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signed, signed in Japanese, titled, titled in Japanese and dated 'Yayoi Kusama 2003 "BUTTERFLIES"' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
9 ½ x 13 1⁄8in. (24.2 x 33.3cm.)
Painted in 2003
Galleria Col, Osaka.
Acquired from the above by the present owner circa 2003.
Further Details
This work is accompanied by a registration card issued by Yayoi Kusama Inc.

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Lot Essay

Three butterflies flutter over a surface of mosaic-like shards in Yayoi Kusama’s Butterflies (2003), their spread wings each revealing exquisite patterns of orange, red, white and blue spots. Like her ubiquitous, rotund pumpkin motif, the butterfly constitutes one of the subjects favoured by the artist following her return to Japan in 1973. Admired for their fragile beauty and spiritual significance, the creatures’ wings in many ways fuse with Kusama’s own mesmeric style. Comprising an iridescent assortment of colours and hues, her paintings bear a similarly diaphanous and lustred quality. The present work’s intricately tessellated background—a flattened plane of biomorphic triangles and dots—sprawls and propagates into infinite space like cells under a microscope. Repeated in an ‘all-over’ method, the shapes evoke the artist’s celebrated polka dots, and exhibit the enduring legacy of her ‘Infinity Net’ paintings, which first won her critical acclaim in New York in the late 1950s. Famously inspired by the hallucinations she has experienced since her adolescence, Kusama’s paintings are alive with unique perceptual effects. In an intimate figurative scene, Butterflies presents the artist’s spectacular, pulsating vision.

Kusama’s fascination with the polka dot is inextricable from her experience and appreciation of the world. ‘Our earth is only one polka dot among millions of others’, she has said. ‘We must forget ourselves with polka dots. We must lose ourselves in the ever-advancing stream of eternity’ (Y. Kusama quoted in L. Hoptman et al., Yayoi Kusama, London 2001, p. 103). In the present painting, her pleasure in nature and its abundant variety of forms is palpable. Each individual butterfly wing is painstakingly rendered in acrylic. They open and unfurl into patches of exuberant, spotted technicolour. The creatures cluster around a leafy frond, delicately articulated with a jagged green border. Butterflies is characteristic of the artist’s later oeuvre. Art historian Lynn Zelevansky—curator of Kusama’s major retrospective exhibition that toured the United States and Japan in 1998-1999—noted that the artist’s work became smoother, more orderly, figurative, and ‘above all, more cheerful’ following her return to Japan in 1973 after sixteen years in America (L. Zelevansky quoted in Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective. A Bouquet of Love I Saw in the Universe, exh. cat. Gropius Bau, Berlin 2021, p. 292). There is indeed a lightness to these subsequent paintings, which often feature joyful, concrete motifs: flowers, cherries, mushrooms, shells and fish.

Unpretentious and childlike, these organic objects likely speak to Kusama’s early memories of growing up in the rural provincial town of Matsumoto, and of formative visits to the botanical greenhouses and meadows of her grandparents’ plant nursery. A particularly beloved subject from the 1980s onwards, the butterfly possesses spiritual significance in Japanese culture. A symbol of metamorphosis and transformation, it is believed by many to transport the soul between terrestrial and celestial realms after death. Its associated mythology pertains to Kusama’s own practice, her deep and enduring meditations on the self, the cosmos and eternity. Her sensitivity to the fragile creature is indeed a personal as well as artistic one. Just over thirty years before the execution of the present painting, she had titled a canvas of ten butterflies suspended around a single pink flower Self-Portrait (1972). Popularised in the Japanese nursery rhyme ‘Chōchō, chōchō’ (‘Butterfly, butterfly’), the brightly coloured insect can be seen to further encapsulate childhood comfort and nostalgia. Combining meticulous, figurative elements with the hypnotic traces of her earlier abstract nets, Butterflies is a powerful example of Kusama’s late visual idiom, and her spellbound adoration of the natural world.

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