For greatness to be possible, wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, women artists need privacy, money and total intellectual autonomy. They must be ungendered (“woman-manly or man-womanly”), unfettered by rancour or the regard of others. They need “the habit of freedom and the courage” to express themselves exactly as they wish.
If any woman artist has ever had this habit and this courage, it is Louise Bourgeois.
Louise Bourgeois: Has the Day Invaded the Night or Has the Night Invaded the Day? takes up two floors of the new Art Gallery of NSW building, spanning all seven decades of the iconic French–American artist’s career. More than 120 pieces are presented in two sections, “Day” and “Night”. The former is a broadly chronological sequence from early works to late, including her 1940s wooden Personage sculptures, drawings, watercolours, embroidery and fabric works, latex and plaster and large-scale sculptures in bronze and marble, while the latter – in the underground Tank gallery – combines works of all periods.
Many of the upstairs pieces show a delicate, feminine sensibility, such as the textile collage The Waiting Hours (2007), using silken scarves and blouse remnants, and Ode à la Bièvre (2007), a beautiful 24-page “book” made of fabrics saved from her own and her mother’s clothes in homage to the Bièvre River, which ran through the family’s suburban Parisian garden. Other “womanly” materials are widely used – beads and baubles, cotton reels, lace, needles, perfume bottles, lockets.
But silky gentility is not the mode for which Bourgeois is famous.
I discovered her work a decade ago while writing what turned out to be The Natural Way of Things, a harrowing novel of imprisoned women and misogyny. I’d become stuck, marooned by the darkness emerging from my own mind, and sick with anxiety about what this violence inside me revealed. When I chanced upon images of Bourgeois’ Cells – the many room-sized, cage-like installations she began making in her 70s – I was electrified. I became obsessed by these terrifying rusting cages enclosing women’s clothes, hospital beds, rags, metal instruments, severed limbs, mirrors, chains. I didn’t understand any of it, but my body responded – in the gut, the pulse, the prickling skin. This work spoke of something primal and powerful and I was liberated. Bourgeois had no fear of the violence in herself, I reasoned. She didn’t wring her hands in the namby-pamby way I was doing – she was weird, pure artist. She didn’t fret: she just made.
For Bourgeois, her Cells were not prisons but private places – “my own architecture” – in which her memory and her experience of “different types of pain: the physical, the emotional and psychological, the mental and intellectual” could be explored. With each cell she was containing the uncontainable, by making a lair of her own.
The Cells are often, but not always, connected with her most famous motif, the spider. The 10-metre-high Maman (1999) perches on the forecourt outside the gallery’s south building: provocation, invitation, warning.
The cell titled Spider (1997) sees her spindly steel arachnid hovering over a wire cylinder, its exterior adorned with faded and torn tapestry fragments. Inside the cell, a seat as inviting as an electric chair is draped with more decomposing tapestry shreds and suspended on chains from above are a few tiny female symbols – an empty Shalimar perfume bottle, a fragile watch, a locket. Here and there, chunks of animal bone are wedged into the wire walls. Through the ceiling of the cell bulges the great spider-mother’s pendulous egg sac, hosiery wrappings swaddling its three glass eggs.
The chronological survey in “Day” is transfixing, not least in its movement from sweetness to savagery across many decades of astonishing output. But there can be no better home for Bourgeois’ work than the windowless concrete Tank, a decommissioned World War II fuel bunker deep in the earth.
One descends by spiral staircase into “Night” and the deep unconscious. Forms loom out of the dark: twisted, shining, alien. Body parts – like the desiccating Fillette (sweeter version) (1968-99) and The Quartered One (1964-65) – suspend, slowly rotating, like meat in an abattoir. The air hazes with sound and motion, from Jenny Holzer’s scrolling projections of Bourgeois’ psychoanalytic writings to videos of Bourgeois rippling across the roughened concrete walls, to Kali Malone’s disorienting soundtrack.
Visceral evocations are everywhere: openings and apertures, breasts, nodules, blood, shit, wombs, semen. Desperately clinging lovers hang high against a concrete wall. Here floats the shining golden Arch of Hysteria (1993), a gaunt headless form curved backward into a near circle, a more contorted echo of Arched Figure (1993) upstairs. There are more giant spiders, malevolently crouching. Glowing eggs or slug-like phallus-turds lie in wait in shadowed corners.
What are we to make of all this? There is no answer. In all her work, the mystery is the point. In one of many interview clips circulating online, Bourgeois says, “A work of art doesn’t have to be explained. If you say, what does this mean? Well, if you do not have any feeling about this, I cannot explain it to you.”
Despite this declaration she spoke often in her later years about the family and sexual tensions that birthed her artist self, and to which her work compulsively returns: her philandering and belittling father, the live-in governess mistress, her stoic but needy mother. Recurring in her work are the family’s tapestry restoration business, her incapacitating grief at the death of her mother, then father; her own conflicted mothering of her sons, her dreams and psychoanalysis.
All of this is interesting. None of it can explain the feral majesty and range of her talent. The only clear explanation is surely this: she was possessed of what Woolf called the “incandescent, unimpeded” mind of the genius.
In the illustrated book Sublimation (2002) on display, Bourgeois gratefully credits her unconscious. “I feel that if we are able to sublimate, in any way we do, that we should feel thankful. I cannot talk about any other profession, but the artist is blessed with this power.”
This power is often vengeful.
Woolf argued against anger in a woman’s art, linking it with a “cramped and thwarted” corrosiveness that obscures the work, revealing only the small person behind it. But there is nothing cramped or thwarted about the glorious violence flooding Bourgeois’ unconscious. She relished it.
Of her spiralled, excremental forms, she said in one interview that the “twist” came from childhood, when she helped to wring water from the tapestries under restoration after they were washed in the river. “I would twist and twist … later I would dream of getting rid of my father’s mistress. I would do it in my dreams by wringing her neck.” A short video on display in “Night” sees her attacking one of her own sculptures (a version of Nature Study). “I cannot pretend it doesn’t give me pleasure. First it gives me pleasure, then I fall into a depression,” she says, shoving the piece off a bench to shatter on the floor.
Like Spider, Bourgeois guarded these contradictions in herself. And like Woolf, she insisted on freedom from womanhood, indeed describing her work as “pre-gender”. I believe her. The headless Nature Study (1984-94) has six bulbous breasts as well as male genitalia – and a tail. The meeting point of the twin bronze Janus fleuri (1968) penis heads is shaggily pudendal, and, notwithstanding the room of “bad-mother” pieces, many of her figures are neither obviously male nor female. The sweetly slumping Le Trani Episode (1971, 1991) objects could be flopping breasts or testicles or phalluses or all three. But it’s less the subject matter that proves her claim than the sheer vastness of her range, its scope and scale, the simultaneous intricacy (those tiny, meticulous buttonholes!) and blunt force of her mighty ambition. Considering this survey, what comes to me is neither “male” nor “female” but creaturely, even supernatural.
In one interview, the elderly Bourgeois gestures at her work and says flatly: “If this doesn’t touch you, I have failed.”
The joy, the monstrosity, the tenderness.
She has not failed.
Has the Day Invaded the Night or Has the Night Invaded the Day? is showing at the Art Gallery of NSW until April 28.
OPERA The Ring Cycle
Lyric Theatre, Meanjin/Brisbane, until December 21
ARCHITECTURE (This is) Air
NGV International, Naarm/Melbourne, until June 16
EXHIBITION Hobart Current: Epoch
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and Hobart CBD, nipaluna, until February 11
MULTIMEDIA Three Journeys
WA Museum Boola Bardip, Whadjuk Noongar Country/Perth, until February 4
CIRCUS Circus 1903
Sydney Opera House, Gadigal Country, December 21-29
Arts Centre, Naarm/Melbourne, January 4-14
BALLET The Nutcracker
Adelaide Festival Centre, Kaurna Yarta, December 17
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "A lair of one’s own".
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