Friday, 14 March 2014

Louise Bourgeois: A woman without secrets - Art as Therapy

Nathan Coley's outdoor work
in the grounds of the Dean Gallery,
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
We stumbled across the exhibition.  I had intended to visit the two imposing galleries standing opposite one another, both dedicated to Modern Art, but had not anticipated encountering such a moving retrospective of Louise Bourgeois' productive career that spanned most of her life (25.12.1911 - 20.05.2010). 
The Art Collection Rooms were as spacious as they were welcoming.  We were privileged to enter and occupy each of the connected galleries with only each other for company.  Left to enjoy and absorb the works of art mostly from the later stages of Bourgeois' life spoke to us in different ways, touching us and our individual stories. 
Bourgeois' talent was hidden from the public eye until her seventieth year, when the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) uncovered her bold genius allowing her to rise to fame at last as one of the most inventive, and disturbing, sculptors of the century.
I remained ignorant until I came across her 35ft high giant arachnid installation, 'Maman' in the vast atrium space of the Turbine Hall when the Tate Modern opened in London.
Her visceral and tactile work excites and fascinates me.  The themes that preoccupied her speak to me at a number of different levels.  Acutely aware that her father had hoped for a son, her work unpicks childhood trauma, and offers her audience the opportunity to look through the lens of the Kleinian psychoanalytic psychotherapy she underwent intensively for over 14 years (and thereafter for a further 18 years).
"The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother."
I am not what I am
I am what I do with my hands
Louise Bourgeois
The small selection of her work we encountered in Edinburgh bears testament to the voracious appetite and energy of an artist who truly discovered her vocation and lived her talent through a variety of media. 
It is as though she came to terms with her experience through her art, and that via catharsis conversion from experience to image became possible, and this process itself was her healing journey. 
Anger and rage, envy and hatred are all on offer - wild, and unrefined.  Emotions are expressed, but not dressed up.  Whilst she is on record as having said that understanding her autobiography is not necessary to appreciate her art, it certainly adds a further dimension.  In knowing a little about the artist, one can deconstruct the powerful symbolism and digest the humility that, I feel, characterises her work which is, above all, about the struggle and broken-ness that unite us.
The relationship between gender and physicality captivated Bourgeois, and none more so than her relationship with her own body.  Having convinced herself she could not conceive (ascribing her self-diagnosed infertility to hysteria), she adopted a boy, before later giving birth to two more sons.  Balancing her passion for her work and motherhood was something she never believed she wholly achieved and her later work is riddled with ambivalence around her maternal identity, with concepts of the good enough mother repeatedly returning more or less explicitly. 
"The subject of pain is the business I am in," she wrote.
From what little of her work to which I have now borne witness, I am more certain than ever as to the power of art in the expression of trauma and working through of even the most impenetrable-seeming pain and shame. 


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