When Kusama's pumpkin meets Foujita's roses: 3 paintings of nature to be offered in Hong Kong in April

Throughout history, both in the East and the West, plants have been a common subject in art. Artists from different times and places have expressed their unique perspectives on nature, ranging from classical realistic still-life paintings to contemporary artworks infused with abstract elements.

In the upcoming Spring Auction at Poly Auction Hong Kong, a collection of rare plant-themed artworks will be featured. Among them are "Queen of Polka Dots" Yayoi Kusama's anthropomorphic masterpiece, Red Pumpkin; 20th-century Japanese-French artist Foujita Tsuguharu's elegant Roses in a Vase; and Chinese contemporary artist Zhang Enli's captivating blend of humans and nature in The Forest (2).

Lot 113 | Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) | Red Pumpkin, Acrylic on canvas
Painted in 1989
38 x 45.5 cm

  • Ravenel Taipei, 2 December 2012, Lot 728
  • Poly Auction Hong Kong, 30 September 2018, Lot 152
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$7,500,000 - 8,500,000

The pumpkin holds a central theme in the artistry of the renowned artist, having appeared in her paintings, abstract works, and installations, almost omnipresent.

Yayoi Kusama's deep connection with pumpkins can be traced back to her vivid childhood hallucinations. She was born in 1929 in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, Japan, into a well-to-do family that operated a plant nursery. During her early years, Kusama experienced hallucinations involving everyday plants, particularly pumpkins and flowers. She recollects, “I first saw pumpkins when I was at elementary school; at that time, my grandfather had taken me to a seed collection field ... and it was there I saw a pumpkin as big as a person's head, and it animatedly started to talk to me.”

During the war years and after, Kusama had to consume pumpkins as her daily sustenance until she grew weary of them. However, pumpkins eventually became the beloved subject of her art. She explains, "I love pumpkins. They hold a spiritual space from my childhood, bringing a poetic sense of peace and tranquillity to my heart. Pumpkins speak to me, emanating a solemn and sacred spiritual state. They embody the source of joy in life that is shared by all humanity. That's why I continue to create pumpkins."

Kusama transforms her vulnerability into strength, capturing her profound hallucinatory experiences on canvas and creating a kaleidoscopic world filled with countless polka dots and infinity nets.  Through her ongoing exploration of polka dots, she rediscovers inner tranquillity and finds a way to express the tension of her inner conflicts. Today, the pumpkin holds a nearly sacred position in her artistic realm, almost becoming another self for her.

Yayoi Kusama in her childhood years

The Red Pumpkin offered by Poly Auction Hong Kong dates back to 1989. This particular year holds significant meaning for Kusama, as it marked her first international retrospective exhibition at the New York Contemporary Art Center, signifying a milestone in her return to the global art scene.

Distinguishing itself from her other pumpkin artworks, this Red Pumpkin possesses unique characteristics. The composition showcases the iconic pumpkin adorned with Kusama's trademark repetition of dots. It is positioned in the centre against a black background surrounded by nets. What sets this pumpkin apart from others is its anthropomorphic quality and the use of five distinct colours. 

This pumpkin appears more personified and animated than others that are more portrayed as typical still life, with its two split "legs" seemingly allowing the pumpkin to dance towards the viewer. 

Among all the personified pumpkin artworks that can be traced, only one other piece shares the same dimensions as this one. This artwork directly reflects and amplifies the significance of the pumpkin residing in Kusama's heart – the same pumpkin she encountered during her childhood, which became the central inspiration for her artistic creations. 

Lot 145 | Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968) | Roses in a Vase, Oil on canvas
Painted in 1952
41.7 x 33.2 cm

  • Galerie Nichido, Tokyo, Japan
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner\

Estimate: HK$3,600,000 - 5,000,000

When it comes to Japanese art, ukiyo-e is an essential keyword that cannot be missed. Take Tsuguharu Foujita, for example, a French-Japanese artist who incorporated the unique language of ukiyo-e woodblock prints into his oil paintings. He skillfully used flowing and precise ink lines to outline his subjects, followed by delicate colouring, creating a modernist style with a distinctly Japanese aesthetic.

Foujita developed his own "milky-white nude skin technique," which gained recognition in the Paris art scene in the early 20th century, establishing him as one of the most prominent and acclaimed Asian artists of that time.

Born in Tokyo in 1886, Foujita came from a prestigious family; his father was an Army Medical Director, and his mother the daughter of a vassal of the Tokugawa shogunate during the Edo period. Growing up in a privileged environment, Foujita immersed himself in classical literature and was exposed to various art forms, including ukiyo-e.

In 1905, Foujita enrolled at what is now the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he was mentored by Kuroda Seiki, the father of Western-style painting in Japan. In 1913, at the age of 27, Foujita arrived in Paris and was deeply involved in the bohemian atmosphere of the Montparnasse art circle, rubbing shoulders with masters like Henri Matisse, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso.

Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita | Roses et Lilas (1956), Sold: HK$8,040,000, Sotheby's Hong Kong, 6 October 2020

Offered at Poly Auction Hong Kong is one of Foujita's floral paintings, Roses in a Vase. This piece was created in the 1950s, following Foujita's travels in Latin America and a period of wandering that included a brief return to Japan and over ten years of turmoil due to war. He eventually returned to Paris, embarking on the second phase of his creative career. During this period, Foujita's artistic style underwent an important shift, incorporating richer colours inspired by ukiyo-e prints into his previously simpler milky-white tone.

From Roses in a Vase, we can see that the artwork still features Foujita's classic milky-white background, but with a more vibrant color palette and refined linear structures. The stems of the roses are sharply outlined, radiating from the vase and spreading across the composition. The precise lines, reminiscent of Japanese woodblock print techniques, and the varying shades of the flower petals, achieved through Japanese ink wash techniques, combine to create a still life of flowers that blends the understated elegance of Eastern aesthetics with the language of Western painting.

Roses are a symbol of beauty in both Eastern and Western cultures. Roses in a Vase presents several types of flowers in different states, from bud and budding, to first bloom and full bloom, injecting vitality and rhythm of life into the seemingly static image. The life process of the roses, from blossoming to withering, is Foujita’s elaboration of the ever-changing time. The moment captured on the canvas represents the life of the flower, through which eternity is presented. Even though the external world is constantly changing, there is infinite vitality and meaning in the natural phenomenon.

Lot 126 | Zhang Enli (b. 1965) | The Forest (2), Oil on canvas
Painted in 2014
298 x 245 cm

  • Hauser & Wirth, London, UK
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 5,000,000

In the realm of contemporary Chinese art, flowers, plants, and trees serve as mediums of expression in the artistic creations of many artists. Zhang Enli, for instance, not only reflects his own rooting and prosperity in the artistic soil by presenting the vigorous growth of trees, but also re-examines and re-interprets the metaphor of the ancient people’s anthropomorphization of trees from a contemporary point of view.

One of the works from his Tree series, The Forest (2) stands out as the only piece in the series where the main trunk is positioned at the centre of the composition, occupying approximately one-third of the canvas' width. It is also predominantly filled with a bluish-green colour palette, incorporating both the main trunk and the intertwining branches that form the iconic grid of Zhang Enli’s paintings.

Zhang Enli

Zhang Enli, born in Jilin in the 1960s, has a passion for observing ordinary people and everyday life. With a sombre tone and vigorous brushstrokes, he captures the fluid social landscapes within an era of rapid change. Unlike many artists of his time, Zhang intentionally avoids political elements and instead focuses on expressing personal perceptions.

In 1989, Zhang Enli relocated to Shanghai, where he established a distinctive style of new expressionism. During this period, his artwork often revolved around themes such as lovers, butchers, smokers, meat markets, bars, banquets, and dance floors, capturing scenes from everyday life.

He was among the first group of Chinese contemporary artists to be represented by top galleries in China and the West. In 2007, his works were included in the collection of the Tate Modern in London.

Over time, Zhang Enli's artistic context gradually moved away from figurative representations and shifted towards emphasizing the relationship and balance between "the reproduction of reality" and "reality itself". The Tree series can be seen as a manifestation of Zhang Enli's distinct use of lines throughout different periods of his artistic journey.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 127 | Huang Yuxing (b. 1975) | Welcoming Pine, Acrylic on canvas
Painted in 2018
149.8 x 115 cm

  • Private Collection, Asia

Estimate: HK$1,800,000 - 3,000,000

Lot 132 | Chen Ke (b. 1978) | Storm is coming, Oil on canvas
Painted in 2006
160 x 160 cm

  • Primo Marella Gallery, Milan, Italy
  • Ravenel Hong Kong, 31 May 2010, Lot 36
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$800,000 - 1,200,000

Lot 124 | Yuan Jai (b. 1941) | Prosperity, Ink and colour on silk
Painted in 2013
164.4 x 48 cm
Estimate: HK$400,000 - 600,000

Lot 150 | Sha Qi (1914-2005) | Strive for Beauty, Oil on canvas
Painted in 1989
76.8 x 117.9 cm

  • Han Xiang Art Center, Taipei, Taiwan
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$500,000 - 700,000

Lot 152 | Yee Bon (1905-1995) | Lychees, Oil on board
Painted in 1973
49.9 x 59.8 cm
Estimate: HK$150,000 - 250,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Poly Auction Hong Kong
Sale: Modern and Contemporary Art
Date and Time: 7 April 2024 | 11:00 am (Hong Kong Local Time)
Number of Lots: 61