From Frida Kahlo to Aloise Corbaz, it’s no secret that many of history’s great female artists battled mental illness. Yet most of these women were producing art at a time when mental health problems were far more stigmatized and misunderstood than they are today. This makes the works of Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) and Yayoi Kusama (born 1929), due to be jointly exhibited for the first time at Sotheby’s S|2 Gallery later this month, all the more awe-inspiring. This is not least because of their huge successes over the years, from Bourgeois’ Honorary doctorate from Yale to Kusama’s current record for the highest price paid for a work by a living female artist.
“Interestingly, international recognition came towards the end of [both] their careers,” exhibition co-curator Marina Ruiz Colomer tells The Creators Project. “Bourgeois and Kusama are now revered as pioneering figures in the history of 20th century art, and we felt it was the right moment to explore and expand what has been said about them. They shared a profound interest in psychoanalysis, using personal trauma as one of their main sources of inspiration, so by approaching the exhibition from this angle, we hope to provide fresh perspective on the life and work of these two remarkable artists.”
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Bourgeois and Kusama both spoke about their use of art to deal with psychological traumas, and conversely, their use of trauma to inspire art. Bourgeois, known for her autobiographical, starkly honest sculptures and paintings, titled one of her pieces Art is a guaranty of sanity and once said, according to Sotheby’s, “art is restoration… the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life.”
Kusama, meanwhile, is famous for covering her canvases, rooms, and subjects in repetitive polka dots (which she calls “infinity nets”). This is inspired, as cited by Sotheby’s, by hallucinations she has experienced since childhood: “By continuously producing the forms of things that terrify me, I am able to suppress my fear… I’m able to revel in my illness in the dazzling light of day.”
Bringing together iconic works by the two artists from foundations and private collections, Londoners can expect to see sculptures, paintings, and prints from throughout Bourgeois and Kusama’s careers. The exhibit is based on four themes: Good Mother/Bad Mother, Exile/Dislocation, Memory/Melancholia, and Sexuality/War.
Bourgeois grew up in Paris with a domineering father who had a long-standing affair with her nanny, and a mother who turned a blind eye. Yet Bourgeois remembers her mother fondly in her work, symbolizing her as a spider. As she explained to the Tate: “Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes… spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.” Bourgeois’s parents’ deaths affected her profoundly, and she regularly underwent psychoanalysis for 30 years. Art alone wasn’t able to help the artist, and yet it was all encompassing: “I am my work… I am not what I am as a person,” she told art historian Linda Nochlin in 1998.
Kusama was born to a wealthy family in Matsumoto, Japan, and also endured a womanizing father. But unlike Bourgeois, Kusama’s relationship with her mother was fraught, due to her mother’s resentment of her father and violent opposition to Kusama’s artistic aspirations. Hallucinations stemming from this period inform much of Kusama’s work. “By translating hallucinations and fear of hallucinations into paintings… I have been trying to cure my disease,” she said in an interview with BOMB Magazine in 1999. Like Bourgeois, Kusama sought out psychological help and has voluntarily resided in a mental hospital since 1977.
Throughout their careers, both Bourgeois and Kusama bravely spoke about their psychological states, at times when it was rare to discuss such issues openly. Although they both underwent decades of psychological treatment, the artists’ insatiable urge to create never seemed to falter. In the last year of her life, at 98, Bourgeois created a piece in support of gay marriage. Kusama, now 87, still paints polka dots, and just a few days ago, The Wall Street Journal described her as “unstoppable… busier than ever.”