Les Grandes Dames: The Parallel Lives of Groundbreakers Yayoi Kusama & Veuve Clicquot

  • Words: Lucy Thorpe

Yayoi Kusama and Madame Clicquot were pioneers. Kusama in art, Clicquot in Champagne. Despite having all the odds stacked against them, the two women became phenomenally successful, using their craft to reign in industries where men pulled the strings. To coincide with the launch of their Veuve Clicquot collaboration, in this FRONTPAGE we dive into the stories of Kusama and Clicquot and celebrate their groundbreaking achievements.

“Bring on Picasso, bring on Matisse, bring on anybody!” Yayoi Kusama once famously pronounced. “I would stand up to them all with a single polka dot!”

Few things appear as harmless as polka dots, but for Kusama, they are a weapon. The minimal motif, which was the subject of her hallucinations as a child, is so powerful to her because it symbolizes (literally) everything. “Dots are a symbol of the world, the cosmos, the earth is a dot, the moon, the sun, the stars are all made up of dots. You and me, we are dots,” she said in an interview with the BBC in 2012.

Over her 70-year career, Kusama has used the polka dot to infiltrate countless spaces — from her internet-breaking exhibition at David Zwirner’s New York gallery last year, to the Champagne world (by covering Veuve Clicquot’s portrait in them in 2013), and even the front of the New York Stock Exchange, when she used them to coat naked performers in the ’60s. Kusama’s visual signature is one that has given her a titanic stature in the art world, which, despite it being a century after the modernist height of the Picassos and Matisses she vowed to take on, remains an institution largely dominated by white men in their mold.

Never one to shy away from a new opportunity nor a new medium, over the years the in-demand artist has teamed up with a number of brands, including Louis Vuitton and Lancôme. Now, she has partnered with Veuve Clicquot. Called “My Heart That Blooms in the Darkness of the Night,” the collaboration takes the form of a bottle of “La Grande Dame” (the great lady), its iconic yellow label enlivened with Kusama’s signature polka dots and, for 100 editions, encased in a handmade, swirling, floral sculpture. At first, it might seem like a surprising team-up, but scrape below the surface and there’s a lot more to it. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, the person to whom the Champagne brand owes its success, was, like Kusama, a groundbreaker.

Veuve Clicquot

Clicquot, who lived 150 years before Kusama was born, flummoxed the male-dominated wine industry when she revived her late husband’s wine business, then on the brink of bankruptcy, and built an empire that would lay the foundations for the modern Champagne industry. She is to thank for the first known vintage and the invention of the Maubeuge bottle, which is still used today by most Champagne houses.

There are many parallels between Kusama and Clicquot’s lives. Both were raised under the rigid societal conventions that prevailed in the bourgeoisie of the 19th and 20th centuries. Both used their craft to spectacularly smash seemingly insurmountable barriers to enter their respective industries. And, despite all odds, they both became so successful that their contributions would change the art and Champagne worlds forever. But what feels so fitting about the collaboration is that it is a coming together of two of the most accomplished grandes dames in their respective fields.

To understand just how visionary these two women were, we need to take into account the societies they were raised in. Clicquot was born in France in 1777, shortly before the French Revolution. She came of age in its wake when the Napoleonic Code was enforced across France, putting in place laws that would hinder women’s rights for the following 150 years. Most notably, it stated that women had to be “obedient” to their husbands and didn’t have the right to own property, work, or do anything much except exist diligently by their husbands’ sides. By 1929, when Kusama was born in Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture, Japan, women were still not legally allowed to vote (although in other countries this was now the case) and were discouraged from working so that they could take on domestic duties.

What allowed Cliquot to slip through the cracks of societal conventions was the fact that she was a widow, which is where the name Veuve (“window” in French) Clicquot comes from. This gave her more freedom to take on a role other than that of the housewife, even at a time when she couldn’t legally open a bank account. She was 27 years old when her husband passed away; she seized the opportunity to take on his struggling wine business, persuading her father-in-law to invest her inheritance in the business. For years, she would struggle to get it off the ground, hindered by the naval blockade and dwindling funds. Eventually, she would perfect the Pinot Noir blend, clarity, and delicate bubbles that make Veuve, Veuve, and capture the taste buds of Russian oligarchs and the New York elite alike. “I wish my brand to rank first in New York like in St. Petersburg,” she wrote determinedly in one of her letters.

The audacity of Clicquot’s behavior is much like Kusama’s decision to go against her conservative mother, who wouldn’t allow her to paint and instead forced her to spy on her father and his suspected mistress. At 28, desperate to progress her work and with few opportunities in Japan, she did the 1950s equivalent to sliding into someone’s DMs and blindly wrote a letter to Georgia O’Keeffe, asking her for advice. “Come to New York” was her response — and she did. “I promised myself that I would conquer New York and make my name in the world with my passion for the arts and my creative energy,” Kusama said.

Veuve Clicquot

Moving continents back then wasn’t like jumping a flight today. She didn’t know anyone in New York, and if it didn’t work out, going back home wasn’t an option: “My mother did not want me to be an artist. When I left for New York, she told me never to set foot in her house again,” Kusama disclosed in an interview with The Guardian.

In 1958, Kusama arrived in New York with dollar bills sewn into her kimono and began what would be a frustrating 15-year stint in the city. At the time, the New York art world was dominated almost exclusively by white men, and as a female artist, let alone a female artist of color, there were very few opportunities. As author Erik La Prade explains in the documentary Kusama: Infinity: “Women could be included in group shows, not one-person shows. Even some of the women dealers wouldn’t show women.”

Kusama discovered that first-hand, immediately. She began cold-calling galleries to no avail and even sent watercolors to gallerists that were later returned. Her first chance to show her paintings came via the Brata Gallery, a space designed to promote overlooked artists, who offered to show five works from her “Infinity Nets” series. These pieces challenged the abstract expressionist movement of the time and caught the attention of respected artist and critic Donald Judd. They formed a close relationship and she later introduced him to Dick Bellamy, who ran the Green Gallery. Judd was invited to join the gallery; Kusama was not.

Later, Bellamy did invite her to show one of her soft-sculpture works at an exhibition alongside an all-male line-up that counted Judd, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Claes Oldenburg. The opportunity soon took a sour turn when Oldenburg, who had then never explored the typically feminine craft of sewing, showed an entire series of soft sculptures all too reminiscent of Kusama’s earlier work at a solo exhibition later that year. According to Kusama, Oldenburg’s wife came to her at the opening and said, “I’m sorry, Yayoi.”

And it didn’t stop there. Not long after, she showed her first real installation at the Gertrude Stein Gallery. “Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show” consisted of a boat covered in her soft phallic sculptures, which she photographed to create a repetitive print wallpaper to cover the floor, walls, and ceiling. In her documentary, Kusama shares that Warhol came to the exhibition and told her how fantastic he thought it was. Three years later, he showed a wallpaper featuring a repetitive print of a cow at the Leo Castelli gallery. “I was very surprised,” she exclaims, “Andy picked up my idea and copied it for his show.” She went back to her studio and covered her windows so no one could see in.

Eventually, she moved to Italy to pursue opportunities in Europe, now more frequent than those in America. But finally, depressed and temporarily defeated, she returned to Japan in 1973 and almost disappeared off the scene until her renaissance in 1989.

Veuve Clicquot

What, above all, has made these women true visionaries, is their ability to intersect art, creative satisfaction, and commercial demands. Clicquot’s invention of a rack to improve “remuage” significantly sped up the process of removing sediment from the bottle, allowing Champagne to be produced on a much larger scale. Until then, the beverage had almost solely been for the enjoyment of Russian oligarchs, but Clicquot’s revolutionary method made it available for mass consumption. Long before the concept of marketing even existed, she understood that the experience of consuming should delight all the senses and that the label, the bottle, and the box all played a part in enjoying a glass of Veuve. “Our wine must be both flattering on the eyes and on the palate,” she is reported to have said in 1828.

Despite all the prejudice that Kusama and Clicquot faced, the countless times they would’ve been told “no” and been discouraged from pursuing their ambitions based on their gender, the message that they want to convey with the collaboration is one of hope, optimism, and a celebration of life. Kusama, whose work has been a form of therapy to deal with her traumatic upbringing, always wanted her art to inspire positivity: “My art was made to change people’s minds; I hope that it can make the world more peaceful.”

Clicquot, too, didn’t dwell on her hardships, and in a letter to a grandchild towards the end of her life, she wrote: “The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity.” Centuries after they were penned, these words ring truer than ever.

  • Words: Lucy Thorpe
  • Header Image: © YAYOI KUSAMA