his ancestors as he strikes his own, pioneering path: “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them/Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it”.

This may be the poetic equivalent of Rembrandt’s unflinchingly self-assured Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1631), which finds Rembrandt on the cusp of opening his studio in Amsterdam. The pain-ravaged lines documenting the frail vicissitudes of fortune lay in the future, poignantly visible in his Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669).

Like Rembrandt’s oeuvre, Kusama’s self-portraits express the full spectrum, from youthful vigour to statesmanlike grandeur. Like Heaney’s poem, these are self-portraits of a different kind. They are ideas as much as likenesses, symbols of psychological topography rather than lucid mirror images ready to slot into a passport or driving licence.

Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin, 2019 | Estimate: 28,000,000 - 38,000,000 HKD

Seven Decades of Self

When one examines Kusama’s self-portraits from 1950 to 2020, the salient point above all others is her sheer breadth and diversity. The vista is an alternating tapestry of monochrome, of vibrant colour saturation, of collage, figuration and near abstraction, redolent of the pagan one moment and of carefree childhood the next. Adding to the enigma is the fact that her self-portraits rarely come up for auction – hence it’s hard to say with any certainty how many of her “One Rollar” bills from “The United Skates of Arnica” one might need to pay to own one.

Her self-portraits become milestones on her journey from then to now, a collective impression that is powerful but not overwhelming.

Take for example, Kusama’s Self-Portrait (1950), portraying a prickly pink seed, an embryonic circle of the eternal, a full-stop on the beginning and a launchpad into the cosmos. Produced when she was just 21 years old, here is the polka dot at the beginning of its life, and a visual statement of the unity of humanity with the planets.

“Kusama… described her polka dots as a metaphor for the sun, earth and moon, as well as for individuals in the web of creation.”
On the wall text at M+

This painting is the inception of Kusama as an artist and her announcement of a recurring visual motif all at once.

By the late 1970s, Kusama was producing zingy collages of sprightly verve, such as Woman with a Shadow of a Bird (1978). She offers a transparent face studded with flora, fauna and birdlife. The combination of animal and human cues a surreal, occult eeriness of atmosphere, reminiscent of work by earlier female masters such as Leonora Carrington’s Portrait of the Late Mrs Partridge (1947) or Remedios Varo’s Armonía (Autorretrato sugerente) (1956). Here, the artist presents herself not so much at one with the animal world, but peaking out from within it, wrestling with the harsh reality of a nature, in the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson, “red in tooth and claw”.

Also of the same period is Woman Standing in the Forest (1978), in which Kusama, Janus-like, looks forward and back, an appropriate posture for an artist with a body of work behind her and so much more still to come.

The 20th century heralds an easing from the animal into the philosophical. Self Portrait (2004) carries a scent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 Huis Clos (No Exit). In Sartre’s play, hell is presented as a living room in which others stare at you in unrelenting judgment as you bare your soul. If hell is other people, Kusama strips the room of their bodies but leaves the eyes. Here the eyes have a life of their own, seemingly burrowing into the artist’s face, floating, amphibious, omni-present and threatening. The indistinguishable uniformity of the eyes seems to herald the danger of losing oneself in the glaring condemnation of others.

Striking a more optimistic note, When I Discovered the Joy of Living in Obscurity (2020) offers pared-down figuration in vivid ebullience, a confident, face-on assault to the world. The halo of golden hair shelters the perfectly round, dazzling white eyes and cherry-red mouth; a mask to the world certainly, but one that is full of rosy, childlike cheer.

Yayoi Kusama, PORTRAIT, 2015 | Estimate: 38,000,000 - 48,000,000 HKD

Kusama’s striking Portrait (2015) is the crescendo, and an emotional high point.

Here the artist uses the signature black and yellow palette and bold imagery to assert her merging into the ethereal otherness. This is the smile on the Cheshire cat after it has disappeared. In its binary hues, it’s a visual echo of her Pumpkins sculptures (1998–2000) shown elsewhere in the same exhibition. The dots on her face and dress find their counterpoint in her eyes and mouth, while her dress and necklace take on a tribal, ethnic and elemental aura. This is an open and frank window into herself, as a citizen of the world, as she becomes one with the artistic ether she created. As Kusama remarked in 1971: “When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment… and we obliterate ourselves in love”.

Among a small number of self-portraits by the artist, Kusama is instantly recognisable by her blunt bobbed hair, dissolving into the expansive universe and infinite space of her eponymous patterning. Immersed by her most characteristic motifs - from polka dots, Infinity Nets, pumpkins and tubular forms –Portrait is the first yellow and black frontal portrait in acrylic, the artist’s chosen medium since the 1980s, to ever have been offered at auction.

A glorious paradigm of Kusama’s legendary creative journey, Portrait is magnificently emblematic of her radical, transformative and accomplished oeuvre. Embodying the iconic, charismatic and highly personal motifs which have become synonymous with the artist herself, Portrait is a testament to decades of astonishing dedication to creation, technique, and a singular artistic vision.

Contemporary Art The Hong Kong Sales

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