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Louise Bourgeois: Works on Paper
July 21, 2014
Sequestered upstairs, without the fan fair of Tate Modern’s blockbuster shows, is a small four room exhibit of one of the most important female artists of the last century.
Louise Bourgeois is best known for her monstrous spider sculptures, one of which Maman, 1999, has previously been on display in Tate’s own turbine hall. However this selection of works is somewhat slighter and less dramatic, her works on paper: a quiet and personal memorial to her neurosis and skill.
The first room feels like a corridor space, the partitions are lined with display tables and the colourless images that adorn the walls are not incredibly eye-catching as you first enter. But take your time and these pieces are a heartfelt look into the artist’s soul. Bourgeois was incredibly witty: small parables, including that of a man laughing and waving as an elevator door cuts off his head, sit matched alongside geometric neo-sculptural prints. As much as the space was quite empty these pieces elicited an audible titter from many of the visitors. But the ups are displayed with the downs, including a short poem of abandoned motherhood. Even at their funniest, these pieces are difficult to read because there is too much of the person evident. Contemporary art has a way of disaffecting the viewer; these ask to you consider your own life, your own family, your own faults.
Similarly Ode à la Bièvre, 2007, takes on the difficult issue of memory. Made from fabric directly from Bourgeois’ wardrobe this is a book about returning to a past family home and finding nothing as how you remember it. Your past is gone, written over by someone else’s life – a sadness that so many of us will one day face. Most strikingly throughout the piece is the handmade quality of this artwork against the dehumanized feel of many prints: the feminine craft of needlework, reminiscent for Bourgeois of her mother, a seamstress, adding to the layers of emotion that the artwork depicts.
Femininity and motherhood run through the veins of this show. The Family, 2009, are blood red, visceral, naïve-esque depictions of sex and motherhood. Whether the suggestions are menstrual or based in birth they are undoubtedly the work of a woman: A woman with her own motherhood issues (towards her parent and towards her children). This series seems to depict sex, alongside the freedom and yet confined biological closeness of a foetus and its mother – apparently swimming in her womb. There is nothing hidden in these artworks, these are frank explorations of her neurosis, it is quite evident that Bourgeois never got over the loss of her own mother and heartbreakingly, the distance that adulthood put between her and her sons.
You cannot have birth without sex and there are depictions of reproduction aplenty, with one room given over to almost horticultural etchings. Perhaps it is the memory of Georgia O’Keeffe spilling over to my viewing, but petals and stamens suggest more than an interest in flowers. These images are less direct than O’Keeffe’s but come from the same place, thinking about what it is to be a woman and sexually engaged.
However there is so much more to these artworks than I have been able to explain. There is a depth beyond layers easily described. The works are affective and not only personal to Bourgeois but to each individual viewer. Maybe these are not the works you will know her for best but they are the works that will bring you closer to her life. Poignant but small there is a little image of a blue pill that reads “be calm”, touchingly part of her life that a large sculpture would never be able to depict.
Words by Ellen Stone.
Louise Bourgeois: Works on Paper is showing at Tate Modern, London until 12 April 2015. For more information go to – tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/display/louise-bourgeois-works-on-paper