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

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

An ambitious retrospective of celebrated Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama opened at Hong Kong’s M+ Museum this month. One room in “Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now” particularly fascinated us: her self-portraits.
An ambitious retrospective of celebrated Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama opened at Hong Kong’s M+ Museum this month. One room in “Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now” particularly fascinated us: her self-portraits.

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. As if anticipating our yearning to know the real Yayoi Kusama behind the icon she has become, M+ dedicated space to her self-portraits. What an opportunity then, to spend time in the presence of the artist at different stages of her life, watching her evolve in her own eyes, and before ours.

Installation view of Yayoi Kusama: 1945 to Now, 2022
Photo: Lok Cheng
M+, Hong Kong

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, M+ offers paintings 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.

Seven Decades of Self

Viewing Kusama’s self-portraits from 1950 to 2020 hung on a single purple wall, 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.

In a wall of such dynamic range, the collective impression is powerful but not overwhelming. There were several individual self-portraits that caught our eye, milestones on her journey from then to now.

Yayoi Kusama, Self-Portrait, 1950, oil on canvas, 34 × 24 cm. Collection of the artist © YAYOI KUSAMA

The beginning, chronologically, is Kusama’s Self-Portrait (1950): 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.

Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin (S) . Estimate: 16,000,000 - 23,000,000 HKD

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, acrylic on canvas, 145.5 × 112 cm. Collection of Amoli Foundation Ltd. © YAYOI KUSAMA

The first painting we see upon entering the exhibition, her striking Portrait (2015), with its bronze and black colour tone, stands separately and alone around the corner from the rest of the group. Though it is hung first, Portrait is the crescendo, and an emotional high point.

Here the artist uses striking colours 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”.

Contemporary Art

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