Louise Bourgeois: More than Spiderwoman

The French-American artist Louise Bourgeois is widely known for her gigantic spider sculptures, like the one at the Tate Modern in London, but she is so much more than that. I had never seen much of her art in person before, and since the exhibition of her late work The Woven Child at the Hayward Gallery will be closing on the 15th May, I made it a point to go there last week to see it.

Of course, spiders were involved. This work combines her use of cages/enclosed spaces in her later work and her love of spiders. She associated spiders with her mother: hard-working, patient, creative, resilient. Her family had a tapestry restoration business, and you can see fragments of tapestry scattered around the edges of the cage.

I am not necessarily a huge fan of installation art, but there is something so visceral and moving about Bourgeois’ work that you feel you want to immerse yourself in it. Certainly step into her cages or cells, touch those floating bits of gauze, lace and other silk, which feel so vulnerable.

Another spider/mother sitting on an embroidered chair, in a cell. To me it represents hard-working women and mothers everywhere, being constrained in the domestic sphere, whether they choose it or not.
Many of the nightdresses and underwear were either the artist’s own (like shedding her skin, she described it) or her mother’s.

The contrast between the formal little black dress and the disarmingly innocent and fragile underclothes.

It is impossible not to be struck by the symbolism of the work. Some of it was too disturbing, too powerful for me to want to take a picture to share with others: couples embracing where the woman had a maimed limb, bodies hanging in various stages of distress… I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising. But others were more benign and profoundly moving.

The Good Mother. The imagery of unspooling (which appears quite frequently in her work), lactating and being tied down would have made me cry when my children were very young.
The woman toppled over. The curvaceous woman reminded me of Niki de Sainte Phalle’s Nanas. Niki was another French-American woman artist, only a little younger than Bourgeois. Unlike the smooth, colourful papier-mache Nanas, Bourgeois has created Frankenstein women, by sewing together pieces of sometimes rough, sometimes smooth fabric

Then there were the fabric heads with gaping mouths and flattened features – like a zombie army. So many ways to interpret this!

Pretty but vacuous?
Not just two-faced – this one had four faces – dark and light, demonic and innocent.

There were ‘prettier’, less visceral works on display too, full of literary allusions or nostalgia for long-gone places.

Bourgeois repurposed old teatowels or handkerchiefs to create this mood board for Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, a novel about the few choices open to women at the time, and a journey from innocence to bitterness, illusion to disenchantment.
Ode a la Bievre, a series of fabric drawings in memory of the river Bievre. The family moved next to the river when she was a child, and she reminisces about the family’s beautiful garden and exploring the river (which contained tannin, an important ingredient for dyeing fabric). The last panel says that when she returned with her children to show them the river, it had disappeared (been filled in) and ‘only the trees planted by my father along its edge remained as witness.’

LATE ADDITION: I’ve just been made aware that there is a video of someone much more eloquent than me who can talk you through this wonderful exhibition, namely Deborah Levy.