I visited this exhibition in Edinburgh with some trepidation. Was this woman’s work to touch a familiar and unsettling nerve and leave me restless and thoughtful for days in its wake like a poignant and provocative movie unleashing a tidal wave of draining emotion? Yesterday’s visit has indeed left me contemplative but not unsettled. Bourgeois’ work is neither raw nor inconclusive. Each work is a step to a solution of a personal and emotional life experience which she progressively analyses, bundles and dispatches. Having had many years of psychoanalysis, Bourgeois has solved her emotional turmoil through her work. Each piece is a gradual catharsis of her raw pain. Like letters written but never sent. Emotional purgings.
‘I am a woman without secrets. Anything private should not be a risk, it should be a result, it should be understood, resolved, packaged and disposed of.’
To understand Louise Bourgeois’ outpourings, some biographical knowledge is essential as the work is solely autobiographical. Her work is classified as Confessional art but it requires no label as it stand’s unforgettably alone.
Born in Paris in 1911, her parents owned a gallery which dealt in antique tapestries and Louise learned her sewing skills at an early age by helping out in the family business. At age 11 her father started an affair with her English governess and this had a traumatic effect on the artist. Her mother was emotionally strong but the message that she was loving but also domineering and somewhat formidable comes through in Bourgeois’ work which contains many maternal references, the most significant being the giant spider sculptures. One of the smaller versions is included in this exhibition and is one of many outstanding pieces in this remarkable show.
‘My best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful as an araignee.’ (Text that accompanies the 1995 portfolio of spider prints, “Ode a la Mere”.)
Her mother dying when Louise was only 21 created a scar that was to take a lifetime to heal.
While still only in her late twenties she opened a small gallery but in 1938 after meeting her future husband, Robert Goldwater, an eminent art historian, moved to New York. Very soon they started a family, initially adopting Michel in 1939. However she conceived two sons soon after , Jean-Louis and Alain.
The conflict of bringing up a large family and trying to promote her career as an artist further increased her anxieties and taut emotional status. Her father’s death in 1951 and that of her husband in 1973 all added to her turmoil and pain and for many years she suffered bouts of depression for which she received frequent psychoanalysis.
The exhibition consists of 12 rooms. The series of text with matching images in Gallery 1 are surprising as Bourgeois makes no attempt to make the viewer seek meaning. The text is bold and clear, there is no doubt about interpretation. Bourgeois has important messages here and she needs us to know them. The arching bodies of the preparatory cell works “Red Rooms” are signifiers of hysteria and these arching bodies feature elsewhere in her work, notably in the piece “Single ll” which is a stuffed and stitched black hanging body of twin gender. Much of Bourgeois’ work has this duality of opposing meanings, the spirals which can be taut and anxious or loose and relaxed, the aspects of life and death in “A l’infini”, a huge series of free red and white drawings rampant with body connotations in Gallery 9, the dual sexuality of her sculptures in Gallery 2, particularly the pieces,”Janus Fleuri” (1968) and “Fillette” (1968 -69). Both these latter pieces suggest a combining or opposition of genders with phallic symbols contained in the same work as breast-like shapes and labial folds.
Gallery 3 contains a touching series comprising gestural drawings denoting her deep friendship with her assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, who assisted in the curating of the exhibition. The work shows the arms and hands of both artist and assistant in various symbolic poses.
The deconstructed fabric book called “Ode a la Bievre” in Gallery 4 shows Bourgeois’ huge sewing skill. It is immaculate in its precision and contains printed, woven and stitched work. Symbolic elements from the artist’s past include tapemeasure collage, text, spirals and pillowcase edges. A sculpture in pink marble, “Eyes”, 2001-2, is also featured in this room. Bourgeois describes eyes as being symbols of “seduction, flirtation and voyeurism”.
Thought provoking pieces in Galleries 6 and 7 include “Fallen Woman” which appears to be a self portrait consisting of Bourgeois’ head with a club-like body. The piece is horizontal of which Bourgeois says:
‘Horizontality is a desire to give up, to sleep. Verticality is an attempt to escape. Hanging and floating are states of ambivalence.’
“Untitled” 2010 is one of her last works before her death and it features a soft body made of a stuffed pale blanket and a mound of stuffed white berets – Bourgeois’ own that she frequently wore throughout her life. The work could be interpreted as being a grave or alternatively perhaps a symbol of maternity, a summary of her memories with her mother as the piece includes an arrangement of bobbins and threads in the colour blue which was the colour of calm in Bourgeois’ visual language.
Galleries 7 and 11 each contain one of her Cells, Cell XIV (Portrait) being an outstanding but disturbing piece comprising 3 conjoined screaming heads in a cage.
In all, the exhibition contains a monumental level of emotion and meaning and the space allowed for the work reflects this.
Whatever you do over the winter, make time to visit this third exhibition in the series of ARTIST ROOMS, which follows in the wake of Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys and provides a huge insight into Bourgeois’ oeuvre. Her relationship events are the important influences on her work as these left permanent stains which she struggled all her life to eradicate. The visitor will be left with an uneasiness that they may resonate with some of the issues which drove Bourgeois to make the monumental work that will secure her importance in art history.
Vicky Speirs is a level 3 student with the OCA. There are still places available on the study visit to the exhibition on 22 February. The exhibition itself closes on 18 May and will move to mima, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.