Yayoi Kusama has created a dreamy illustrated version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, bringing the dark fairy tale to life through her signature breed of dizzying black-and-white abstractions. And, of course, lots and lots and lots of polka dots.
If you’re not familiar with the original story of The Little Mermaid, the one written by Andersen in 1837, be warned: it’s a bit darker than you might expect.
The tale starts off with a mermaid desperate to walk on land who falls madly in love with a handsome prince after rescuing him from nearly drowning. She strikes up a bargain with a sea witch, who gives the mermaid legs in exchange for her tongue and voice. The deal is: If the prince falls in love with the mermaid, she will absorb part of his soul and the two will live happily ever after. If not, she will die of a broken heart and dissolve into the sea.
When the prince sees the mermaid, he’s immediately enamored of her beauty and dancing skills. However, he eventually marries another princess, believing her to be the one who saved him from a watery grave. The mermaid, on the verge of death, then learns if she stabs the prince and lets his blood spill on her feet, she’ll return safely to the sea as a mermaid once again. But, overcome with love for him, she cannot, and chooses death. When she dies, the mermaid dissipates into oceanic foam, transcending the earthly world as a “daughter of the air.”
The macabre tale ends with an individual surrendering herself to merge with the infinite expanse of the sea and sky, echoing the spirit of iconic Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama, who has devoted her life’s work to illustrating this very phenomenon.
Since she was 10 years old, the now 87-year-old artist has created wild visions teeming with polka dots. For the artist, these dots represent the individual and the whole, a single person and the entire universe, the sun and the moon, atoms and molecules.
”A polka dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm,” the artist wrote in her book Manhattan Suicide Addict. “Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka dots become movement ... Polka dots are a way to infinity.”
Through her dotty paintings and immersive, sculptural installations, Kusama invites viewers to follow the way of the polka dot, obliterating ourselves to become part of infinity’s seething fabric. “Polka dots can’t stay alone,” the artist famously said. “When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environments.”
Andersen’s tale is the perfect springboard for Kusama’s fantastical imagery, which features women’s silhouettes abstracted into spindly tessellations that seem to proliferate all on their own. At once whimsical and foreboding, the images perfectly capture the twisted imagination of The Little Mermaid’s writer.
When asked by the Louisiana Museum of Art, who published the book, what Hans Christian Andersen means to her, Kusama answered: “A dream of my heart.” She then described the book’s personal significance in a truly Kusama-esque way. “I want to be a mermaid. I set all of my hopes for future on mermaid, which is a symbol of all the good hearts and love.”
If anyone has achieved mermaid status in her lifetimes, Ms. Kusama, it is you.
The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen & Yayoi Kusama: A Fairy Tale of Infinity and Love Forever will be available for purchase July 26, 2016, from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.