The Telegraph
Friday , March 28 , 2014
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“My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama.” This is from the epigraph to Louise Bourgeois’s collected writings and interviews, bearing the suitably dramatic title, Destruction of the Father, Reconstruction of the Father. During the 70-odd frenetic, and fiercely articulate, years of her working life, Bourgeois’s relationship with the spoken, written, sewn, engraved, and performed word has been through many transformations, animating the myriad forms and materials that her art has adopted to its own ends. Yet, the core themes of her work have remained simple and constant: the terrible, but bracing, drama of abandonment, betrayal and abjection in her childhood, leading to the twisted and twisting family romances of adult life, together with their relentless ‘reconstruction’ in art, writing and conversation. This is the Doing, Undoing and Redoing, and the forms taken by endless re-invention of the self, in the life and work of a great artist.

In 1947, nearly a decade after she moved to New York from Paris after marrying an American art historian, Bourgeois made a suite of nine engravings with matching parable-like texts, called HE DISAPPEARED INTO COMPLETE SILENCE. Dedicated to her son, Jean-Louis (“the person who has the most dramatic effect on my unconscious”), He Disappeared was published by Anaïs Nin’s Gemor Press in an edition of 54, and has been republished in facsimile (Éditions Dilecta, 20 euros) with an unnecessarily verbose introduction by Marius Bewley. The relationship between the intensity and spareness of each parable, and the mysterious precision of the accompanying image, is anything but illustrative in this suite. It asks for a visually meditative reader who can feel, connect and intuit his or her way, with a sort of uninhibited restraint, into the open secrets of her bleak little stories, and the strangely anthropomorphic architectural riddles of the engravings. In these pictures, human physicality and minutely painful or brutal emotions are embodied in fragments of a cityscape, which suggests the skyscrapers, terraces and water-towers of New York, but also triggers memories of obscure dream-afternoons out of De Chirico or, given that the year is 1947, the chimneys and watch-towers of the Nazi camps, or guillotines and gallows, which are timeless theatres of violent or exquisite martyrdom. The reader, therefore, has to become a keeper of what Bourgeois liked to call “Blind Vigils”.

In a discussion on the tall, spindly wooden sculptures called Personages — half-person, half-house — which she was making around the same time, Bourgeois talks about the “fragility of verticality”: the “superhuman effort to hold oneself up” against what she describes elsewhere, in relation to the upright figures in this book, as “the lowering of self- esteem”: “It is a descent…a descent into depression… You lose your self-esteem, but you pull yourself up again. This is about survival… about the will to survive.” And this crawling out of the birth-canal of self-loathing is as much through the effort of writing as through a willingness to pay “the ransom of formalism”: “You can stand anything if you write it down. You must do it to get hold of yourself. When space is limited, or when you have to stay with a child, you always have recourse to writing. All you need is a pen and paper. But you must redirect your concentration… Words put in connection can open up new relations… a new view of things.”

In the late 1980s, Bourgeois was asked when and why she decided to become an artist. “The decision was made for me by the situation of my family,” she answered in writing, “I was the third daughter of a man who wanted a son. So to survive I had to create ways of making myself likable. It was the only way of escaping the depression, which came from feeling superfluous — from feeling abandoned. Having been privileged with a native energy I switched from a passive role to an active one, which is an art I have practiced all my life — the art of fighting depression (emotional dependence).”