Yayoi Kusama’s life story is being retold in graphic novel form

Illustrator Elisa Macellari traces the life of Yayoi Kusama, in a polka-studded graphic novel that delves into the story behind her career as an artist

The novel begins with a ten-year-old Kusama, in the fields of her home town of Matsumoto and surrounded by talking flowers. The narrative follows the artist’s decision to leave Japan, her fractious relationship with her parents, and the gradual development of her style and artistic approach over the course of several decades.

Macellari also recounts Kusama’s mental health problems, using her illustrations to express the artist’s experience of hallucinations, as well as the dark period Kusama experienced after moving back to Japan after 20 years in the US, and relocating to a psychiatric hospital.

In the introduction to the novel, Macellari writes of her fascination with the artist, and how a retrospective held in Madrid prompted her to find out more about the artist’s life, away from her most famous pieces.

“I have enormous compassion for her suffering and find the transformation of her psychic disorders into a form of self-medication extraordinary, given it reaches such beautiful heights,” she adds.

Perhaps it’s the insight into Kusama’s struggles with her mental health, or the chance to visit parts of the artist’s life so far removed from her famous polka dot and pumpkin artworks, but the novel feels surprisingly intimate.

Macellari’s crisp illustrations carry the story onwards at a brisk pace, while double page spreads mark moments for readers to pause and reflect. In an industry overstuffed by big coffee table art monographs, this feels like a far more engaging way to peek inside an artist’s inner life.

Kusama: The Graphic Novel is published by Laurence King Publishing, priced £14.99