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Pumpkin (2018)

by Yayoi Kusama (b.1929)

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama confesses to having an obsession with pumpkins that began in early childhood. She is drawn to their form (shape), colour and feel. She has abstracted (simplified) the basic elements of the pumpkin in this work to give it a rather humorous quality. But does she still manage to represent the pumpkin-ness of a pumpkin?

Growing up, the artist was surrounded by pumpkins on her family's seed farm, and she recalls dreamlike visions of them covered in dots. Kusama has spoken openly about her mental health and there is a strong association between her repetitive use of dots as a form of art therapy. She has covered pumpkins, rooms and even buildings in polka dots. The dot motif characterises her work and the idea of repetition feeds into the concept of mindfulness which is increasingly valued for improved wellbeing.  The endless repetition of dots is said to relate to big ideas about infinity and the cosmos. In this sense, her humble pumpkin could be understood in both micro terms – insofar as it relates to aspects of her personal life – and macro terms, insofar as it relates to some of the biggest ideas human beings ponder.

How do you think that the repetitive action of drawing dots could help with how a person is feeling? How could dots relate to infinity and space? Would the pumpkin be less interesting or successful if it was multi-coloured and/or modelled to look more realistic?

Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

Show your students the painting below and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe the patterns and colours they can see.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views. 

Tip: in class, you can open a full-screen version by clicking here.

 

Pumpkin (2018)

Pumpkin (2018)

 

Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • Does the pumpkin look realistic? Why or why not?
  • If the banana-ness of a banana was that it was long and curved and yellow, what would the pumpkin-ness of a pumpkin be?
  • What do the patterns remind you of?
  • Why are the dots different sizes across the pumpkin?

Suggested activity: create a repeat pattern

Task your students with doing a quick sketch of a fruit or vegetable of their choosing with a pen or pencil on an A4 piece of paper. Ask them to repeat a polka-dot pattern across the surface of their chosen food in a similar style to Kusama. They may wish to experiment with the effect first before applying it to their fruit or vegetable sketch.

Can they replicate the different rows and sizes of dots to give a three-dimensional effect?

After they have finished, ask your students to reflect on how they felt while they did the repeat pattern. Were they concentrating hard? Did they fall silent? Did they feel relaxed? What effect might such a process have on an artist?

A student mid-way through their polka-dot pattern sketch

A student mid-way through their polka-dot pattern sketch

Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

We'd suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):

Colour (and pattern)

Composition

Line

Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.

 

Comparison activity

The Kusama painting we have focused on is one of many pumpkin artworks she has created across her career. With your students, compare the two-dimensional painting with the following images of some of Kusama's pumpkin sculptures.

In order to support the discussion, you may wish to focus on the following areas of the Superpower Kit: Colour, Scale and Materials & Techniques.

 

Pumpkin sculptures at Victoria Miro gallery, 2016

Pumpkin sculptures at Victoria Miro gallery, 2016

All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016)

All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016)

 

Cross-curricular activities: Art & Design / PSHE (Health and Wellbeing)

Follow up on the earlier suggested activity by tasking your students with creating a larger coloured drawing or painting of their polka-dot fruit or vegetable. Will they use a bright colour like Kusama? Will they add in a different repeat pattern to the background?

Extending on the earlier discussions about how they felt while creating their repeat pattern, introduce the concept of mindfulness to your class and how it can improve health and wellbeing.

Explore more mindfulness and wellbeing resources for primary level on our round-up resources page.


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