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July 2022

Vol. 164 / No. 1432

Louise Bourgeois: Paintings Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child

Reviewed by Verity Mackenzie

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 12th April–7th August / Hayward Gallery, London 9th February–15th May

Je vois red’ raged Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) on one of the loose sheets of paper that she made notes on, most often about herself and her work and, in this case, about the painting Natural history #2 (1944; Easton Foundation, New York), which struck her as all going wrong. Slipping between two languages, Bourgeois’s fury conforms to the themes of rage, the death drive and childhood aggression that the art historian Mignon Nixon has traced in the artist’s work in reference to the ideas of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. These themes have also underpinned the curation of the exhibition Louise Bourgeois: Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. There is a story of defiance in Bourgeois’s representation of her apparent rage against the sky, evident in the early paintings displayed in the labyrinth of the museum’s modern and contemporary art galleries. In these paintings, Bourgeois often depicted the black, suggesting daydreaming or a kind of conscious thought that evokes Freud’s critique of the Surrealists: ‘what interests me in your art is not the unconscious but the conscious’.[1]

Painted between 1938 and 1949, the paintings foreground Bourgeois’s encounters with New York, as she combines architectural forms with those of the female body and sets them against the drama of the city skies. She wrote that her skyscrapers ‘are not really about New York. Skyscrapers reflect a human condition. They do not touch’. [2] Despite the quasi-comic, animated image of a house with arms and legs, there is a singular isolation in the woman-as-building, homesick and masquerading à l’américaine. However, Bourgeois’s métier is to take power from pain, and from her guilt at migrating from France to the United States and her entrapment by domestic life comes an angry love letter to New York. Her words are emblazoned on the wall alongside the paintings, as though they themselves did not make it clear enough: ‘I love this city, its clear-cut look, its sky, its buildings, and its scientific cruel romantic quality’.

The exhibition revolves around Bourgeois’s four Femme maison paintings. Initially shown under different titles and probably renamed in the 1960s, they became a celebrated symbol in the feminist art movement. In these works, a Neo-classical courthouse, a clapboard barn, a New York brownstone and a skyscraper, respectively, straitjacket a woman’s upper body within the confines of their architectural geometries. As Briony Fer writes in the catalogue about a related work, Fallen woman (femme maison) (1946–47; private collection): ‘The key panel, and the one that sets the tone for many of Bourgeois’ paintings, is the one in which the body-as-building falls through the night in a tragicomic suicide’ (p.28). [3] In this work a woman, with wild hair and a house attached to her torso, cuts through the red sky like a meteor. The coloured sky resonates with other paintings, such as Red night (1945–47; Glenstone Museum, Potomac), about the nightmares of her experience of motherhood; 1932 (Fig.13), which explores the death of her mother and her attempted suicide; and Untitled (1948; Easton Foundation), in which a building is transfixed by a hank of hair, a wrecking ball and a fragmented corpse. Each inscribes the bodies and the spaces they occupy, or which they haunt, with emotional force, as red paint represented blood and fury for Bourgeois, and also ‘an affirmation at any cost’. [4] For the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy ‘painting is the art of bodies, in that it only knows about skin, being skin through and through’. [5] He continued: ‘Another name for local color is carnation. Carnation is the great challenge posed by those millions of bodies in paintings [. . .] This is why Diderot claimed to envy painters, who could approximate, in colors, something he couldn’t approximate in writing: a woman’s pleasure’. [6] Nancy’s carnation red evokes the Surrealist figure of the femme fleur, which Bourgeois defiantly snips off at the root, moving to the architectonic with the trope of the femme maison. Invented as a way to ‘portray the predicament of a woman artist and mother, homesick in exile – carrying her house on her head – trying to make it as a Surrealist in New York’, Bourgeois used the complexity of female experience to establish what might be seen as a room of her own. [7]

This occupation of space expands to encompass the entire roofs of the buildings at which Bourgeois rages: her paintings show the roof and the sky above it activated as a site for female pleasure. The aching, arching blood-red body striating the sky above in 1932, in Femme volage (1951; Guggenheim Museum, New York) and in Dagger child (1947–49; Guggenheim Museum), which she installed on the roof of her apartment building on East 18th Street (and which are not strictly paintings but are nonetheless included in the show), or the lunatic siren of Roof song (1946–48; private collection), defy containment and suggest a kind of pathetic fallacy as female emotion dictates the weather. Considering the association between women’s bodies and space, Fer describes how Bourgeois and her mother had known Pierre Bonnard, ‘the artist best able to paint what claustrophobia felt like’ (p.30). Bonnard’s containment of the female body in the enamelled frame of a roll top bath in Baignoire (le bain) (1925; Tate), for example, moves in Bourgeois’s paintings to the female figure bursting out of a building, ultimately emancipated as a token swathe of agile hair, dynamic against the sky, and identifying the psychological possibilities of pictorial space.

Two elements connect the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibtion with Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child at the Hayward Gallery, London: the female body and the knife. [8] Linked to both of these, perhaps, is also the colour red, fading now and then to pink, but losing nothing of rage or affirmation. This display of Bourgeois’s late textile works opened three months before the Metropolitan Museum’s presentation of her early paintings, providing a way of looking back and through the trajectory of the artist’s oeuvre. In the Hayward show Bourgeois manifests the woman’s body in terrycloth, cardigan, tapestry and stuffing, stitched angrily and visibly. The hovering knives in such paintings as No swearing allowed (1949; private collection) become the real rusted wooden-handled blade of Knife figure (Fig.14), in which a boning knife is elevated by a metal hinge above the breast of a pink stuffed body, in the place where the head should be. For Bourgeois ‘knives are like a tongue – I love you, I hate you’. [9] Dagger-like throughout the show, decapitated heads project their tongues, as seen in Cell XXI (portrait) (2000; Easton Foundation), in which a hanging head lolls out its tongue, screaming, dying, or dying to be kissed.

If by introducing the personages Femme volage and Dagger child among the paintings, the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum points to Bourgeois’s gradual shift towards sculpture in the early phase of her career, then the last phase of her practice at Hayward Gallery, filled with mutilated bodies, equally harks back towards this turn. As Bourgeois recalled, ‘Once we were sitting together at the table, I took white bread, mixed it with spit, and moulded a figure of my father. When the figure was done I started cutting off the limbs with a knife. I see this as my first sculptural solution’. [10] The tongue, the knife, the body without legs and arms – her first solution – persists in these, her last, late explorations of sculpture and of the story that she constructs of her childhood. There is a quiet sort of sadism that hovers between the geriatric and childhood memories of the tapestry workshop in the stab of needle into cloth, the cut of sewing scissors in Spit or star (1986; private collection). In the hooks-ineyes pinned down that form a panel in the series of handkerchiefs and linen cloths that comprise the quilt-like work Eugénie Grandet (2009; Easton Foundation), Bourgeois stitches the oppression of Honoré de Balzac’s daughter-heroine by her domineering father. This turn from New York back to France is also evident in her decision to repurpose her old wardrobe in Untitled (1996; Glenstone Museum) in which the hanging skins of hollow bodies, her clothes, collapse the architecture of the femme maison and become the wilted shape of cloth on bones. Set at either end of her long life, the two shows tightly connect the thread of Bourgeois’s career; or perhaps it is the knife blade of her inexhaustible rage that they finger keenly, dripping red.

[1] J. Thrall Soby: Salvador Dalí, New York 1946, p.24.

[2] M.-L. Bernadac: Louise Bourgeois, Paris and New York 1996, p.43.

[3] Catalogue: Louise Bourgeois: Paintings. By Clare Davies and Briony Fer. 172 pp. incl. 142 col. + b. & w. ills. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2022), $45. ISBN 978–1– 588–39–748–5.

[4] Bernadac, op. cit. (note 2), p.175.

[5] J.-L. Nancy: Corpus, New York 2008, p.15.

[6] Ibid., pp.15–17.

[7] M. Nixon: Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art, Cambridge MA and London 2005, p.56.

[8] Catalogue: Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child. Edited by Ralph Rugoff. 208 pp. incl. 120 col. ills. (Hayward Gallery Publishing, London, and Hatje Cantz, Berlin, 2022), £37. ISBN 978–3–7757–5149–0. The exhibition will travel to Gropius Bau, Berlin (22nd July–23rd October 2022).

[9] J. Gorovoy: Louise Bourgeois: Blue Days and Pink Days, Milan 1997, p.2.

[10] Nixon, op cit. (note 7), p.265.