Louise Bourgeois Continues to Astonish and Fascinate with Woven Child at Hayward Gallery

Most people will have heard of and seen Louise Bourgeois’s giant spider, Maman .You couldn’t miss it in 2000, where it soared above visitors’ heads in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern. Supported on slender legs of steel of over thirty feet in height, Maman, far from being a monster, was a symbol of maternity, protection, strength, and creation. Maman was not only a tribute to Bourgeois’s mother’s mothering skills but also an appreciative nod to her weaving talents. Bourgeois’s parents had a tapestry restoration business in Paris.

Hayward Gallery’s new show entitled Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child, moves away from this steel colossus  Maman, and focuses on the works Bourgeois produced using fabric and textiles in the last twenty years of the artist’s life, (she died in 2010 aged 98). 

Before stepping into the show, I had misgivings about the use of fabric for sculpture, the two representing for me an sculptural oxymoron. Would the artworks be no better than artfully twisted and puckered soft toys or mannikins, with no humanity or life of their own?

Walking into a space of figurative sculptures, headless humans with oddly amorphic bodies, displayed in vitrines, I was relieved to discover that the magnificent Bourgeois had imbued them with a fantastical and human essence. In Couple III, we see a man’s body atop a voluptuous woman, headless with exaggerated swollen limbs and genitalia, they were astonishing in the energy they exuded. Placed in a vitrine, you can view their coupling from all angles! Rarely have I seen such a representation of the primal sexual force – and to have achieved it in fabric, is quite astonishing. 

Couples 1V 1997 by Louise Bourgeois at Hayward Gallery

Visiting all the ‘Couples’ at the show, I had to remind myself that the works had been fashioned by a woman artist in her late eighties! Some couples drew a smile, such as the woman wearing a leather laced boot of the 1900s on one leg. I can’t quite recall whether it was a prosthetic, or it housed a leg, but the effect was irreverent and comical! 

But not all memories at the show are joyous and yet Bougeois does bathe in nostalgia at the start of the show. She explores her early years with two mini-installations which allow us to glimpse into her personal history: beautiful, silken négligées float around on a wire in Cell V11, meanwhile wooden courthouse doors with windows to peer through, allow us to view a model of her childhood house, her cotton night gowns, and I was delighted to discover a tiny twisting staircase sculpture. I remember the giant version of the staircase in Turbine Hall alongside Maman in 2000. The dolls-house quality of this installation was endearing rather than unnerving.

It is said that Bourgeois was a tremendous hoarder and that as she grew older, she got her assistant to empty her cupboards full of old clothes in her New York apartment and rather than throw them away, Bourgeois picked them up one by one and started to fashion them into art pieces. It certainly means that all the fabrics, having been used and worn, are psychologically charged.

Walking upstairs at the show, the nostalgic mood ended abruptly. A large cage, Cell XXV (The View of the World of the Jealous Wife.) dominated the space. Inside it, behind the prison-like meshing, a blue dress and white dress on headless mannequins occupied the prison with two giant white snooker balls. Viewed from a particular angle, the dress and balls merge and create the illusion of male genitalia. Sexual betrayal has always dominated Bourgeois’s work – when Bourgeois was a girl, her father reportedly taunted Bourgeois’s mother with the mistresses he brought home.

Thankfully, for Bourgeois, as with most artists, her art helped her to process and to heal heartache. The theme of repair is all around at the show, fabrics maybe ripped, cut, but they are also sewn together and given a new purpose. They are allowed to survive and with them Bourgeois created objects of beauty. Her heads, made up of tapestry and needlepoint pieces are stunning.

Connected to the theme of reparation, is the theme of time passing. Nowhere is this more evident than withSpider 1997. The arachnid is probably a quarter of Maman’s size and crouched over a circular cage, in which their sits an old chair upholstered in tapestry. Here ‘Spider’ is still the protector. We notice that the meshing of the cage is in the process of being covered over with tapestry. This is a nod to her mother the weaver again protecting what is inside the cage, but there is also a sense of the curtains closing in on Bourgeois’s life?  

Louise Bourgeois continues to be a fascinating artist and with nearly ninety works of hers to view at the Hayward, many of which have never been seen in the UK before, this is a must-see event for contemporary art lovers.


Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child runs unt

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