Graphic novel faithfully adapts the unusual and fascinating life story of artist Yayoi Kusama

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Unlike pop phenomenon Yayoi Kusama’s own artwork, with its vivid, familiar colors contributing to its near-universal popular appeal, Elisa Macellari’s new graphic biography on Kusama uses mostly cold, hard to name, and unsaturated colors ( plus a brilliant amaranth red.) This relatively small palette makes sense, allowing the reader to patiently focus on Kusama’s unusual and dramatic life story, as through a stylish pair of welding goggles.

The book’s source list contains only five items, only two of which matter: Kusama’s autobiography Infinity net and the documentary Kusama – Infinite. This makes it easy to compare the stories Macellari tells with his source material. This graphic biography (biography in graphic novel format) adapts these sources fairly faithfully. It touches on all the main themes: the artist’s youthful rebellion against his family and his conservative homeland; his persistent problems with hallucinations, sexual phobia and anxiety; his willingness to suffer from poverty rather than giving up or compromising his ambitious artistic vocation; his prodigious artistic productivity; his interactions with other famous artists; her worldwide fame in the 1960s as an organizer of naked events (“happenings”); his most characteristic artistic ideas (infinity networks, polka dots, soft phallic sculptures and mirrored infinity chambers); its fall into depression and darkness from the 1970s; and her celebrated rediscovery and ultimate triumph, while she was still alive and still creating art endlessly.

Mental issues are a hot topic when discussing Kusama’s work, which she created largely as a form of escape, to “fade away” and “return to the natural universe.” As Macellari says in the introduction “I have enormous compassion for her suffering and I find the transformation of her mental disorders into a form of extraordinary self-medication, given that she reaches such beautiful heights”. Kusama’s art was fueled and shaped by mental issues, but his power came from his rare artistic genius, which was recognized early on (though not by his mother.)

The most prominent features of Macellari’s Kusama caricatures are their slanted eyes – also shared by the other Japanese characters in this story – and their bangs. (Macellari’s origins are Italian and Thai.) She doesn’t design the incongruously blindingly shiny reddish-orange wig that Kusama adopted as a trademark look after she became an old woman.

Most of the characters in this gutter-less comic spend most of their time standing in stately postures. Even the gay orgy on page 74 that Kusama staged for German television in 1967 closely resembles the caption that describes it: “like a sculpture in motion”.

Some details of Kusama’s life that seem confusing, incomplete, and unreliable in his autobiography remain puzzling in this graphic biography. The graphic novel mentions on page 36 that when she left for Seattle and America in 1957, Kusama had “a million yen dollars sewn into the lining of her clothes, in order to avoid the export restriction. local currency ”and also wore 60 kimonos and 2,000 drawings and paintings for sale. Kusama’s autobiography says, “To help cover travel costs, I changed one million yen to dollars at the Tokyo branch of an American company called Continental Brothers. It was of course against the law. At that time, one million yen was enough to build several houses. I smuggled those few thousand dollars out of the country by sewing some bills into my dress and shoving others into the ends of my shoes. A million yen was more than “thousands” of dollars. How was she reduced to eating fish heads from dumpsters in an unheated studio in New York City just a year later?

Many Seattle residents remember the extremely successful exhibition of Kusama’s work, “Infinity Mirrors,” at the Seattle Art Museum in 2017. Kusama’s first exhibition in the United States was held at the Zoe Dusanne Gallery in Seattle in 1957 (a solo show that drew attention even in Oklahoma City, more than 1,500 miles away, in a newspaper article titled “Japanese Paintings Move Seattle Critics.”) Macellari mentions the role of Seattle in the possibility of Kusama’s escape from Japan once on page 35, but it is understandable to leave out, presumably for reasons of space, more of the story of how little time Kusama spent. in Seattle on his way to his New York destination.

Over the past decades, graphic biographies of famous artists (usually deceased artists) have become a popular genre in Europe. The graphic biography of Kusama by Macellari is the third in the Laurence King Publishing series, preceded by a graphic biography of the American painter Jackson Pollock by the Bologna designer Onofrio Catacchio and a graphic biography of the American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, by the Florentine designer Paolo Parisi. Milan-based Elisa Macellari discovered Yayoi Kusama’s work in Madrid in 2011 and became fascinated by it. She started her own busy professional career as an artist / illustrator in 2012.

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