Yayoi Kusama and her iconic dots are instantly recognizable the world over, making the 91-year old among the (if not simply the—an article in The Guardian asks “Yayoi Kusama: the world’s favourite artist?”) most famous artists in the world. It’s clear she inspires many: one need only look at the countless collaborations or at #yayoikusama on Instagram. Her life and her art have inspired many a book and Elisa Macellari adds to the growing body with Kusama: The Graphic Novel.
Macellari has decided to focus on Kusama’s early years and her life in the 1960s and 1970s, which allows her to dive into the origin of Kusama’s life work and also the Japanese artist’s personal story. Naturally, Macellari includes Kusama’s dots throughout the graphic “biography” and the medium serves to further communicate the link between Kusama and the dots.
Macellari begins by opening the graphic novel not with a focus on Kusama, but on the dots, which are actually red chrysanthemums in a field, while a young Kusama runs down a path. The sky is blue, a traditional Japanese home is in the background; it’s 1939 in Matsumoto, Japan.
The opening scene establishes Kusama’s relationship with dots and art: the flowers speak to her with voices “so loud it hurt her ears”. Kusama waits until the voices fade and then begins to “draw, and paint, driven by her obsessions”. Macellari draws Kusama cross-legged in her school uniform, intently focused on her art as canvases swirl around her. The furious red background shows Kusama’s passion and intensity but also links with one of the colors she is often associated with.
Macellari then gives the readers a glimpse of Kusama’s conservative family, before jumping ahead nearly 20 years into the future: a young woman, Kusama is now painting in her studio in New York. Macellari quickly flashes back, first to Kusama’s difficult childhood, the start of her mental health struggles and then the long eight-year journey it took to move to New York.
With the book focused on Kusama’s life story, there is a large focus on Kusama’s mental illness. One striking image is that of Kusama in the corner of a room covered in dots, curled up with her head in her arms. “A second lasts for hours. All I can do is curl up and hide away somewhere.” The narrator writes: “And yet, despite the suffering caused by her condition, Kusama had attained the essence of her artistic language.”
Macellari cleverly deploys dots throughout the book: a nod to the theme, but also a way of communicating that for Kusama dots are everywhere. A dot is the sun beaming high above the New York skyline; a clock that shows the passing of time as Kusama paints day and night; the pupil of an eye as Macellari begins to explore Kusama’s mental illness.
Of course, Macellari does not solely rely on the dot to communicate her story: she integrates traditional Japanese prints into her work, giving texture to clothing, objects and skylines (particularly the shape of the clouds), but also to backgrounds that further lift the artwork.
She sticks to a similar color palette throughout—as one might expect, red, white and black dominate, but there is also a bluish-green that contrasts nicely with the work and from those colors a purple that accents and an light orange that works particularly well for the naked bodies in Kusama’s performance art and for the pages that feature Georgia O’Keefe (Kusama wrote to O’Keefe for advice when she was seeking to leave Japan) in the New Mexico desert.
Kusama: The Graphic Novel follows Kusama’s life up until her installation for the Japan pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale. As Macellari writes in her introduction, when she first saw Kusama’s work at a large retrospective back in 2011, she was “familiar with her most famous pieces, but knew nothing of the ones from the 1960s and 1970s”.
The same might be said for a number of fans and readers and Macellari’s book offers some welcome insights. Late in the book, Macellari returns to the flower imagery she opened with, but this time the flowers are big, bold and covered in Kusama’s dots. These flowers also have voices, but whereas they first were shown tormenting a young Kusama, the speech of these flowers now offer the perspective of time.
Macellari closes the book by offering some of her own thoughts—“That is Kusama. An entire life in art… She who so often dreamed and feared, she might disappear”. The closing image is a fitting one, and one that perhaps speaks to Kusama’s reputation globally: a night sky full of white dots, bar a single red dot that stands out from the rest.
Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.