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Under the Apple and the Pear: Of Edwardian Arts and Kusama Yayoi

As I read several tediously long articles to alleviate the boredom of isolation, I came across one describing the life and artwork of Kusuma Yayoi. An acclaimed Japanese artist, her most significant achievement seemed to be having entered herself into the psychiatric ward of a Tokyo hospital. The words used are "psychiatric ward," but they might as well have been "mental asylum", "lunatic asylum", or "bedlam". Search though I did, not one description of her artwork caught my notice.

As I read several tediously long articles to alleviate the boredom of isolation, I came across one describing the life and artwork of Kusuma Yayoi. An acclaimed Japanese artist, her most significant achievement seemed to be having entered herself into the psychiatric ward of a Tokyo hospital. The words used are "psychiatric ward," but they might as well have been "mental asylum", "lunatic asylum", or "bedlam". Search though I did, not one description of her artwork caught my notice.

However, the sentence "mental illness is not only presented as the origin of Kusama's creativity..." certainly did. Upon reading this sentence, the first thing to enter my mind was the contemporary romanticization of mental illness; the unwelcome whack-a-mole, if you will, of oblivious fourteen-year-olds claiming to possess serious mental disorders on that damned plague we call Tik Tok. I suspect that such a lax attitude towards mental illness pervaded Kusama’s art world as well.

What else could my literature buffed, sonnet carrying, neuron firing brain do but make the immediate connection to A.S. Byatt, an author as obsessed with fairy tales, myths, and systematically dismantling the stupendously harmful tropes of mental health so prevalent in creative spheres?

It's safe to say that A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book is every fairy-tale enthusiast and arts and crafts buff's wet dream. It cleverly conceals the deep, dark depths of its content with quite the misleading title, forcing her readers to question madness, mental illness, and a plethora of burning questions. At what point does a scientist become a "mad scientist"? Must a writer cross the threshold of sanity to be considered great? Is madness necessary for creative originality? Where does one draw the line between passion, talent, manic obsession and an illness?

I can hardly call myself a connoisseur of creative fervor. I cannot lose myself in the thralls of painting a portrait. Yet I came quite close to experiencing a shadow of it in Byatt's play-by-play of Edwardian England. It is an era where conservatism invades new age liberalism and innovation. Here, suffragettes protest amidst tightening corsets and tightening legislation. Twentieth century art nouveau painter Klimt experiments with form and sensuality as European politics worsens. Byatt tugs on the puppet strings of uncanny caricatures to propel the story along: Olive Wellwood the fairytale writer, Benedict Fludd the potter, Imogen Fludd the silversmith, and Anslem Stern the creepy puppeteer. 

The precise, detailed prose is nothing short of astounding, almost akin to poetry. I find myself sitting by Olive Wellwood as her fingers fly across the page, spinning stories just as her ancestors spun tapestries in the days of yore. She is a veritable Mother Goose surrounded by her doting husband, loyal spinster sister, and brood of decidedly English children. Readers soon find that Olive’s stories bear an eerie similarity to the private lives, experiences and secret wishes of her children.

But surely, the thrilling results warrant such an invasion? And who are we to judge if Benedict Fludd's pottery, the sculpted forms of human bodies, bearing disturbing similarity to his daughters? Who are we to say that Imogen's marital relationship with her once-guardian is odd when her newfound happiness evokes extensive improvements in her artistic career?

Perhaps I and others, in our limited experience, are simply ignorant of the emotions and efforts that go into wrenching mud, ink, glass, linseed oil and gloss into something otherworldly, something to be admired by creatures who practice rationality and thus call any artistic attempt the work of "fervour", or in crasser terms, "madness". Byatt, however, in subtle digs worthy of Jane Austen herself, spares no time in driving home that the existence of the Mad Artist and its romanticization is troublesome at least and deranged at worst, burying artistic talent under mounds of stereotypes. After all, “Artistic Madness” certainly wasn’t the excuse for all those brilliant pieces of art with history's name etched upon them.

It is one thing to claim that the artist reflects the madness of society through artistic mediums, and thus, are themselves condemned as “mad”.  Stating and idealising severe mental illness to perpetuate creativity is a far graver matter.

Such is the case of Kusama Yayoi. Relishing in the intricate painted dots, the webs of splattered ink converging to form delicate floral motifs — it’s heart-breaking to think her mental illness overshadows her raw skill. It’s hard to believe that an internationally recognised woman with such immense talents could have her skill attributed to misfiring chemical cannons in her brain, rather than the craft she has strived to perfect. Is she really her mental illness? Is her craft the fruit of the maddened branch? Wouldn’t mental illness rather be an influence rather than the origin of her work?

This concept is mirrored in The Children’s Book by contrasting the master and his apprentice, Philip Warren. Spending nearly half his time sketching the pottery in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Philip’s work reaches an expertise few artisans achieve in their lifetime, in the span of a few years. While Benedict Fludd destroys his creations in fits of uncontrollable rage, it is Philip who saves the shards and pieces giving them new life. Philip may have a rocky past of his own, yet Byatt illustrated his genius as derived from raw skill. He clambers and crawls his way out of the soot and into the sunlight. It is Philip who calms Fludd down from fits of anger, and who saves him from catastrophe. It is Philip who remains “sane” throughout the book, as untreated madness precipitates the rest of the casts’ downfall. Olive Wellwood’s oldest son commits suicide after his mother takes it a step too far. Imogen Fludd enters a pseudo-incestuous relationship with a man thrice her age. Anslem Stern falls to the political machination of a Germany at the brink of war. 

I wonder whether these conclusions would have persisted had Byatt set the story in the twenty-first century instead of the Edwardian Era, where psychiatry and psychotherapy, Jung and the bits of acceptable Freud would have identified and treated blatant mental illness rather than have it seen as a “symptom of artistic expression”. Would her characters’ art have been affected or would they have not? In turn, would Kusama Yayoi have had her art interpreted in newer ways than simply through the lenses of mental illness, if treatment and not romanticization was common modern-day practice? 

I cannot predict possibilities, but it is quite clear that the spectrum of perception, artistry, analysis, and medical treatment is contingent on the historical context.

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Five 2022

2022 EDITION FIVE 'VOULEZ-VOUS' AVAILABLE NOW!

Edition 5 is all dolled up, adorned with student art, pretty words and scandelous hot-takes. Read it now!

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