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Our volunteer continues:
The retrospective reinterpretation of Kusama’s work by critics was fuelled by an interest at the time in psychiatric art in Japan and Kusama became a poster child for ‘Outsider Art’. However, whilst she fits into this category if you consider her ‘untrained’ due to only 18 months studying nihonga (Japanese-style painting) in her early twenties, Kusama has never been excluded from influential artistic circles, but was in fact an extremely active participant in the artistic infrastructure dominating both New York and Tokyo at the times she lived there. A morbid fascination with pathology along with the simplified idea that madness is a direct source of creativity often leads to individuals being too enthusiastically labelled as ‘outsider artists’. Art critic Abe Nobuo has made the telling point that although hallucinations may provide rich sensory experiences for artists to draw from, it is not enough for the artist to merely reproduce the hallucinatory experience: the artist needs to connect their own personal experience of the hallucination with specific artistic intent, for that painting to become a work of art. ‘The greatest appeal in Kusama’s work is that she seizes the devilish malice which comes sprouting up from the unconscious darkness, and turns it into art.’1
Some of the more revealing interpretations of Kusama’s work come from looking at her artistic intentions in relation to the current artistic climate. The current exhibition of her work at Tate Modern doesn’t focus on her mental health as much as does the publicity surrounding it. In fact the only reference to her as an outsider within the exhibition is in Walking Piece, a series of colour slides of Kusama from 1966 dressed in Kimono and flowers wandering the streets of New York, which explores her position as a female, Asian artist in a predominantly white, male New York art world, exemplifying a theme of patriarchal defiance which runs throughout her work.
The Yayoi Kusama exhibition continues at Tate Modern until 5 June 2012.
1 Cited in G. Borggreen, “The Myth of the Mad Artist: Works and Writings by Kusama Yayoi” in Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies vol 15 (2001), pp. 39-40.
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Our volunteer writes:
When considering Yayoi Kusama’s art, most critics choose to focus on her lifelong pathological hallucinations. However, Kusama began reflecting on her work in relation to her illness only after returning to Japan in the 1970’s and her subsequent admission into the psychiatric hospital where she continues to reside. Earlier self-analysis showed sharp insight into the creative processes governing her work. During her time in New York she was acutely aware of current artist trends such as Abstract Expressionism but disassociated herself from such trends in an effort to cement her individuality as an artist. She identified childhood visions as inspiration for some of her most dynamic work such as her Infinity Net series, but related these creative sources to her current belief in Mysticism and attributed artistic power to the harnessing of the dark and demonic side of experience, to listening to the undercurrents of life and identifying things that hide in the shadows: “My mind now searches for all attractive splendours which unfold from the shadow of the obscure world.” However, she didn’t illustrate these beliefs with any personal psychopathological experiences. This changed dramatically after her hospitalization in 1977 when accounts of her mental health began to dominate her own artistic story, and renewed the interest of art critics. This switch to a more psychological account of her work could be due to treatment she was receiving making her more self-aware and better able to articulate her past experiences.
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The moving story of artist Yayoi Kusama’s lifelong battle against nightmares of obliteration – hallucinations of polka-dot patterns pervading and threatening to destroy not only her, but her family, her home and her world (a battle she fights precisely by deploying her artistic talents to depict these patterns) – is one often told in exhibition publicity, frequently under the rubric of the widely-supposed yet unexamined assumption of a link between ‘madness’ and ‘creativity’. In 2009 our Archivist saw Kusama’s work in Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and London’s Hayward Gallery, and came away impressed by the scale, accessibility and sheer joie de vivre of her output. The photograph below is of Dots Obsession, as displayed at the Hayward. Now that her work has returned to London (in a retrospective at Tate Modern), the ‘myth of the mad artist’ is likely to put in a renewed appearance, at least according to one of our volunteers here at the Archives & Museum, who has written a review of the exhibition.
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Bethlem and its collections came under the spotlight in a discussion event hosted by Tate Britain on 1 December. Mike Jay (author of The Air Loom Gang, a study of famous Bethlem patient James Tilly Matthews) talked to Nicholas Tromans about his recently published work, Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum.
The conversation outlined Dadd’s life and work, and posed some interesting (if unanswerable) questions: was his illness the result of heatstroke and the stress of his travels or did heredity play a part (two of Richard Dadd’s siblings also became mentally unwell)? Does the crowded and often chaotic composition of works such as Contradiction (painted at Bethlem) serve as a sign of Dadd’s ‘madness’ or, having been removed from the world at large, was he simply free to pursue whatever style he chose without concern for prevailing fashions and commercial considerations?
The key place of Bethlem in relation to Dadd’s life and subsequent reputation was discussed at length, with particular reference to two physicians at the hospital who amassed collections of his work: Dr Alexander Morison and Dr William Charles Hood. The appointment of Patricia Allderidge as Bethlem’s first Archivist in 1967 was noted as an important milestone as it allowed for an alternative view of Dadd’s life to be presented, based on the careful consideration of archival evidence rather than political theory. Patricia’s catalogue for the Tate’s groundbreaking Richard Dadd retrospective in 1974 was for many years the only serious academic study of the artist.
Nicholas Tromans’ book, The Artist and the Asylum can be purchased from the Bethlem Archives & Museum shop for the discounted price of £20. He will also be formally opening the forthcoming exhibition, ‘An Artist Abroad’, in the Bethlem Archives and Museum on Saturday 11 February. The exhibition, focusing on Dadd’s early work, will run until 27 April. Visit our website for details.
Photograph of Richard Dadd painting Oberon and Titania at Bethlem Hospital