London’s Hayward Gallery presents a three-storey spectacle of the late Louise Bourgeois in the last two decades of her life. This is an exhibition of soft fabrics and brittle emotions, gently yellowing threads, and barely mellowing feelings of hurt and regret. Sculptures, busts, tapestries and yes, an enormous steel spider, are witness to an emotional journey through the artist’s life, and her roles as daughter, mother and lover.
TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Hayward Gallery
Over 90 works are gathered in what amounts to a full survey of the latter years of Louise Bourgeois’ life, a time when the artist harnessed and repurposed the clothing, soft fabrics and household linens that silently, and uselessly surrounded her, and breathed new life into them as art forms. In so doing, the ripping, shredding and sewing together were active efforts of re-engagement with her own chronology and persona, a re-stitching together of psychological narratives and personal histories. Hanging from ceilings and displayed on plinths, splayed, dangling bodies and woollen busts signal themes of abandonment, vulnerability, rage and mute acceptance. These assembled cloth jigsaws are milestone sentinels of life’s indignities, traumas and slow partings.
To quote the 1990 movie Home Alone: “How you feel about your family is a complicated thing”. Louise Bourgeois’ spiders could be the poster for that aphorism. At Hayward Gallery, the looming spider is a protector and shield. Like the artist’s mother, Josephine Fauriaux, the spider is a weaver; but the spider is also a predator, a cannibal and entrapper. In Spider (1997) we find the arachnid in full flow as the malevolent haven, crouching atop a cage of glass eggs wrapped in fabric, the artist’s favourite perfume and a stopped clock.
Miss Havisham-like links between fabrics, sewing and lost time and missed opportunities abound here, as do other literary allusions. The prettiest works of the exhibition may well be the suite of 16 mixed media on cloth titled Eugénie Grandet (2009)—the namesake of Honoré de Balzac’s 1833 novel telling of a daughter oppressed by a miserly, hypocritical father. The printed explanation describes Bourgeois’ own feelings pointedly “I have a great longing for revenge against my father who tried to make me into a Eugénie Grandet”.
This would not be Louise Bourgeois without significant ambiguities, however. If history is more or less bunk (as Henry Ford once said), then personal history is not above suspicion. In Ode à la Bièvre (2007), a 25-page book of screenprint on fabric, the artist’s recollections on her father summon nostalgia, regret and longing more than bitterness or recrimination: “I had gone back to Antony with my children to see the house where I had grown up and where the river Bièvre flowed through the backyard. But the river was gone. Only the trees that my father had planted along its edge remained as witness.”
Accusation is not Bourgeois’ primary modus operandi in any case. She does not shy from introspection, as she circles back to life events such as the birth of her youngest son, Alain. Creating a series of sculptures in fabric of herself as a pregnant woman, Bourgeois explores why her son came to be known as the “reticent child”. The viewer surveys these before a concave, funhouse mirror, which nods with gloomy cheer to the skewed visuals and willing self-deceptions of memory. The pink, fleshy depictions of her pregnancy serve up a pathetic tableau of loneliness and trepidation, a stage devoid of its main star (her son was born late, or as the artist put it: “refused to be born”). Which baby, The Reticent Child (2003) seems to ask, would not delay their arrival into this directionless, distorted scene of worry, anxiety and fragility?
Returning to yesterday means to review one’s own work in the light of experience and new perspectives. Elsewhere, the artist revisited the vertical sculptural forms that dominated her early output of the 1940s and 50s, only now rendered in soft materials. Known as progressions, Echo I (2007) and Untitled (2005) point onwards and upwards in vertical ascent, with a gentle tenderness which is one of the few clues to the creeping inclination of age to dull the sharp thrusts of youth. In the words of Lord Byron’s So We’ll Go No More a Roving (1817): “For the sword outwears its sheath, And the soul wears out the breast, And the heart must pause to breathe, And love itself have rest.”
What was the underlying purpose to this latter period of the artist’s life? To confess perhaps, to catalogue regrets, giving way to a natural human tendency to look backwards as life draws to a conclusion. Repairs in the Sky (1999), a small work of lead, steel, fabric and thread may provide the answer. On a small metal panel hung on the wall, visible, open wounds have been hastily, messily and only partially sewn up with thread. Should these wounds one day heal, the impression would still be horrific, the marks of trauma, pain and violence still uppermost. The rudimentary, battlefield surgery of needle and thread has been of little practical and no cosmetic benefit. Who can repair the sky anyway? Perhaps the artist, by regathering the threads of her past life, sewed with little hope of closure or redemption, but as a compulsion, and with no resolution on the horizon in this world.
Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child
9 February – 15 May 2022
Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London
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