Publication: The Times
It’s almost impossible not to have a visceral reaction to the work of French-American artist, Louise Bourgeois, who died in 2010 at the age of 98. These shows, divided across two venues, give a candid view of all aspects of the nether-world of Bourgeois’ complex and neurotic psyche.
Her giant metal sculptures of spiders have been shown around the world and are undoubtedly her best known works. They have titles such as ‘Maman’, the familiar French term for ‘mother’. Know this and you are already being sucked into Bourgeois’ dark, entangled world like a fly trapped in a cobweb.
For here is a spider perhaps ten feet high. It is not cordoned off and inevitably, inexorably you are drawn towards this ugly but beautiful, safe but terrifying structure. It is metallic and engineered and fabricated with some skill. Below the spider’s mouth, just above your head, hangs an unidentifiable object.
Such eye-level environments and objects are part of Bourgeois’ skillful appropriation of her audience. Like the spider, she sucks us in to confront gruesome but fascinating objects, which are literally ‘in your face’. Ambiguous anthropomorphic forms fashioned from cloth, and stuffed like dummies, hang suspended from the ceiling, or are imprisoned within glass vitrines.
Everywhere the colour red flows through Bourgeois’ paintings, drawings and sketches, like a river of articulation or a literal stream of consciousness. It is found, for example, in Àl’infini, a series of large paintings from 2008-9, which initially look like depictions of proteins. These long biomorphic strings gradually reveal human, or rather female, forms emerging from and being subsumed by the structure of which they are part.
Red helps to form and depict numerous spirals and webs which Bourgeois drew, especially during protracted periods of insomnia. A series of 220 images from 1994-95 should not be seen as completed artworks (they were never intended for exhibition having been rescued by Bourgeois’ assistant, Jerry Gorovoy). They are part of a therapeutic process and reveal her fears, such as water (“a metaphor for the shapelessness of the night”) as well as her gestating creative ideas.
Everywhere in Bourgeois’ work there is ambiguity, dichotomy and contradiction. No ground is safe and nothing is as it seems. One of the most moving things here is the book, Ode àla Bièvre, a series of textile works fashioned from items of Bourgeois’ own clothing. The artist’s mother ran a tapestry restoration business in Antony on the River Bièvre, on the outskirts of Paris. Bourgeois’ early experiences here were to profoundly inform her later work. Returning in 2002, she discovered that the river had disappeared (town planners had diverted it into a culvert). There is an elegiac poignancy in this series of beautiful crafted objects with abstract motifs.
In the final year of her life, Bourgeois made an extraordinary series of works combining handwritten texts and imagery based on etchings. The motifs and methods (including the use of shades of deep red) are unmistakably Bourgeois. But the words are resolute, a kind of elegy to the self and a final parting:
“I give everything away/ I leave my home/ I leave the nest…”