Louise Bourgeois: vision of the safe uterus
Louise Bourgeois is a myth maker and storyteller. A chronicler of the self who has used her life to create narratives that speak to female desire and the body, memory and repressed trauma.
Oh what a tangled web we weave When we first train to deceive – Walter Scott
As a child of weavers, his parents ran a tapestry restoration workshop in Paris, supervised by his mother. However, despite appearances, the household of this prosperous bourgeois family is troubled by domestic tensions, because Louise Bourgeois’ governess is also her father’s mistress. This trauma would become central to her autobiographical work with her explorations of motherhood, female infidelity, abandonment and trust. This first house would become his entire universe, with worlds turned into worlds to create a prism through which all future worlds would have heightened meaning.
This new exhibition at Hayward establishes the female body in her work as both subject and object. A site of fear, derision and nostalgia, pleasure and pain. Upon entering the first gallery, the visitor comes across a rack of vintage underwear. Their silky texture and fleshy colors suggest the ultra-feminine, but also the transgressive. Shirts and breeches have a Proustian ability to evoke the half-forgotten smell of perspiration mixed with cheap talc and bodily fluids. Other clothes hang like the shells of abandoned insects in cages and closed rooms made of wire mesh or dented vintage doors. Entitled Cells, there is a sense of claustrophobia, hidden spaces, secrecy and the forbidden here. What do the people who have given up these clothes do?
In Couple III and Couple IV, two stuffed characters mate. They are unremarkable. One couple is wrapped in some sort of trellis, while the lower figure of the second couple (the woman?) has a prosthetic leg attached to her thigh with a trellis of leather straps. These stuffed black figures, faceless and dark like shadows seen against the wall of a nursery, suggest the trauma of a child witnessing what should not be seen. Women are constantly seen as damaged, they walk on crutches, have prosthetic limbs, are patched and repaired. Elsewhere, the bulbous form of a woman lies face down, her padded buttocks raised in abject invitation, the stiletto heels of her shoes sticking out like protective spurs. While a pink doll, patched and sewn with rough stitches, lies face down, giving rise to a similar puppet tied by an umbilical cord string. Its title, Ne m’abandonne pas, emphasizes Bourgeois’ prelapsarian view of the safe womb. The world after birth, it seems to imply, offers nothing but anxiety, fear and pain.
In her psychoanalytic theory of object relations, Melanie Klein emphasizes biological drives. Objects are seen as representing or being symbolic of a person or part of a person (such as the mother’s breast), with the mother being the primary object of childhood attachment. According to Klein, the child’s relationship with the “good or bad breast”, that is, with what is present and available or what is absent and rejecting, lays the foundation for all future interpersonal relationships. This conceptualization of internal objects is linked to Klein’s theory of unconscious fantasy and to the passage from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position. The many-breasted wall relief of lead, steel, and fabric titled Trauma Colors is an acknowledgment of this theory, as is the figure with spools of white thread tied to her breasts like a stuffed pink Venus of Willendorf.
Tailoring and tailoring are themes that run through Bourgois’ work and function as acts of transformation, renewal and repair. Her gargantuan (maternal) spider weaves webs that mend and mend while imprisoning and suffocating. A needle can hurt and stab as well as mend what is torn. In Needle (Fuseau) 1992, he becomes a dangerous phallic object. While in the Eugène Grandet series – composed of buttons, hooks and seams – we recall how sewing was considered an essentially feminine, passive, docile and docile work. One way, as suggested
by the title of the work in fabric and lithograph, Ode à L’oublie, pouroublie.
There is a lot of violence implicit in this powerful exhibition, in the decapitated torso that hangs above the stairwell like a meat carcass by Soutine or in the little stuffed figure with an amputated leg, entitled Knife Figure, where a rusty blade attached to the headless neck threatens the vulnerable pink body with sexual savagery. The series of heads, some apparently skinned and fleshy, others adorned with designs reminiscent of the tattooed faces of the Maori people, appear to have been salvaged from the basket under Madame la Guillotine during the French Revolution.
The work of Louise Bourgeois traces its path through this complex feminine terrain in order to rediscover its ipseity. His influence on young artists such as Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas is palpable. Yet in Bourgois there is never any trace of sentimentality or self-pity as there is in the work of Tracy Emin. Victimization is avoided by Bourgeois’ musculature. As an artist, she was the author of her fears, reframing internal anxiety as a series of external art objects. Her story, woven from personal trauma, takes on the world, transforming and reconfiguring the broken and the hurt into something whole.
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning freelance critic, poet and novelist. His novel Rainsongs is published by Duckworth and Mercure de France: Purchase here
Her fourth book of poetry, Swimming to Albania, is available here. She also has two novels forthcoming from Pushkin Press.
Words: Sue Hubbard Photos PC Robinson © Artlyst 2020
Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child Hayward Gallery Until May 15