Kusama: The Graphic Novel
In an effort to learn more about graphic novels, I picked up Kusama by Elisa Macellari. It’s all about the famous Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who came to New York in 1958 when she was in her twenties and became a pop art sensation, all the while struggling from severe psychic disorders. To cope with her anxiety, hallucinations and intense feelings of depersonalization, she used art as a form of self-medication.
In her early years, she drew and painted and later moved to performance art, sculpture, installation and other forms of abstract art. Her art represents feminism, sexuality, minimalism and surrealism. Much of her expression is represented in red and white polka dots and her naked performance art, representing free love and homosexual sex during the sixties, often occurred in public places. I’m not an art expert, so I’ll stop there, but you can find plenty of information about her online.
So, on to the graphic novel. Graphic novel is an umbrella term, but this one is actually a graphic biography. I was struck by how powerfully the illustrations, all in red, white and black, and the words came together to depict Kusama’s life, especially her childhood and her fragile mental health. Her parents fought, her mother berated her and her father was unfaithful. I thought the author/illustrator did a fantastic job showing Kusama’s hallucinations, sadness and feelings of detachment while chronicling her life. Through the pictures, I could tell how lost she felt and understand the therapeutic power of her art.
Macellari also tells how Kusama, desperate to leave her unhappy home in Japan, wrote to the American modern artist Georgia O’Keeffe for advice. The two began a correspondence and O’Keeffe offered to show Kusama’s art at galleries in New York. Soon after, Kusama made the move to New York.
Kusama returned to Japan in 1973 and disappeared from the art scene for twenty years. The Japan she knew had changed and she had trouble fitting in. She admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital to treat her fragile mental state where she used art as therapy. Slowly, her art became recognized in Japan. At ninety-three, she continues to create and is recognized worldwide.
Now, Kusama reflects on her life and career and her parents. “My entire life I have swung between feelings of love and hate for my parents. If I have got to this age, I owe it only to them. They prepared me for the light and shadows of life and death.”
A note about adult graphic novels. These are not kids’ books! They are colorful and inviting, but the pages inside are for adult eyes. I found this book compelling and extremely readable. I read it twice to let it all soak in. There are plenty of biographies about Kusama. This is a good place to start. Its minimalist presentation fits perfectly with the artist’s style.
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