Louise Bourgeois was a French born artist, who moved to New York in 1938 with her new husband. Her early life had involved helping out in the family business of restoring historical tapestries. Her family was dominated by her tyrannical and philandering father. Her mother turned a blind eye to his infidelity. She suffered from ill health and died in 1932, having been nursed by Bourgeois.
These early experiences generated the intense feelings (such as fear of abandonment), and other emotions, that would fuel her art for the rest of her life. This baring of her inner life and ‘soul’ in her art has led to the art works as being described as self-portraits. Bourgeois said “The sewing is my attempt to keep things together and make things whole” [quoted in Hauser & Wirth 2010].
The art works shown above, seem to me to be linked to Bourgeois’ early work in the family business, the central piece resembling a spider’s web, suggesting the artist’s association with her mother as a spider: one who repairs (tapestries, as well as hurt and pain).
For many years Bourgeois kept boxes of her own clothing, and that of her parents, husband and children, together with household linens such as napkins and tablecloths. In the mid 1990s she began to use these emotionally charged garments and textiles in her artwork. Textiles were manipulated by cutting and re-stitching. Some are formed into three-dimensional soft sculptures.
Above left: Louise Bourgeois Single II, 1996 Fabric, hanging piece (Artist Rooms National Galleries of Scotland and Tate)
Above right: Louise Bourgeois Couple, 1996 Fabric, hanging piece (Artist Rooms National Galleries of Scotland and Tate)
These pieces explore relationships between men and women, including physical and emotional connections. The curved ‘spine’ of the left hand piece evokes a tortured pain, (part of Bourgeois’ exploration of hysteria) and possibly someone being kept hanging there at another person’s convenience. The figures are headless, the one on the left having female genitalia in place of the head, maybe indicating that the only value of the figure depicted is her sexuality.
The piece on the right shows a female form clinging to a male form, perhaps in love, or for fear of losing him, or in an attempt to control him. The exact meaning of the pieces are left for the viewer to think about and draw their own conclusions from.
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 2002 Fabric, aluminium (Photo: Christopher Burke. Louise Bourgeois Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2011)
Source: Kettle and McKeating 2012
The stitch in pieces like this sculptural head are used by the artist as a metaphor for repairing emotional damage. I think that the act of hand stitching for Bourgeois may have allowed her to simultaneously work though in her mind, the hurt and unresolved issues in her life. This piece shows interesting use of the lines of the original textile to form the directional marks on neck, forehead, eyes etc. She is quoted in the above-mentioned book as saying that all the women in her house used needles and that she always had a fascination for the “…power of the needle. The needle is used to repair the damage. It’s a claim to forgiveness.”
Jerry Gorovoy, Bourgeois’ friend, curator and assistant, describes how she transformed her stash of personal textiles into collages, fabric drawings and sculptures. He says that during this stage of her artistic exploration, she switched her focus from the earlier work in hard materials exploring her feelings of aggression towards her father, to using the soft fabrics that she identified with her mother. He speculated that she was searching for the love and care of a ‘mother’ in her old age. Gorovoy describes that her collection of family clothing was like a diary, prompting memories of associations with places, people and events. Some still bore traces of perfume, which must have proved a strong connection with her family members.
Bourgeois has selected textiles that have a direct personal connection with her: belonging to herself, her parents, her husband and children. These articles still hold scents, shapes and associations for her. Textiles are cut, woven, sewn, stuffed, and/or formed into sculptures. The textiles are used in ways that evoke her early life – the actual work of repairing tapestries -as well as the recovery of traumatic memories and feelings, and the cathartic release of emotion and subsequent healing in making the art.
This research has underlined for me, the joy and poignancy of working with re-purposed textiles. In my own work, I have made several quilts and wall hangings using recycled fabrics, including family clothing. When the quilt is in use, I can look at the individual fabrics and recall who it belonged to, what it was originally, or where I bought it, which adds another layer of meaning to the piece. Although, for me, it is a matter of wishing to reuse precious resources rather than working through emotional trauma.
Artist Rooms Louise Bourgeois Resource Pack. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/download/file/fid/37633 (Accessed: 13 September 2016).
Kettle, A. and McKeating, J. (2012) Hand stitch: Perspectives. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
MoMA: Louise Bourgeois: The Complete Prints & Books: Chronology. Available at: http://www.moma.org/explore/collection/lb/about/chronology (Accessed: 29 May 2016)
Hauser & Wirth (2010) Exhibitions — Louise Bourgeois: The fabric works — Hauser & Wirth. Available at: http://www.hauserwirth.com/exhibitions/743/louise-bourgeois-the-fabric-works/view/ (Accessed: 13 September 2016).
Worcester Art Museum – Louise Bourgeois: The woven child (in context) Available at: http://www.worcesterart.org/exhibitions/past/louise_bourgeois.html (Accessed: 13 September 2016).
Wroe, N. (2013) At home with Louise Bourgeois. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/oct/18/at-home-with-louise-bourgeois (Accessed: 12 September 2016).