Louise Bourgeois: Autobiographical Prints

Publication: The Times.  September 2017

THERE are few more intensely autobiographical artists than Louise Bourgeois. The French artist, who was born in Paris in 1911 and died in New York, aged 98, mined her own experience and psyche for material; she delved deep, coming up with some disturbing, lasting imagery.  Perhaps she’s best known for her enormous, terrifying steel and bronze spider, Maman, (2000) editioned in several locations  around the world.

Maman (mother) references Bourgeois’ parent, who ran a tapestry business, with its associations of weaving, sewing and protectiveness ¾ as well as having more obvious sinister qualities. It reveals a deep ambiguity not only about her mother, but also Bourgeois’ father, who conducted a 10-year-long affair with the family’s live-in English tutor, which her mother condoned. As a result Bourgeois harboured a life-long sense of betrayal by both parents.

This touring exhibition, organised by London’s Hayward Gallery, of drypoint and aquatint prints, is a long way from the monumentalism of Maman. But although it’s intimate and modest, its size and scale belies the impact and immediacy of these images, all of which were made in the last decade, or so, of Bourgeois’ life, when she was well into her eighties.

Her drawing style is intense and childlike so that there is an immediate tension between what is portrayed and how this is achieved.  Drypoint is a form of etching, where a needle is used to scratch the surface of a metal plate, which is then inked and printed onto a surface. The medium is painstaking and requires persistence.

Here many of her themes are revisited,  with an emergent narrative of domestic  confinement, combined with childhood anxiety.  Untitled (Children in Tub) and Untitled (Toilette) (both 1994) hint at menace and unease, while Paternity, which shows a male figure seated with a baby in swaddling, presents an isolated and forlorn image.

Unlike Maman’s oblique references to her mother’s profession, there’s a series of more direct images, such as one that shows two pairs of scissors, one large the other small ¾ a persistent echo of Bourgeois ‘mother and child’ theme. Mosquito – the nearest to Maman’s blend of horror and love – shows a mosquito with a human head and torso alongside a smaller insect. It’s impossible to tell if the insect’s role is nurturing or predatory.

Although this show presents Bourgeois in a flat-packed format, with uniform frames and print sizes, it conveys something of her enormous impact in the last decades of her life.