The Woven Child: Louise Bourgeois at the Hayward Gallery, London

Stone and needlework: “The women wove and the men cut stone in the quarries.” Thus writes Louise Bourgeois, remembering the region of Aubusson, where her mother was from, in a 1969 review of the first exhibition of contemporary weaving at MOMA, New York. The museum had begun to see the craft within the context of 20th century art. Bourgeois gave cautious encouragement to the show, but concluded it “could have been a little wilder”. The weavings, she says, do not make sufficient demands on the viewer to be fully considered as art, or indeed sculpture: “My personal association with tapestry is highly sculptural in terms of three-dimensionality.”

The eponymous title “The Woven Child” references a fabric book made in 2003 and two key features of this stunning Hayward exhibition: Bourgeois’s use of fabric as material for art and craft, and her persistent revisiting of childhood and family themes. The gallery’s ramps and spacious open planned layout suit the exhibition perfectly, inviting us to view the works from different angles. The subdued spot lighting accentuates and casts intentional shadows. Just as the Bourgeois quote implies it might, the brutalist polished concrete, marble, glass and brass of the gallery is itself somehow made more emphatic by the exhibition – contrasting with the soft, but not cosy textures of the artworks.

These “old age” works from the last decade or so of Bourgeois’ life – she died in 2010 at the age of 99 – are confident and articulate, expressing the concerns of a woman approaching death and reflecting on a lifetime’s artistic achievement. The work strikes me as less violent and explicit, more reflective than her earlier work.

Bourgeois’ work is accessible, often simple and literal as well as metaphorical and evocative. At a material level, the work is all about fabric -- the comfort of pale pink or blue terry-towelling, the nostalgia of her mother’s flesh coloured, gossamer fine lingerie, the rich texture of tapestry – and the seamstress’s accessories: thread, needles, buttons, beads and bows, and artificial flowers. These are the basic tools of her parents’ craft of tapestry restoring and embroidery, vested with the echoes of her childhood and family life, memories of trauma alongside those of domestic intimacy. The work contains explicit autobiographical references and subconscious resonances of fantasies, resentments, ambivalence. Rough stitches speak of scars and woundedness. Tapestry heads gape in pain or orgasm. The repeated motif of an oval clock speaks of an older woman’s heightened awareness of time.

The works speak of the failure of language to express trauma. They speak of the unspeakable and unspoken. They address the fundamental dilemma: How do you tell the story of trauma when its dominant feature is silence? They are about the lifelong task of processing trauma.

In a 1998 seminal essay, New York University academic Judith Greenberg explored the relevance of Ovid’s myth of Narcissus and Echo to understanding the experiences of trauma survivors and to the narration of stories of trauma.

Echo has been punished by the goddess Juno by being deprived of her own voice, condemned to mock the sounds of others, to repeat fragments of their speech. She falls hopelessly for Narcissus, but he rejects her, and she is exiled to isolation and loneliness. The trope of Echo, says Greenberg, suggests the problems, limitations and strategies for narrating and listening to stories of trauma. She writes: “Trauma defies a linear concept of one’s relation to experience and memory; it hovers outside of one particular moment, reassembling or configuring the boundaries of time.”

In other words, the narration of trauma is not confined to a linear or historical, coherent telling of a story. Rather “translating a trauma into language demands a reliance on echoes.” An echo is a belated return, repeated fragmentary pieces of the original traumatic event. Like Echo, the trauma survivor is condemned to the solitary, repetitive, incomplete attempt to express recurring shards of the original experience.

The concept of Echo focusses attention of the fragmentary nature of the ongoing expression of trauma rather than on the original traumatic event. “Echo offers a model that shifts the analytic and listening endeavour away from one that attempts to locate a past ‘truth’ to one that acknowledges the importance of the continued processing of narration, the ‘echoing reverberations’.”

Bourgeois’ work perfectly illustrates this ‘possession by echoes’ of which Greenberg writes, “the persistence of belated and fragmentary aftereffects”. “Ode a L’Oubli” – Ode to the Forgotten -- suggests traces of what is never completely forgotten. A fabric book of 34 fabric panels includes two embroidered quotes: “I had a flashback of something that never existed” and “The return of the repressed”, which refer explicitly to the problem of memory and trauma. Other woven and quilted panels echo pink and red themes, oval and egg shapes, spirals and webs and the fabric towers that appear often in her oeuvre. Elsewhere in the exhibition a selection of these sculptured, geometric fabric towers is included.

Many of the works exude a witty ambivalence about femininity, women’s role, and sexuality. “Femme” comprises two stitched and upholstered breasts positioned on a stuffed slab or mattress. “Femme maison” consists of a stuffed pink limbless torso, with the stuffed pink model of a house resting on her stomach. A twisted black stuffed figure – “High Heels” (1998) has exaggerated breasts and ridiculous stiletto shoes.

I am delighted to see Bourgeois’ "Spider" (1997), which spans a metal cage, decorated with tapestry and containing a worn embroidered armchair. The image of a spider’s web is repeated in meticulous arrangements of striped pillowcase ticking. Of her mother, Josephine, Bourgeois said: “She was my best friend. Spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”

I have a particular fascination for the work of Bourgeois. Like her I have an affectionate memory of my mother bent for long hours, after her working day, over a sewing machine, or knitting by the fire. I share Bourgeois’ ambivalence about the domestic and child-bearing roles of women. For a number of years, Bourgeois did not exhibit and was known only as the wife of art critic Robert Goldwater. Having moved after marriage from France to New York she took up US citizenship and insisted on having become an American artist. But her work is imbued with French references, motifs, style and elegance. Bourgeois hated her father for his betrayal of her mother with his affair with the family governess, for his explosive rages, his domination of the household and his humiliating teasing of her in front of others. Though she later forgave him, “The Woven Child” demonstrates how the fragmentary echoes of family trauma re-occurred in her work until the very end.

Her father sounds just like my mine, who also in the fifties had an affair with our 18-year-old au pair. And, coincidentally, Louise Bourgeois lived for a while in the same building on East 18th Street in Manhattan where my opera singer grandfather had shot himself a decade earlier. It was a famous building, the Stuyvesant flats, the first block of middle-class flats in New York, lived in by artists and intelligentsia, the top floor given over to light filled studios.

Bourgeois wrote elsewhere: “Art is a guaranty of sanity” – recognising echoes of our own stories in the lives and work of artists is transformative, helping us to make sense of the world and our experience. In the art of Louise Bourgeois, we see a "narrative of trauma", it shows clearly how she transforms her experience through and into art.

Bourgeois, Louise: Review of “Wall Hangings” Craft Horizons, Vol. 29 No. 2 (1969), pp. 30-35

Greenberg, Judith: The Echo of Trauma and the Trauma of Echo American Imago

Vol. 55, No. 3 (Fall 1998), pp. 319-347

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