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Art review

The Woven Child: Violence and vulnerability

The Easton Foundation/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo: Luca Girardini.

It turns out that Louise Bourgeois was quite a hoarder, keeping her childhood clothes and her mother’s dresses in large wooden chests in her home in New York. Their rediscovery in the 1990s was the catalyst for a flurry of late career work which is now the subject of this exhibition – the first retrospective dedicated entirely to her textile work.

As you’d expect from Bourgeois, much of the exhibition tingles with a sharp, fairy-tale cruelty, with many of the fabric figures trapped in horrible, oppressive devices and scenarios. At times it is relentless, like the sequence of supine pink dolls, lying down passively as the gruesome responsibilities of reproduction – childbirth and breastfeeding – rip and contort their bodies.

…those memories of familial betrayal are indelibly intertwined with making and her need to repair

Couples and relationships are a recurring focus of the show, like in Couple II, where the weight of a dark headless male doll presses down on the female, her prosthetic arm clinging on like some last desperate act of connection. So much of the work has to be seen through the prism of womanhood; there has perhaps never been a more penetrative, dissector of female experience. At times it’s surprising, almost funny. Like the bandage heads, roughly stitched together – their seams bursting like unhealed scars – playing chicken with their tongues.

We are so used to seeing heads and torsos made out of solid bronze and marble but these soft, spongy constructions possess the same heavy-set features but appear both delicate and impossibly fragile.

There is less impact when Bourgeois moves away from the figures, and her stacked, textile works, though beautiful, lack the same emotional charge and ambiguity. They do at least bring respite from the sense of claustrophobia; a feeling taken to extremes with the tiny figure in Lady in Waiting, who sits on a stately-looking chair, as she transforms in the dark, her body sprouting insect legs – a repellent and deliberate combination of metal and fabric.

In one work, fine silk dresses hang from a mobile made from dangling cattle bones. At the base of the sculpture are the words “Seamstress, Mistress, Distress, Stress”. We learn from the wall texts that the young Bourgeois helped out at her parents’ tapestry repair workshop, where she also found out about her father’s affair with her English governess.

In the exhibition, those memories of familial betrayal are indelibly intertwined with making and her need to repair. Of course, no amount of sewing can repair that childhood trauma, and that unresolved tension, that mix of violence and vulnerability, gives the work remarkable potency.