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Fan-girling Louise Bourgeois 🧶🧵🪡
Sex, trauma & textiles
“These garments have a history, they have touched my body, and they hold memories of people and places. They are chapters from the story of my life.”
Louise Bourgeois was a prolific artist. The last two decades of her life were profusely creative. The Woven Child is on display at The Hayward Gallery, London and is an exhibition of the works she created in this period, between the ages of 78 and 98.
To say the exhibition is huge would be an understatement. There is a total of 90 works in the show that range from large sculptures and installations to delicate, intimate pieces.
This period of Louise’s life is characterised by her use of textiles. In her late 70s, she began to literally weave herself into her work by taking old clothes, bedsheets and other fabrics from periods of her life and reshaping them into works of art. Her attempt to translate textiles and materials into art fits in with her personal narrative; Louise’s parents were tapestry restorers.
In spite of a tumultuous relationship with her father (he had a 10-year affair with Louise’s childhood governess) she appears to sew herself back to her roots in this creative period of her life. Works like The Good Mother and Totemic Progressions incorporate bobbins and spools of thread, referencing the environment she grew up in.
“I have always had a fascination with the magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair the damage. It’s a claim to forgiveness.”
Her combination of soft textures and brassy materials is captivating. In awe of the works on display, it is impossible to not notice the feminine power, speckled with guilt and trauma that permeates this body of work.
Three red stockinged legs hang suspended above the entrance to the first room. A striped figure flies backwards through space with a curved back and arms pinned to the sides. Ink stained fabrics bloom into flowery shapes and strips of muted pastel fabrics are woven together. Individually, each strip looks flimsy but bound together they are sturdy and durable.
The Woven Child is itself a woven book made of textiles and lithographs, one of three similar works in the exhibition. In using textiles to create bound publications she references herself nicely, having said: “These garments … are chapters from the story of my life.”
Louise used many mediums and many textures to explore a wide range of themes: trauma, memory, sexuality, guilt, diaspora, childbirth, motherhood, death. Unapologetic femininity underscores every one of these themes.
To be clear: there is nothing fragile or genteel about these works. In fact, it couldn’t be more opposite. Despite muted pastel colours and delicate forms, the works capture a gritty side of the female experience. One that exists in the patriarchy, but doesn’t appease it. In capturing her experiences through her art she expresses the rawness of her own experience with an unrepentant strength that meets the viewer’s gaze. It is impossible to look away.
The Hayward Gallery is itself like a sewing box, made up of neat compartments filled with precious details and works of art. Wide rectangular display spaces give way to oval-shaped stairwells and smaller square exhibition rooms. Each section fits neatly with the next, everything stacked and stored properly in its place.
The gallery’s nooks and crannies are perfect for compartmentalizing exhibition elements and works of art. As you move through the exhibit you find loose treasures, once forgotten, put to good use: buttons, eye-hooks and decorative scraps of linen. In this way, The Woven Child and The Hayward Gallery are a perfect union: I cannot see this exhibition working so well in another space. ■
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