The details of Louise Bourgeois’ troubled childhood are well known. In an article titled ‘Child Abuse’ published in Artforum in 1982, she brutally laid bare her role as a “pawn” in the middle of her parents’ noxious relationship. It all began when her father moved his English mistress, Sadie – Louise Bourgeois’ governess – into the family home. Bourgeois’ mother, largely tolerant of the situation, then used her daughter to keep tabs on her husband’s ongoing philandering.
Following the publication of that article, it became hard not to read Bourgeois’ work through the raw prism of familial deception; her childhood experiences became a blueprint through which her complex artworks could be slowly and painfully prised apart. Yet to see her work through this particular lens is deeply limiting, says Julienne Lorz, co-curator of the upcoming exhibition Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child at the Gropius Bau. “I think there’s also another way of seeing her work: there’s the psychological, the material, and of course the way the works are positioned. But it is in your personal encounters with the art that their impact really comes through.”
By the time of her death in 2010 aged 98, the French-born New Yorker was considered one of the world’s leading artists. Ignored for much of her long career, it took critics decades to recognise her extraordinary ability to convey the emotions and aspects of life that make it unbearable, but also meaningful.
In works such as ‘Couple IV’ (1997), with its headless writhing bodies, there is no way of knowing if they’re bound together in a loving embrace or expressing if it’s something darker, more violent. It is through that relentless ambiguity that her deeply personal artwork translates into something more visceral and portentous, interrogating the unknown depths of the human psyche.
The Woven Child has travelled from London’s Hayward Gallery and is the first retrospective to focus exclusively on Bourgeois’ textile work, a medium she only turned to in her eighties. “She would just keep everything, hoarding fabrics from her childhood,” says Lorz. “These fabrics have been worn close to a person’s skin and are close to the heart and emotions. So using them became a way of preserving her own personal history.”
As a child Bourgeois was surrounded by the textiles of her parents’ tapestry restoration workshop, and from the age of 12, helped the business by drawing in the missing sections that were to be repaired. Stitching and sewing became a method by which to rework her past and develop her own artistic vocabulary. “I always had the fear of being separated and abandoned,” she once said, “the sewing is my attempt to keep things together and make things whole.”
In ‘The Good Mother’ (2003), white threads unfurl from the nipples of a female fabric figure. Attached to rolls of yarn neatly arranged before her, the threads appear to trap her in an endless loop of reproductive responsibility. “In some of the work she makes the repairs very visible, so they appear like scars,” says Lorz. “Her use of the body is always so timeless, so abject, and pulls in themes of motherhood and sexuality, there’s just so many different themes going on in her work.”
It’s astounding to think that an artist born at the beginning of the 20th century still remains so enormously relevant to our times. A decade after her death, Bourgeois remains as urgent and challenging as ever.
- Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child, Gropius Bau, Kreuzberg Jul 22 – Oct 23, 2022