Her family made their living from the cultivation of plant seeds; there is still a plant nursery on the site of Kusama’s childhood home. Hers was a conventional upbringing, and when Kusama began to express enthusiasm in making art, her family were not wholly supportive of her interest. Her mother in particular discouraged her young daughter’s dreams of becoming a professional artist, trying to steer her instead towards a conventional path of traditional Japanese housewife. But Kusama’s persistence was strong. When her mother tore her drawings away from her, Kusama made more. When she could not afford to buy art supplies, she foraged in the house to find suitable materials with which to work. Some of the early paintings in the Tate Modern exhibition were made using jute sacking as a support.
Kusama’s early artistic ambitions were curtailed not only by her family. After the outbreak of the Pacific War, she, like other school-age children in her hometown, was called upon to work for up to twelve hours a day in a parachute factory. Despite this punishing work, she managed to find the time and the resources to continue drawing. An early notebook in the exhibition features page after page of beautifully detailed sketches of peonies made at this time.
Kusama began publicly exhibiting her work in group exhibitions in her teens and in 1948, after the War’s end, Kusama convinced her parents to allow her to go to Kyoto to study painting in the Japanese modernist Nihonga style. She continued her studies in Kamakura City but soon grew tired of the conventional approaches of her teachers. Her great ambition and talent were recognised when she began staging solo exhibitions in her home town in the early 1950s.
Kusama’s achievement as a woman artist, coming as she did from a traditional background in a conservative part of Japan in the early part of the twentieth century, cannot be underestimated. It was her own unwavering drive and confidence in her talent that enabled her to forge her extraordinary career from such humble beginnings.
Yayoi Kusama is at Tate Modern until 5 June 2012