“Single I”, from 1996, is part of the Bourgeois collection at the Glenstone Museum just outside Washington. /AFP
“Single I”, from 1996, is part of the Bourgeois collection at the Glenstone Museum just outside Washington. /AFP

Bourgeois beyond the spiders

Art May 21, 2018 01:00

By Agence France-Presse

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Traumatised in youth, the French-American artist left behind a haunting body of work

THERE’S SOMETHING deeply unsettling about navigating through the latest Louise Bourgeois exhibition, an experience that feels like trespassing in the late French-American artist’s psyche.

A five-decade survey that opened last week at the private Glenstone museum in the town of Potomac, Maryland, outside Washington, explores the breadth of deeply autobiographical, sexually-charged creations by this prolific artist, best known for her giant metal spider sculptures displayed around the world.

Traumatised as a child by her philandering father’s infidelities, including with her nanny, Bourgeois took a revenge of sorts with “The Destruction of the Father” (1974), her first large-scale installation.

A red-lit room lined in soft fabric suggests a womb-like bedroom-dining room, but also a crime scene.

“He Disappeared into Complete Silence" (19472005) is a limited edition book of 11 engravings./AFP

Abstract blobs represent children who have rebelled against their overbearing father, murdered him and eaten him up, his body reduced to lamb shoulders and chicken legs cast in soft plaster.

“So he was liquidated ... the same way he had liquidated his children,” Bourgeois once said about the piece.

Nothing surprising, really, for someone who said “art is a guarantee of sanity”.

The ferocious aspects of Bourgeois’ femininity are on display in an untitled piece from 1996 that’s a macabre take on a mobile or clothing tree, with fine undergarments hanging from huge bones.

Jerry Gorovoy, Bourgeois’ long-time assistant who now leads the Easton Foundation dedicated to her life and work, recalled that the artist kept most of her old clothes – including from her childhood – and used them for her creations.

“Single I”, from 1996, is part of the Bourgeois collection at the Glenstone Museum/ AFP

“Ode a la Bievre” (2002), an embroidered book made of fabric pieces, pays tribute to the tannin-rich river that ran near the Bourgeois family’s tapestry-restoration workshop.

In “Cell (Choisy)” (1990-1993), Bourgeois placed a guillotine in front of a reproduction of her childhood home in hollow pink-yellow marble inside a metal enclosure lined with knocked out windows.

There are architectural qualities to “He Disappeared into Complete Silence”, a book of engravings and letterpress text Bourgeois first made in 1947, seen here in an edition she reworked through 2005.

“Je t’aime” (2005) is a series of 60 double-sided drawings./AFP

Various figures are represented as large, inhuman structures in a world where communication is often problematic.

On one page, a tall figure holds up a smaller one. Bourgeois’ accompanying parable: “Once a man was angry at his wife, he cut her into small pieces, made a stew of her. Then he telephoned to his friends and asked them for a cocktail-and-stew party. They all came and had a good time.”

Glenstone founders Mitch and Emily Rales amassed this varied assemblage of the artist’s works over just a few years.

Having an in-house collection has its advantages. Totem-like wood structures were drilled directly into the floor, as originally intended, rather than fixed on a metal base, as other museums have traditionally done.

Gorovoy calls Glenstone’s holdings of late pieces in particular “unparalleled”. “To take this in-depth trajectory is really significant,” he says.

There’s a series of six hand-coloured etchings, “I Give Everything Away”, that Bourgeois created in 2010, the year she died at age 98.

The elderly artist here made her final goodbyes with messages such as “I am packing my bags” in shaky handwriting alongside large images of people, plants and abstract forms.

After taking this journey, it’s a relief to step out into Glenstone’s carefully manicured landscape of rolling hills, meadows and woodlands, the air filled with birdsong and the sun-tinged fragrance of spring.

“Louise Bourgeois: To Unravel a Torment” continues through January 2020, with a temporary closure in September as Glenstone prepares to unveil on October 4 a stunning expansion that will make it America’s biggest private art museum.