Louise Bourgeois The Destruction of the Father 1974
Courtesy Cheim and Read, Galerie Karsten Greve and Galerie Hauser & Wirth copyright Louise Bourgeois
Tate Modern’s hefty Bourgeois survey displayed works across ten rooms, arranged to create a chronology of the artist’s development. Many visitors to this exhibition, like me, had probably seen a few Bourgeios sculptures and drawings in commercial galleries and many more photographs of, and writing about, her work in books. Her longeivity and breadth of work, with its autobiographic, emotional impact and involved making processes, is legendary, leading to high expectations in such a large retrospective.
Known primarily as a sculptor, her early paintings are a curiosity not often seen in exhibitions. Their flat, watered-down marks seem exploratory, searching, yet without the imposing force of later three dimensional works. They do however provide us with a way in to the early sculptures. Thin layers of paint, sometimes evoking animal markings, give a feeling of searching for character in the standing sculptures, known as Personages. Though three dimensional, these ‘bodies’, representing individuals and groups, are long and lean, perhaps two surfaces for painting fastened back to back. An insightful juxtaposition of large, fluid sculpture and scratchy water colour permitted an understanding of Bourgeois’ sculpture as continuing the concerns of her painting. Branching out into a gallery of larger scale works, themes of childhood memories and bodily imprints are fertile ground for material experimentation. Glass cups used for drawing toxins out of the body uses found objects to refer to the mother.
The magic that brought a sense of adventurous exploration into the exhibition strangely came within a set of restrictions. Bourgeois’ ‘cells’ were constructed in the eighties and nineties, after she moved into an old garment factory studio. Bedroom-sized, metal and wooden structures prohibit access to, and control viewing of both found and made objects. When leaning into a cage, straining to see through a gap between two boards, or viewing an installation through a mirror set up at the end of a curved corridor, physical engagement is necessary, curiosity roused and more effort made. The act of looking at sculpture becomes consciously three dimensional for the first time in this exhibition, giving new contexts to some forms from earlier in the show. The artist’s own arrangements within each ‘cell’ feel intuitive and strategic. Notable is a composition with hanging, disfigured garments. In one corner a bright lamp is shaded with thin blue fabric. The emphasis on light and shade, folds and seams, picks out similar details across the whole work, handling the painful scene with gentleness.
The more recent drawings and textile constructions complement each other with a repetition of wavering, determinedly fragile lines. Although the textiles were behind glass you could still walk all the way around them, crouch under them and get your eyes close up. The everyday tactility of towelling and thread made it easy to imagine what it would be like to handle these objects. Two life size models of heads, made up of tapestry pieces stitched together, recall the oldest attempts at brain mapping, assigning skull shapes to psychological conditions. They are also radiantly wise-looking objects. There has been a proliferation of embroidered and knitted art in recent years; a rediscovery of feminist media and handmade, ‘sincere’ intentions. Bourgeois shows that she is streets ahead in this enterprise; the pink woolen Arched Figure uses the soft medium to question the form that it holds. Pleasure and vulnerability are cut with discomfort, yet Arched Figure implies the ability to absorb shock.
After leaving the exhibition, the impact of particular works continued in my memory. Despite the volume of work on display, the variety of materials and means of expression, and the desire/pressure to make the most of the experience, it was individual elements that stood out. Bourgeois’ minute attention to detail and emotional fluency provide visual and deeply physical examples of human emotion. The work peaks when it seems to expand the vocabulary of difficult conditions, challenging us to face them as real, while inhabiting innovative forms. http://www.tate.org.uk/