Kiss of the Spiderwoman

We’re mourning the death of sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who this week died at the age of 98. Here’s what I wrote about her a few years ago, on the occasion of an exhibit at the Fabric Museum and Workshop in Philadelphia:

In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Real Princess,” the girl who comes knocking one stormy night can, in her delicacy, feel a small pea beneath 20 mattresses on which she sleeps. In sculptor Louise Bourgeois’ 1947 parable She Lost It the pea is the size the female character is reduced to in the end.

Here’s the parable in its entirety: “A man and a woman lived together. One evening he did not come back from work. And she waited. She kept on waiting and she grew littler and littler. Later, a neighbor stopped by out of friendship and there he found her, in the armchair, the size of a pea.”

“The message was feminist in tone but delivered in the form of a children’s story,” wrote Thomas McEvilley in Artforum in 1993.

From this little parable Ms. Bourgeois has grown a scarf, then a performance piece and later a video.  Ms. Bourgeois, when 81, decided to make a 245-foot-long scarf at the Fabric Museum & Workshop. On the white cotton voile, the parable is printed in red block letters. The scarf was used in a one-time performance piece directed and choreographed by Ms. Bourgeois, starring the FWM staff and friends of the artists.
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A video of that performance begins with a magician wheeling a cart with beakers and a pitcher of milk. He pours the milk from the pitcher to the largest beaker, then the next largest beaker and so forth, and all the while the milk that once filled the pitcher fills the smaller beakers, never overflowing – seemingly reduced in volume. After he pours the milk, he holds up the beakers for all to see. Finally, from the smallest beaker, he pours the milk into the small hole of his fist, opens his hand and – voila! – a pea!

“She picked out the groovy dance music that accompanies the video and designed the garments worn by the characters,” says Lorie Mertes, the museum’s  director.

Next we see a man, wrapped like a mummy with the long scarf. The characters take one end of the scarf and start to wrap it around a man and a woman, cocooning them as the original mummy becomes uncocooned. “You can read the text slowly as it is unwound,” says Ms. Mertes. “Louise is interested in how space affects you psychologically.”

The garments the characters wear are printed with letters that say “I had to make myself be forgiven for being a girl” (on an apron), “The day the bird was attracted it fouled its nest” (on the back of a pair of bloomers) and “The phallus is the object of my tenderness” on the front of a pair of drawstring pants. The “models” parade the costumes, as if on a fashion runway.

“The point seemed to be that the newly unwrapped man was originally wrapped up with a woman, not a pea, and when the newly wrapped, or wedded, couple is unwrapped, once again all that will remain is a man holding a pea,” wrote Mr. McEvilley in Artforum. “Put a man and woman together in our society, as in marriage, and the woman will disappear.”

Ms. Bourgeois’ bronze spiders, titled “Maman,” attracted public attention when they began sprouting up in Rockefeller Center in 2001.

“The spider is the ultimate weaver, mender and repairer, the perfect icon for Louise Bourgeois,” says Ms. Mertes. “It represents the role of the mother and it’s her alter ego.”

A 1982 traveling retrospective organized by the Museum of Modern Art first brought Ms. Bourgeois international attention. Her large bronze eyeballs enliven the entryway to the Williams College Art Museum in Williamstown, Mass., and about 20 minutes away, her bronze cloud-like sexual organs fill a gallery at Mass MoCA.

“Louise’s work is very autobiographical,” says Laurie McGahey, director of development and communications at FWM. “There are remnants of her childhood throughout the work.”

Born in Paris in 1911, Louise’s parents restored fine tapestries, and she went to work in their shop at 15 before going on to study math at the Sorbonne and then art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Art became a way to apply geometry, but also a form of psychotherapy: to heal the scars of her father’s affair with her governess and her mother’s passivity about it.

Ms. Bourgeois’ work in fabric – she also sculpts in marble, bronze and latex – is a return to her roots. She created a cloth book with 34 hand-sewn pages and lithographic ink, completed in 2004, “Ode à l’Oubli.”  For this work, Ms. Bourgeois enlisted the help of a team of lithographers, master printers, stitchers, assistants and interns. She began with all the garments and fabrics she had been collecting since the 1920s. Stretchy silks, tulles, knits, nets and synthetics in stripes, polka dots and plaids were appliqued, embroidered, tufted, rolled, woven and quilted.

Like little flags with button holes running up one side (for buttoning into a book), these reflect the eras from which the fabrics come and evoke memories not only for the artist but for the viewer. Some of the panels are printed with text: “I had a flashback of something that never existed.”

The panels are like maps of Ms. Bourgeois’ iconography; there are shapes here that are also in her drawings, sculpture and paintings. Combining a childlike view with her deep sorrow as well as wit, it cries out to a viewer’s inner dada. If nothing else, it’s a great way to recycle old clothing.

Across the room, there’s another piece reminiscent of the princess and the pea – a stack of mattresses. The untitled work completed in 2001 is a tower of square pillows covered with a fabric that evokes mattress ticking. These ascend from smallest to largest in size.

In 2002, Ms. Bourgeois created “Pregnant Woman” for the FWM’s 25th anniversary. About 6-inches tall in slightly pilled pink terrycloth, it is like a bath toy, or one of those cloth mothers in the classic psychological experiments about rhesus monkeys nursing with cloth vs. wire surrogate mothers.

One more parable from She Lost It: A man, angry at his wife, cut her in pieces and made a stew of her. He telephones his friends and asks them for cocktails and stew. All came and they had a good time.

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This entry was posted in Dada, fiber art, Fluxus, Sculpture, Video and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Kiss of the Spiderwoman

  1. Jeanine says:

    I am sorry to hear of Ms Bourgeois’ death. I am very much influenced by her work.

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