The New York home of Louise Bourgeois, which has remained largely untouched since her death in 2010, reveals the artist’s hoarding tendencies. Drawings, diaries and loose sheets of paper are piled high atop filing cabinets, yellowing exhibition posters are pinned to the wall above her desk. The townhouse in Chelsea, Manhattan, even holds her gas receipts from the 1930s. In the basement are several boxes of clothing. “It gives me great pleasure to keep my clothes, my dresses, my stockings,” she wrote in 1968. “I have never thrown away a pair of shoes of mine in 20 years — I cannot separate myself from my clothes… It’s my past and as rotten as it was I would like to take it and hold it tight in my arms.” She insisted that to throw things away — to “abandon” one’s possessions — was even a kind of death.
Many of the clothes Bourgeois kept were from her childhood, or belonged to her mother. But it wasn’t until Bourgeois was in her eighties that she instructed her assistant Jerry Gorovoy to start unpacking the garments. “Next thing I know,” he recalled, “she’s cutting and stuffing. All of a sudden, this is the raw material for her next body of work.” In 1995, Bourgeois had much of her collection of personal fabrics shipped to her Brooklyn studio (itself a former garment factory). In What Artists Wear, Charlie Porter unearths Bourgeois’s diary entry from this day. “The shock came when the truck appeared,” she wrote. As the “preserved wardrobe actively left my sight — the cord was cut and I felt dizzy”. (Gorovoy was not so sure her impulse to preserve disappeared. “If she processed this as art,” he explained, “no one was going to throw it out.”)
This was a new chapter in her already long and varied career as an artist and sculptor. Bourgeois would spend the remaining 15 years of her life working with textiles in a series of bold pieces that can now be seen at the Hayward Gallery, London, in a major retrospective focusing on the fabric works of her last years.
One of the most immediately striking sculptures exhibited is Untitled (1996). Gauzy slip dresses and sheer blouses are eerily suspended from thick cattle bones; several of these are items that would have directly touched Bourgeois’s body. “My garments and especially my undergarments,“ she wrote in 1961, “always have been a source of intolerable suffering because they hide an intolerable wound.“ They hang from a steel frame that resembles a signpost (clothes were, for Bourgeois, “signposts in the search for the past”). The clothing’s ghostly air is undercut by the density of the bones and the fact that two garments are stuffed, taking on a monstrous quality. At the base of the structure are the words “SEAMSTRESS. MISTRESS. DISTRESS. STRESS.” — a reference to the tumultuous childhood that informed Bourgeois’s work.
Textiles were central to Bourgeois’s upbringing. She was born on Christmas Day in 1911 to Josephine Valerie Fauriaux and Louis Isadore Bourgeois (Bourgeois joked that she was “a pain in the ass” from the moment her birth interrupted festivities). She was named after her father, who had wanted a boy, and often reminded Louise of that fact. Her parents owned a gallery in Paris, where they sold antique tapestries, and a restoration workshop in Choisy-le-Roi, where damaged works were repaired before sale. Bourgeois had a needle in her hand from a young age. “All the women in my house were using needles,” she wrote. “My mother would sit out in the sun and repair a tapestry.” Bourgeois, like her mother, would sometimes assist staff. Many of the tapestries featured naked figures, making them less marketable, so the young Bourgeois was given the job of censoring naked forms — replacing their genitals with bunches of flowers.
This paints a romantic picture of Bourgeois’s early years, but many of the childhood memories she returned to in her work were traumatic. Her father was a domineering man who often humiliated his daughter in front of others. Bourgeois was embarrassed by her body: “I thought I was too fat and I was unacceptable.” Her mother caught Spanish flu in 1919, and in 1922, when Bourgeois was 11 years old, the family hired an au pair called Sadie to teach her English. Her father began an affair with Sadie that continued in the family home for a decade. The intense anger Bourgeois felt at this “double betrayal” would surface in her art for the rest of her life. “My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery and it has never lost its drama,” she said. “I refuse to let go of that period because, painful as it was, it was life itself.”
At 19 Bourgeois enrolled at the Sorbonne to study maths but turned her attention to art after her mother died two years later. In 1938 she met and married American art historian Robert Goldwater and the couple moved to New York, where they started a family (they had three sons) and Bourgeois’s career as an artist began. She first focused on painting, producing “Femme Maison”, a series which transplanted buildings onto the heads of naked women, in the mid-1940s.
When her father died in 1951 she began psychoanalysis, which would last for more than 30 years. In the 1960s and 70s she exhibited provocative, bodily works playing with ideas of the subconscious in a diverse array of materials, from marble and bronze to plaster and latex (as in the two-foot rubbery phallus she named Fillette — little girl). Refusing to align herself with the surrealist, feminist or abstract expressionist movements, Bourgeois remained an outsider in the art world until a 1982 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) brought her into the mainstream. She was 70 years old.
After the MoMA exhibition Bourgeois began hosting Sunday salons at her home. Dressed, in the words of Antony Gormley, “like a girl in a Siegert painting”, this tiny old woman (she was barely 5ft tall) would preside over the younger artists who offered up their work for her often brutal judgement. In a 2007 episode of Imagine…, you can see one of these salons in action. Asked to justify their work, one artist says, “It’s about the torment of being an artist.” In her stern French accent, Bourgeois exclaims, “The premise is idiotic!” In fact, Bourgeois believed that the artist has the unique “privilege of being in touch with his or her unconscious”. This, she insisted, is “why the artist should not be supported by the government”.
The 1982 retrospective also sparked a period of reinvention for Bourgeois. Over the next 30 years she would produce many of her best-known works, including the “Cells” (room-like structures that invite the viewer to peer into an uncanny domestic scene), Maman (a 9m-tall steel and marble spider representing her mother, the weaver) and the fabric installations now on display at the Hayward Gallery.
In these works Bourgeois returns to her childhood to explore deeply personal themes that simultaneously transcend her biography — the claustrophobia of the family, the ambivalence of motherhood, violence, rage. The central metaphor of these disturbing and witty pieces, with all their stitching, remaking and connecting of threads, is one of emotional repair. “I’ve always had a fascination with the needle, the magic power of the needle,” Bourgeois wrote. “The needle is used to repair damage… It is never aggressive, it’s not a pin.”
There is a shadow of violence in the needle, however. Bourgeois would have mood swings and sometimes destroyed work in her studio (in a 1993 documentary she imitates herself in a rage, throwing a work across the room and stamping on ceramic shards). The impulses to destroy and to repair often sit side by side in her work. “I break things because I am afraid,” she once said, “and I spend my time repairing.”
Cell VII (1998) is an octagonal structure made from seven wooden doors (the space where the eighth would be is the entry point for the viewer). Inside, more clothes, including a child’s blouse, hang from bones, creased from being packed away. There’s a model of the Bourgeois family home, a small spider and a miniature spiral staircase. Peering inside feels transgressive, as if the viewer has intruded onto the scene of a crime or private family trauma.
Upstairs we find In Respite (1992): large bobbins of thread perched on a steel frame, connected via needles to a central soft pink oblong. Their draped threads quiver in the air. Femme (2005) is a small rectangular block made from a tapestry, with breast-like domes and a vaginal slit — part female body, part psychoanalyst’s couch. Lady in Waiting (2003) is a wooden cell: through a glass window, we see another small woman made from tapestry. She blends into the fabric of the chair she’s perched on. Metal spider’s legs protrude from her hips and threads run from her mouth to bobbins perched on the window’s ledge. Is she silenced and waiting — or silently lying in wait, ready to pounce? In Spider (1997) a giant metal arachnid straddles a steel-mesh cell which contains another fabric-covered chair. Decaying tapestries hang from the walls.
In the next room large, bulbous bodies made from dark fabric lie in glass boxes, like taxidermy animals in a museum. From a distance these look like individual figures. On closer inspection, they are headless couples with prosthetic limbs trapped in an eternal embrace. Spiral Woman (2003) is less a woman and more a pair of black legs that twist upwards into an uneasy spiral that hangs from the ceiling. There’s something unsettling but disarmingly comic about these disembodied limbs that dangle in the air. Fear, desire, disgust and humour co-exist in Bourgeois’s bulging forms.
Ode à l’Oubli (Ode to Forgetting) is a fabric book made from scraps of nightgowns, scarves and hand towels from her wedding trousseau. Though Bourgeois has appliquéd over these fabrics in bright colours they are still visibly stained, yellowed with age and embroidered with her married initials.
One of the last pieces shown is Untitled 2010, made a few months before her death. In it, the artist has stuffed and sewn together a number of her white berets. They top a soft, rectangular block; it could be a many-breasted body. It feels as though Bourgeois herself might rise up out from beneath one of the berets, winking. It’s a cheeky but also moving work. These hats were not moth-eaten artifacts from her past but items she wore often later in life. Perhaps she knew they, too, would soon become relics — that she didn’t have long left to wear them.
When asked once by an interviewer about the biographical element of her work, Bourgeois replied, “It shows how much the emotion that Louise expresses is true. It’s an emotion that has lived, and is real.”
Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child
Hayward Gallery, London SE1
Until 15 May