Louise Bourgeois’s Transformed Bodies

Two major exhibitions at Kunstmuseum Basel and Hayward Gallery unravel the artist’s vulnerabilities through text, textile and the human figure

BY Sam Moore in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 05 APR 22

When it comes to major exhibitions of a significant artist’s work, curators often organize the show chronologically, charting evolutions in the artist’s practice and drawing attention to the ways their work somehow mirrors wider changes in the art world, or the world at large. However, two recent returns to the work of Louise Bourgeois, in London and Basel, sidestep this formula. From the thematic curation of ‘The Violence of Handwriting Across a Page’ at Kunstmuseum Basel, to the focus on fabric and woven sculpture in ‘The Woven Child’ at Hayward Gallery London, these two perspectives on Bourgeois’s eight-decade career reveal so much of what was at its heart. Hers was a practice that returned to the human body: how it can transform, how vulnerable it is, and how it can – and must – be remade.

The show at Kunstmuseum Basel, curated by artist Jenny Holzer, takes a key element of its title – writing – and uses it to re-examine Bourgeois’s oeuvre. Holzer’s curatorial approach is informed by her own work and the Kunstmuseum’s permanent collection. Mirroring Holzer’s use of text, excerpts from Bourgeois’s personal writing appear projected onto the museum’s walls; declarations like ‘I SEND OUT SIGNALS FOR HELP IN THE DARK’ are the kind of emotive language that informed Bourgeois’s art throughout her career. The presence of Bourgeois’s work also reconfigures the permanent collection. For example, Bourgeois’s Arched Figure No.3 (1997) appears beside Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520–22). In situating Bourgeois in direct conversation with old masters, Holzer clarifies how deeply vulnerable and human the artist’s figures are, even as they veer towards the abstract and the unknown.

Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois, She Lost It, performance garment, 1992. Courtesy: © The Easton Foundation/2021 Prolitteris, Zurich, and VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY 

Just as Holzer’s work with text bridges gaps between private and public, or personal and political, Bourgeois’s repurposed writings reveal a new way of looking at the stark oppositions in her art, between the abstract and the physical, or violence and harmony. The works in Basel explore the tensions between these ideas through a focus on transformation. The 2007 series ‘The Family’ treats birth as a site of almost horrific corporeal transformation – from the vivid, bleeding reds of the bodies to the smudged and smeared lines, as if the artist dripped blood itself onto the paper. This is visceral work, capturing the human form at a moment of transformation that renders it almost inhuman. Yet, all the changes that these figures undergo are rooted in their mortal and pliable bodies; they are all-too-human, something that gives Bourgeois’s work so much of its power. The bodies in ‘The Family’ exist in flux between states; they almost cease to be in ways that we understand. As the two figures slowly merge, the lines blur increasingly until they overlap. Bourgeois’s bodies here are sites of violence, bleeding on the surface, but also sending out signals for help in the dark, grasping for intimacy and connection with one another.

Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois, The Family, 2007. Courtesy: © The Easton Foundation/2021 Prolitteris, Zurich, and VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; photograph: Christopher Burke

Bourgeois’s exploration of bodies takes on a new form with the introduction of text. The 15-image series ‘Sublimation’ (2002) investigates the relationship between families, trauma and making art, capturing the violent nature of transformation and the tenderness that can come from remaking something using pieces that were once broken. In Untitled – the eighth image in the series – arms are captured in motion in an almost classical study. Bourgeois writes: ‘he kept alive/and he went over/to the closet/and brought back a/broom/and he started cleaning.’ Through text, the meaning of these transformations themselves becomes transformed. Contrary to the exhibition’s title, the written word is far from violent. Instead, it becomes a link between the physical and the abstract, often in tension in Bourgeois’s work, and the old and new. The written word is a way of showing that narratives of transformation are also narratives of (re)creation.

In ‘The Woven Child’, at the Hayward Gallery, the themes of re-creation are vividly present in the works on display. In contrast to the intense, metallic work so often associated with Bourgeois – such as Hole of Anxiety (1999) and the ominous, unsettling Twosome (1991), both on display at Kunstmuseum Basel – the focus on fabric and woven work offers another perspective on the themes to which Bourgeois returned throughout her career. What does it mean to be torn apart by trauma, only to be able somehow to put yourself back together again? There are echoes of ‘Handwriting’ here – the continued return to bodies, families and childbirth – but the fabric sculptures, which could unravel into nothingness if someone pulled the wrong thread, evoke the precarity of human existence in both body and soul. The Good Mother (2003) shows just how easily severed are the connections we make, both physical and emotional, represented by lengths of white thread latched on to a solitary pink body, always in danger of being pulled apart. 

Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1997, steel, tapestry, wood, glass, fabric, rubber, silver, gold and bone, 4.5 × 6.7 × 52 m. Courtesy: © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021. Photo: Maximilian Geuter

The Reticent Child (2003) – a diorama of pregnancy, birth and the ultimate rejection of the mother by the child – feels like a sculptural echo of the painted ‘Family’ series. On the surface, it might seem that the figures across ‘The Woven Child’ appear physically weaker than something like Femme Maison (1982), a Barbie doll encased in clay, on display in the Kunstmuseum. But, on the contrary, they reveal the strength inherent in the act of vulnerability, in offering part or all of yourself to another person, knowing that they might turn away, something made painfully clear at the end of The Reticent Child. These bodies seem less lonely than those in ‘Handwriting’, more able to offer themselves to one another, as in Together (2005). The two figures are locked in a kiss, their fabric tongues stitched together. Bourgeois pushes the relationship between bodies and sculptural form to its limits in Lady in Waiting (2003), which sees a woven body transformed by metallic spider’s legs – a motif echoed in Spider (1997), another sculpture on display at the Hayward. Lady in Waiting captures both the violence and vulnerability of Bourgeois: a body sprouting weird metallic legs as it begins to change form, juxtaposed with the loneliness of that small, isolated body. The combination of thread and metal in Lady in Waiting is a microcosm of the work on display in both exhibitions. It unites opposites, bridging complicated gaps, taking simple ideas and understanding that they exist as specific points in complex narratives that allow both artist and audience to be remade. 

Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois, Couple IV, 1997, fabric, leather, stainless steel and plastic, 51 × 165 × 76 cm. Courtesy: © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021. Photo: Christopher Burke

The series of drawings and text on paper ‘What Is the Shape of This Problem?’ (1999) contains small images of shapes that either overlap or come undone, circles with almost no space between them. In To Unravel a Torment You Must Begin Somewhere, individual shapes wrap up into one collective whole; in The Small Hours, a group of chains come undone. One of the text boxes reads ‘To unravel/a torment/you must begin somewhere’. This sentiment is at the heart of both exhibitions; these traumas and these transformations are all in the process of being understood and, sometimes, unravelled.

Louise Bourgeois ‘The Violence of Handwriting Across a Page’ is at Kunstmuseum Basel and ‘The Woven Child’ is at Hayward Gallery, London, until 15 May 2022. 

Main image: Louise Bourgeois and Jenny Holzer, Projections, 2022, exerts from Louise Bourgeois’s personal writings, used with permission of the Louise Bourgeois Archive. © The Easton Foundation/2021 Prolitteris, Zurich, and VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; photograph: Mark Niedermann 

Sam Moore is a writer and editor. They are one of the co-curators of TISSUE, a trans reading series based in London.