Louise Bourgeois’ secrets revealed in Scotland

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) is one of my art loves and I became somewhat obsessed with her after I saw the exceptional Les Papesses in Avignon (one of my favourite 2013 art shows – see previous post here in French). So I was thrilled when I was sent last-minute to Edinburgh for a client dinner to celebrate Burns Night. That meant that I could spend the following day looking at Louise Bourgeois artworks. And I did.

I naively went to the Scottish National Gallery, which was walking distance from my hotel, before realising that Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art was about 10 minute-drive. No time wasted though as I picked up a leaflet for the Fruitmarket Gallery, which to my surprise, has also Louise Bourgeois on show!

The Fruitmarket Gallery is showing Louise Bourgeois’ Insomnia drawings, doodles Bourgeois made at night during an eight-month period of insomnia. Her long-time assistant and friend Jerry Gorovoy would find them on the floor in the morning and collected them. He later convinced Louise Bourgeois to exhibit them as she never intended to show them.

I was captivated by these diverse drawings, which range from simple to elaborate. I had regular insomnia myself in 2010 and recognised the anxiety, imagination and incoherent thoughts your mind goes through during these episodes. I first thought those Bourgeois drawings are the epitome of automatic drawing, the surrealist concept of drawing with no preconceived subject or composition in mind but led by the subconscious.

The drawings are mostly made in red, with repeated lines and patterns. Louise Bourgeois also wrote her thoughts, including feelings on her mother, in two languages. She sometimes used French and English in the same sentence, being born in France and having spent her life in the US after she got married. Living in the UK since nine years, I do that too, scribbling my reminders in both English and French, whatever language comes to my head first.

Her insomnia work covers various subjects, from the houses she lived in, to flowers, mountains, paths, and labyrinths. Only one drawing reminded me of her sculptures. The Fruitmarket exhibition follows a chronological order, based on her assistant’s records. Although they were not intended to be exhibited, some of the drawings are signed.

I felt close to her in seeing those drawings, like I was getting to know the “secret” Louise Bourgeois. We also have some of her writing from that period. After her father died, she wrote about “The depression is lurking when I am alone…”; and confessed she wanted to hide under the covers of her bed but was not supposed to do so during the day. On a more positive note she reveals that “When terror grips me I create an image”, to our uttermost pleasure.

I gathered my emotions and went on to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, where Louise Bourgeois’ late works are presented, now on loan to the national ARTIST ROOMS programme, in an exhibition entitled ‘Louise Bourgeois, A Woman Without Secrets’. There I found the “Papesse” Louise Bourgeois: her late work in sculpture (spider, part-objects), stuffed textiles and sexuality as viewed by a strong woman. Having just seen her insomnia drawings, I now detected some anxiety, which I had not sensed before.

Louise Bourgeois associated symbol and colours to emotions, like having her own secret code. Spirals meant psychological confusion (Spirals, 2005). She represented hysteria with arched bodies (Triptych for the Red Room). Blue was to her peace, meditation and escape. White, purification and renewal. Red, which is the dominant colour in her works, signifies heightened emotion. Spider was a metaphor for her mother: “my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful as an araignée” (Ode à Ma Mère, 1995). Finally, sewing embodied psychological repair: in her last work in 2010, Untitled, 2010.

“I am a woman without secrets… Anything private should not be a risk, it should be a result, it should be understood, resolved, packaged, and disposed of. ” (Louise Bourgeois, 1992) Louise Bourgeois’ I Give Everything Away show of her Insomnia Drawings is at The Fruitmarket Gallery until 23 February; A Woman Without Secrets is at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until 18 May, both in Edinburgh.

20140221-064751.jpgLouise Bourgeois, COUPLE I, 1996
Lent by the Artist Rooms Foundation 2013. Photo: Christopher Burke. © The Easton Foundation

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