• Erika Argiolas


Edvard Munch, The scream, 1895, Private Collection


The history of art is full of examples of artists who have struggled with mental disease: from Edvard Munch to Vincent Van Gogh to Pablo Picasso. The difficulty with mental illness connects many creatives belonging to the world of arts and entertainment, as well as many celebrities and singers who have made their strengths of all their difficulties with depression, suicidal instincts and other mental disease, making use of this psychological state as a chance to let out all their creativity and their passion at work.

The link between art, creativity and mental disease is linked to the therapeutic effects that art has. Creative minds express their feelings through art, in completely free ways.

The fact that art and creativity are a real outlet for this type of internal struggle was also confirmed by a 2010 study published by the American Journal of Public Health, whose researchers stated that artistic expression in all its forms has positive effects and results on the health and well-being of the individual experiencing medical diseases. It is therefore scientifically proven that drawing and writing have beneficial and positive effects on the minds of patients diagnosed with chronic diseases such as cancer or HIV.


For artists, the canvas therefore becomes a physical place in which they can give importance to their inner difficulties and struggles, not only to let flow their problems, making them real, giving them a shape and therefore in the moment of creation giving greater concreteness to them, in such a way that they can somehow deal with it. The artist bravely confronts himself with the most intrinsic and hidden self - which in the artistic act conform itself to the canvas - giving life to the most intimate discomforts. It is basically a way - for the artist and not only - to understand even better what is happening in their heads.

We know, for istance, that Edvard Munch faced several mental breakdowns and it is also thought that he was plagued by other mental disease. His paintings are concrete proof of this inner struggle, the images he represents are a set of fears and torments. It is also known that Jackson Pollock, a well-known American artist, underwent various psychiatric treatments at home for his bipolar disorder and that his famous dripping paintings were part of the therapeutic cure.

Jackson Pollock working on Number 32, 1950



The story of Yayoi Kusama is somewhat different. A pioneer of contemporary Asian art, the protagonist of a long and difficult history, but her relationship between art and mental disease is still poorly documented in the history of oriental art. Eastern nations such as China, Japan, Korea and many other countries, unfortunately, are still not very open to the understanding and acceptance of mental disease as a clinical problem. Due to this lack of understanding, there is a habit of attributing the symptoms of these mental struggles to problems of supernatural possession or even to punishments of ancestral spirits for some bad behavior or attitude had in the past. This is a very heavy stigma that sadly falls on all mental health issues, although progress has been made in understanding this problem in recent times.

From this point of view, Kusama's life experience and her complete adherence to the art to which she clung with all her strength, even going against the wishes of her family, also presents itself as a rebellion against the stigma and taboo of her Country, demonstrating that depression and mental disease are not necessarily an obstacle or a point of no return or stigma of an unproductive life.

On the contrary, Kusama demonstrates that thanks to the mental struggles she has given life to a sensational career and that she has also given birth to works of creative production loved and appreciated all over the world.

Born in 1929 in Matsumoto, raised in a family whose toxic dynamics have affected her psychology and her way of relating to art. Daughter of an unfaithful father and a strict mother constantly pervaded by the feeling of anger towards her husband who, however, is discharged daily on little Kusama. From the age of 10, her love and predilection for art are great and most of her days are dedicated to drawing and painting. But the plans her mother has for her are completely different and the attempts to hinder her are more and more pressing, so much so as to tear off the drawing sheets from her hands. The rigid family climate and the taboo towards the relationship between man and woman create very strong friction between Kusama, the society in which she lives and his parents. Since childhood she has suffered from personality disorders, visual and auditory hallucinations and obsessive anxieties are the background.

She lives these realities with horror, aware of her realm of illusions. Forced to fight her anxieties alone, in a conservative society that does not accept psychiatry, she finds shelter in her drawings as the only way out and reaction to the problem, thus transporting her imagination to paper.

“One day I was staring at the red flowered tablecloth, I looked away from the table and I noticed that the same pattern was printed on the ceiling, even on the windows and columns. The whole room, my body, the universe were covered with red flowers and I disappeared, finding my place in eternal time and absolute space ".

Yayoi Kusama on Sofa Accumulation

Among the various themes, sex is also experienced negatively. Her mother painted it as something dirty, to be kept hidden and to be ashamed of. Also, in the family she talks about arranged marriages and this takes away any further hope on Kusama's part of being able to have romantic love in her life.


In 1957, she escaped to the United States, after a long correspondence with Georgia O’keeffe - wife of the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz - of whom she had discovered a book that portrayed her works. She was so impressed that she began a long correspondence that lasted years, until she moved, at which time she was able to meet her personally.

The first years in America were very hard, Yayoi clashed with a society in which the art scene is dominated by men and abstract expressionism. Those were very hard years, with no money to feed herself and a few dollars to buy colors and canvases. After about 3 years, however, Kusama begins to see the results of her work and begins to exhibit in some major galleries.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net, 1959, Christie's
Self Obliteration 1968 © Yayoi Kusama

Her first works Infinity Nets, large monochrome canvases capture the attention of art critics, then it's time for Self Obliteration, entire walls, objects or bodies covered with polka dots, in which the artist reduced herself to nothingness.. In the 70s it was time for three-dimensional works, the Soft Sculptures, in which he portrayed large male genital organs in repetition. That of infinite repetition is Yayoi's key to reading and personal release, the artist completely vanishes in the representation of polka dots or in the neurotic repetition of fouls or other figures. In these repetitions she finds her hallucination, her anxieties and fears that have been rooted in her mind for years and find cure only in artistic externalization.

 wood, mirrors, plastic, acrylic, LEDs, glass, and aluminum. Collection of the artist. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore; Victoria Miro, London; David Zwirner, New York.
Yayoi Kusama, Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, 2009 © Yayoi Kusam, Photograph by Cathy Carvera.

Then the Infinity Mirror Rooms were born, in which her art is multiplied through the use of mirrors applied to all the walls of the room, with the ultimate aim of infinitely reflecting the work of art, thus allowing the viewer to walking in the middle, canceling and becoming one with the work, thus experiencing a complete fusion that at times can give senses of hallucination, pushing the visitor not to tolerate this experience for long periods of time.

Pic taken from Lifestyle Asia https://www.lifestyleasia.com/kl/culture/art-design/tate-modern-will-be-featuring-yayoi-kusamas-infinity-rooms-for-a-whole-year/
Yayoi Kusama, Chandelier of Grief - Swarovski Cryst, 2016

The Infinity Mirror Rooms are a clear representation of Yayoi's mental labyrinth, which in experiencing it, at times takes the form of a mental prison, a hallucination that drives you out of your mind, a way the artist has to share with her audience what she experiences every day. Over the course of her career, the Japanese artist has produced more than twenty distinct Infinity Mirror Rooms. Each of these works creates kaleidoscopic environments that give the illusion of entering an infinite space. The Infinity Mirrored Rooms are also the pretext for Kusama to deepen her interest in experiential practices and virtual spaces.


Yayoi Kusama – Narcissus Garden, 1966, 1500 mirrored plastic balls, Venice Biennale
Yayoi Kusama – Narcissus Garden, 1966, 1500 mirrored plastic balls, Venice Biennale

The height of her success has been achieved during the 33rd Venice Biennale in 1966, during which although Kusama had not been officially invited to exhibit, she still received support from Lucio Fontana who helped her both morally and financially, and she had the permission of the president of the Biennale Committee, to have 1,500 mass-produced silver plastic spheres directly on the lawn outside the Italian Pavilion. The reflective and shimmering spheres created a splendid reflective and infinite field in which the images of visitors, the surrounding architecture and the landscape were endlessly repeated, distorted. The installation takes the name of Narcissus Garden because when it is observed, the viewer is forced to look at his/her own reflection, thus forcing a direct confrontation with his/her own vanity and ego.


Speaking of vanity and ego, Yayoi Kusama has been a part of the world of fashion since her arrival in the United States in 1957. She left Japan with a suitcase full of kimono that she intended to sell to support her work as an artist. In the 1960s she founded the Kusama Fashion Company, whose dresses with polka dots, nets and cutouts were sold to prestigious New York stores. Also famous is the collaboration that took place in 2012 with Marc Jacobs of Luis Vuitton.

Here on the left a collaboration with George Clooney for W Magazine. The cover sees the Hollywood heartthrob wearing an Armani suit as customised by the reclusive Japanese artist.

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