Louise Bourgeois, aka the Spiderwoman, is known for her larger-than-life sculptures, including the behemoth Maman, a 30-foot steel spider first installed in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall for the gallery’s opening in 2000. Works on Paper, the current crop of Bourgeois’s work at Tate, features pieces done on a much more intimate scale. Her illustrations, prints, fabric ‘drawings’ and books have been brought together for this special exhibition of the hugely influential artist’s lesser-known output, including some etchings that are being shown for the first time.
Bourgeois’s parents moved to the suburb of Antony when she was still young. Here they established a tapestry restoration workshop that overlooked the Bièvre river, a waterway used by tanneries and dye-makers. Bourgeois helped out with the family business, and this is where she first learned to draw. In her adult life she often discussed sewing as a metaphor for the process of repair in relationships, and she held the tools of the restorer and seamstress in high regard.
From the 1990s onward Bourgeois started to incorporate fabrics into her work, using many of the clothes and linens she had kept for decades to create sculptural pieces and fabric drawings. Working with seamstress Mercedes Katz and printer Felix Harlan, in 2002 Bourgeois completed Ode à La Bièvre, a fabric lithograph book and abstract homage to the river of her youth, which by this time was flowing underground.
One in a series of never before seen etchings by Bourgeois, Love and Kisses captures a very human moment. Intercourse and insemination are given wavy, flowery form, stressing the biological function of sex. Bourgeois was haunted her whole life by discovering at age 11 that her father was having an affair with her nanny and live-in English tutor. She claims her mother seemed nonplussed by the arrangement. Bourgeois’s creations often referred to the psychological fallout of this and other significant events in her life.
Another of Bourgeois's anatomical 'botanical' drawings, À Baudelaire references the 19th-century poet whose writings would come to influence existentialism, psychoanalysis, feminism and assorted critical theory movements in the 20th-century. Bourgeois herself saw a psychoanalyst four times a week for thirty years, and is considered the mother of confessional art, practiced by artists including Tracey Emin, and employing autobiography and personal symbolism to unequivocal effect.
In her final years, Bourgeois, who had been living in New York since the 1940s, turned to her favourite colour, red, for a series of red gouache-wash drawings. As ever, the themes of motherhood, reproduction, sexuality and psychology were her inspiration, and this vivid exploration of relationships is characteristic of her candid approach. Bourgeois passed away in 2010, at the age of 89. She continued working right up until her death.
Louise Bourgeois: Works on Paper is at Tate Modern until 12 April 2015.
Text by Ananda Pellerin