Louise Bourgeois, A Woman without Secrets, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) was born in France and studied with Fernand Léger in Paris during the 1930s. She moved to New York in 1937, following her marriage to Robert Goldwater, an authority on African art and Director of the Museum of Primitive Art. Bourgeois’s earliest works were often seen in the context of Surrealism. It was not until the last quarter of her career, when she entered an extraordinarily fertile period of creativity, in part due to her researches into psychoanalysis, that her achievements became recognised. Bourgeois’s work expresses strongly autobiographical concerns, and many of her sculptures and drawings explore recollections from her childhood or reflect on her complex relationships with her parents. The family business of tapestry restoration also provided a primary source for her work. Her connection to this French tradition can be found in the materials she chose to use, her focus on the activity of sewing and mending and is found spatially in her construction of rooms, cells and hanging forms. She often indicated that she felt a prisoner to her memories and aimed to exorcise them, once saying, ‘I am a woman without secrets. Anything private should not be a risk, it should be a result, which should be understood, resolved, packaged and disposed of’. Her confrontation of such burdens through psychoanalysis became a fundamental part of her work and is echoed in the titles of the exhibition.

What was the motivation behind the exhibition?

The idea for the exhibition came about due to the significant addition of Louise Bourgeois to the ARTIST ROOMS collection which we hold jointly with Tate in London on behalf of the nation. It was established in 2008 through a major donation by Anthony d’Offay, with the guiding principle that the collection is to be available all around the country in galleries and museums, to engage with young people and audiences throughout the UK.

How did the addition of the Louise Bourgeois works to the collection inspire the exhibition?

It was an exciting springboard! ARTIST ROOMS is not a fixed but a growing collection, so we were very keen to complement this important group of works by bringing in other loans and to really utilise the gallery spaces here. We worked closely with the Louise Bourgeois Studio, in particular with Jerry Gorovoy, who was the artist’s assistant and close friend, and Anthony d’Offay and decided to focus on the late works from the last thirty years of the artist’s life, since they form the core of the works now held with the ARTIST ROOMS collection. Our audiences are important to us, so we wanted to introduce the range of Bourgeois’ motifs and imagery and also the sheer diversity of different media within her practice.

1. Louise Bourgeois,Avenza, 1968-69, cast 1991, plaster
and latex, 520 × 1050 × 965mm, Tate, London,

(photo: Christopher Burke, ©The Easton Foundation)

Indeed as you have such a representative selection of works from this long period, one can appreciate Bourgeois’ coherent vision, although she works with various media, the themes remain the same but she treats them in different ways, revisiting them over time..

Absolutely, it is a very important point to make. We have a work in the exhibition called Spiral Woman (1984) and the spiral is a very resonant metaphor for the way Bourgeois worked, going back and revisiting themes but re-articulating them in new ways. Hopefully visitors will see connections emerge over this long period of time – each of the rooms is loosely themed, with reoccurring motifs and threads running through the exhibition. We were lucky to be able to include earlier works held in Tate’s collection which explore imagery such as the abstracted bodily landscape sculptures that she produced in the 1960s, such as Avenza (1968-9), these forms reappear later, for example, in the mound of berets in the very late vitrine, Untitled(2010) – so it was about putting those ideas into a context. 

Is this symbiotic relationship between the media your impetus for exhibiting sculptures alongside fabric works and works on paper?

Very much so, each medium is a fundamental part of her vision, and there is a fascinating dynamic there. Although it is not always practically possible, in terms of lighting levels, there was a conscious decision to display the fabric works, works on paper and sculptures together wherever possible. In one room, we have a marble sculpture alongside woodcut prints and a fabric book. Even when Bourgeois is working on paper there seems to be a physical quality to the work. .

Linked to her mother’s work with tapestries, can you expand on the idea of threads and hanging as key themes in Bourgeois’ work. How is the lighting of these hanging works intrinsically bound up with their meaning?

Hanging is an interesting theme within Bourgeois’s work and she once talked about horizontality and verticality having emotional ideas and resonances. As a child, she was surrounded by the tapestries hanging in her parent’s restoration studio and fabric became an important medium for her in later life. We worked closely with Jerry Gorovoy on the lighting of the hanging pieces such as Couple (1996) that create a dramatic atmosphere for these works, the shadow feels like an extension of the piece and part of the emotional resonance of the work. Couple I (1996) hangs right in front of the viewer so it is also a question of placement within the space, the effect of its physicality, which she deals with in a very direct and confrontational way.

Do the rooms have a natural flow, or did you want them to be separate entities reflecting your concept of the diversity of Bourgeois’ moods..?

We wanted each room to have a dynamic of its own, as within our historic building we have intimate, almost domestic sized spaces which lend themselves well to Bourgeois’ work. This means you go into each room individually, we don’t have a sequence of rooms or white cube spaces, so the idea was to create a certain experience in each space, so it would feel very different as you go from room to room. For example in one room we looked at the motif of spirals in several works and this has a softer, more contemplative mood. We find sometimes in Bourgeois’ work, particularly with the cells, there can be an aggression with the way she makes sculptures and an implication of violence, so we wanted to show the range and complexity of her work. 

You also use these intimate rooms to accentuate the hermetic, emotional atmosphere that Bourgeois wanted to achieve in certain works…

The room with Cell XIV (2000) is one of the most intense experiences in the exhibition, as the Cells have a certain darkness to them. Á L’infini (2008-9), a large sixteen part work, takes up a whole room over three walls so is very immersive. The piece was conceived as an installation and has real emotional impact, so we took advantage of this ability to show a single work in a single space, which is like a world unto itself. Here, every sheet of that work takes you to a different part of her imagery and her thinking – it feels to me that it is about how you can express the inexpressible. The imagery suggests parallels between nature and the human body, with cellular forms, blood red pigment, and flowing lines that suggest rivers or arteries. This linked well to works in the next room such as Avenza (1968/9) and Amoeba(1963-5) which deal with the abstracted landscape of the body, organisms and with the breast form more apparent in Mamelles (1991).

Was there a dialogue with The Fruitmarket Gallery’s exhibition of the Insomnia drawings, and what parallels emerged?

Yes, our exhibition was very much a collaboration with The Fruitmarket Gallery, and Frances Morris from the Tate, who curated their exhibition. The Fruitmarket exhibited the two hundred and twenty Insomnia (1994-95) drawings. Rather than show the drawings as a grid, as they are often displayed, they were hung in a chronological sequence so you read it like a narrative. This sense of Bourgeois’ inner ‘journey’ complemented our exhibition as it dealt with questions of psychoanalysis and key issues of an exploration of ‘self’ and identity. Significantly, another parallel that emerged was how the drawings oscillate from abstraction to figuration and back again, and this duality is very evident in our exhibition as many of the sculptures hover between the two.

This notion of duality chimes with other themes of oppositions and ambivalence, informing both her imagery and use of contrasting textures and materials…

These are issues and concerns that run through her work. In Untitled (2010), the hard vertical structure made of steel contrasts with the soft bodily horizontal form next to it. It is a fascinating tension between opposing forces, where issues of counterpoise and a seeking of equilibrium often emerge. There are many works where the male and female are coming together, and in Janus Fleuri (1968) she takes up the idea of the two headed god (she described this work as her favourite sculpture) – the ambiguous, mirroredforms in this work could be breasts or phalluses.

In 1993, Bourgeois talked on film about, “giving in to life”, how does this underpin these sensitive balances at play in her work..?

Yes you are right, the films of Bourgeois are very revealing – I recall Bourgeois describing in that film made around the time of her major retrospective at Tate, held in 2007, how she felt nothing in life was black and white, and that she was interested in the grey areas. People don’t only have one side to them, they are multi- faceted and complex. She was curious to investigate this unresolved area, where things are not definite. In Give or Take (2002) you have an open and a closed hand, the two arms are fused together co-existing, but with that resulting tension of attendant associations. It is a recurring way of exploring the ambiguous in life.

How do Bourgeois’ Cells challenge the viewer with not only a physical but also a psychological engagement, inviting self-reflection, as her early Cell, (Eyes and Mirrors)(1989-93), uses mirrors to question our experience and understanding of perception?

One of the first Cells Bourgeois made, Cell,(Eyes and Mirrors) ,(1989-93) deals with ideas of being seen and looking. As you move around it as a viewer, you are entranced by your own vision, and there is also a sense of being observed. But there is also a question of what might be hidden. This deals with perception itself, and also suggests inner reflection. You have to walk around the Cells, encounter them, they are physical, and as you are in their presence, they ask for your emotional response. The Cells tend to be the scale of the human body, they include elements from domestic life, some salvaged, some industrial, so they are about the worlds that we live in both mentally and physically.

Bourgeois was filmed drawing a series of circles explaining: ‘What is in this space, I control’. Are the cells a manifestation of her interior world and an embodiment of her need to ‘contain’?

Bourgeois seems to want to contain things that are difficult, and it is a way of demarcating areas psychologically. A good example of that is the enclosed space. Some of the Cells have open doorways or a sense that you can move through them, but in Cell XIV (Portrait) (2000) the Cell is highly contained. You can see in this work the three heads clearly belong to one individual, it is as if the screaming is in our heads, and as if she puts it into this box to deal with it.

How important is language as a medium in her practice, with equivocal titles such as Cell XIV (Portrait) ?

Bourgeois was a very articulate person, incredibly intellectual, and language, text and words were very important in both her life and work. Indeed writing is often central to the way she conceives her work and is being increasingly recognised as an integral part of her practice. The word Cell works on many levels, a gaol, a monk’s cell for contemplation, a cell from the body – I’m sure she was attuned to all those ways of thinking about it and the importance of suggestion.

How do the Cells relate to the early works, Femmes-Maison (1945-7) her early paintings of women with houses incorporated into their bodies?

The Cells come from those works and those structures that she made. We are showing a book piece she first made in 1947, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, which is full of imagery of towering structures, like the towers of New York. The Cells very much come from that way of thinking about those structural forms, rooms and interiors in a physical way. They are domestic spaces, but they are also psychological spaces.

Bourgeois talks about the spider motif as being her mother, the spinner, in the text for Ode à Ma Mère (1995). Evoking strength and vulnerability, what other layers of meaning emerge here?

When you see the spider in situ in the room, it is almost as though it has been made for the gallery, it takes up the space as if it’s coming from the corner of the room. It works on so many different levels, as it is fragile and its legs are so poised, yet when you study it further, it’s crude, aggressive and angular. Yet there is also a sense of nurturing – the body has a marble egg enclosed within it – the spider is a form that creates its world from its body, it is maternal and fecund and has its whole microcosm around it.

The notion of trauma infuses Bourgeois’ vision and her involvement with psychoanalysis. Although she often saw herself as a prisoner of memories, which were burdens to be disposed of, they were also a vital source of creativity: “When terror pounces I create”….

That’s right, and she is an extraordinary artist as she continually invented new visual languages for herself to work these issues through. Having spoken to Jerry Gorovoy, it seems that this is what drove her forward. Psychoanalysis played an important role in Bourgeois’ work – she questioned the nature and origin of trauma. In works such as Triptych for the Red Room, 1994 she explored whether it was the anxiety of the child imparting itself onto the parent, or the parent’s traumas and anxieties going into the child. She was concerned with ideas of family dynamics and relationships.

Do the spider works relate to Bourgeois early wooden piece The Blind leading the Blind(1947) which was constructed from a series of jarring angular coloured lines, piercing the space?

Interesting you say that, as one of the first images of the spiders she made was a drawing in 1940s and that image is much more along the lines of those early vertical works in its formal qualities, as it is so angular. Later, when the image reappears in the 1990s she develops it and it becomes different again. As you said at the beginning of our conversation, Bourgeois often goes back to images and forms and re-interprets them, and they take on a new meaning and significance, but embedded within a continuity.

Is a surrealist context a current reading of Bourgeois’ work?

Bourgeois’ work has often been seen within this framework of surrealism, but recently it seems that critics have moved away from this reading. She herself never wanted to be associated with any particular movement, and very much avoided being part of a group. One thing I think is significant is that Bourgeois was in Paris in the 1930s studying with a wide number of artists, at academies and ateliers, so comes from a rich artistic modernist heritage. Even when she moves into different concerns, or using different materials,this still remains a foundation.

One interpretation of Bourgeois’ work is a ‘joining’ of elements rather than a mending of things, and the idea of a possibly surreal juxtaposition, from the linking of the tapestries. There is also an unsettling quality to Bourgeois…

This comes into play very much in the vitrine Untitled (2010), which is a meeting of two very different forms, and the dynamic that results from that relationship. Also, in the way she takes apart bodies and repositions these different forms, and her interest in psychoanalysis. There is also an element of the uncanny in many of her works. I certainly feel that in the hanging piece Couple I (1996) the fabric of the legs are uncannily human, even in the apparently simple way they are formed, so the viewer is both repelled and compelled by it, and much of Bourgeois’ work is infused with this quality.

The surrealist artist Conroy Maddox would probably say she was not a true surrealist, and too conscious about the unconscious!

It is an interesting dilemma, as there does seem to be an intent in Bourgeois’ work. She uses spontaneity, but there is often a structure at play. In A l’infini (2008-9), she uses a print of the same motif as a starting point over which she produced fluid, spontaneous drawings that seem to express intense emotions. As we discussed, the work is often a means of controlling anxiety, a way of understanding and working through such issues.

Were there any important issues raised in your recent Symposium on Bourgeois?

The Symposium was extremely rich. A particularly interesting discussion was around writing. Even when not making art in 1950s Bourgeois wrote every day and that almost became the outlet of her artistic production. The need to create is not only physical, sculptural, or through drawing and printmaking – there is also a craft in her writing. It was fascinating to explore this, and to view this holistically, as language and text appear so regularly in her work – as I mentioned earlier, her psychoanalytical writings are increasingly being seen as an integral part of her artistic production.

Bourgeois railed against a documentary maker by holding up a sign saying saying ‘No trespassers’, and rebuffed definitive answers about her work, saying: “I am not what I say, but what I do”. However, she does talk about her work often on film. Is she evasive because that ‘grey area’ she referes to in the film, is at play again?

Bourgeois doesn’t ever seem to give one interpretation of her work – she seems to have liked that openness and ambiguity. I understand from those who met her that when she talked about her work, she would sometimes give very succinct answers, and many of her writings about her work are published, but that on another day she might give a different reading. In the films about her she is very articulate and also very knowing.

Reflecting on her life, Bourgeois made a list of what roles she had failed in, but what she felt that she had succeeded as, was the most important role of all – as “truthseeker”…

I think Bourgeois was very much an artist who wanted to be in her studio, and was devoted to her work and making. People came to her to make an exhibition, and she would take part, but that was not her driving force. Her vocation was her studio, and work was her life.

Lucy Askew is Senior Curator, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

Main image: Installation view, (photo: The Fruitmarket Gallery)

Aurora Corio