Louise Bourgeois: I Give Everything Away
Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh
26 October 2013 - 23 February 2014
Louise Bourgeois: A Woman Without Secrets
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
26 October 2013 - 18 May 2014
Review by Catherine Spencer
Even without suffering from insomnia, most of us know the particular terror of a restless night and the sensation it engenders of having entered a void or world apart from ordinary life, in which time loses its structure and things assume a hallucinogenic quality. The Fruitmarket Gallery’s display of Louise Bourgeois drawings, ‘I Give Everything Away’, takes as its starting point a series of ‘Insomnia Drawings’ (1994’5) that the artist made during an eight-month long jag of sleeplessness. Predominantly executed in red pen, pencil, watercolour and ink, the drawings, many of which include texts, range from obsessively repeated patterns to autonomous pieces, cumulatively testifying to the incredible creativity fuelled by Bourgeois’ wakeful anxiety.
While the drawings are wholly engrossing in and of themselves, across Edinburgh at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art viewers can get a sense of how the ‘Insomnia Drawings’ bled from the depths of the night into the working day, through the exhibition ‘Louise Bourgeois: A Women Without Secrets’. One particularly moving work, ‘10am Is When You Come to Me’ (2006), references the time that Bourgeois’ long-term assistant Jerry Gorovoy would arrive at her New York apartment to begin their tasks. Across 20 pages of paper scored with lines to resemble sheet music (but lacking notes to keep time), Bourgeois drew shaky representations of her hands, identifiable by their wedding band, stretching out to grasp those of Gorovoy. The paper is scuffed with red blotches and eraser marks, expressing the long dark night of the soul to which the knock on the door marked the longed-for end: one sheet shows Bourgeois’ single hand, heartbreakingly alone; another depicts her and Gorovoy’s hands meeting, their fingers tessellating.
Completed over a decade after the ‘Insomnia Drawings’, which legend has it Gorovoy would gather up and salvage on arrival in the morning, ‘10am Is When You Come to Me’ forms a particularly poignant instance of Bourgeois’ longstanding investigation of human relationships, notably the potential of emotional support systems to be simultaneously vital and debilitating. It also underscores her sustained engagement with certain images and tropes: clocks appear, their second hand pointed at 10, alongside nightmarish mazes and surrealist cityscapes, throughout the Fruitmarket drawings. A segmented tower form, which could be a millipede or a figure enveloped in a cocoon, picks up on the shape of the ‘Spiral Woman’ hanging sculpture from 1984. Gently swaying from the ceiling at the Modern, the women of the title is both imprisoned and protected by her insect-like carapace. It’s a real pleasure to be able to trace the passage of Bourgeois’ visual and conceptual concerns in this way between the two shows, particularly given her own psychoanalytic interest in the interconnectedness of her life and work, and in the on-going ramifications of events and experiences from her childhood.
The contrast between them also underscores, if it were in any doubt, the relentlessly productive way in which Bourgeois explored and implemented different materials and processes in her work. The Fruitmarket show is tightly focussed, with its mesmeric parade of drawings downstairs and the suite of six much larger but no less frenetic etchings I Give Everything Away installed upstairs. The Modern’s exhibition is much larger, and encompasses works from the iconic early sculpture Fillette (1968-9), through a 1994 Spider with a smooth marble egg harboured like an oyster pearl in its bronze fretwork body, to late cell-works and fabric pieces such as the Ode à la Bièvre (2007), a beautiful fabric book in which the proliferating organic forms of the drawings resolve into something approaching repose.
The Modern undoubtedly has the showstoppers, along with several late less-familiar but affecting works such as ‘Couple I’ (1996), a fabric hanging piece of two bodies slumped, tiredly but nonetheless fondly, together. Yet it’s at the Fruitmarket that you really get a sense of Bourgeois at work, unearthing her secrets late into the night. This is perhaps because of the way in which the pictorial and the written word - both French and English - elide in these pieces. There’s also a fascinating series of archival notes on display from much earlier that still have a sense of the rawness with which they were penned. Fragments from 1963 make reference to ‘this period of violent insomnia, and describe ‘a whole night as black as obsidian’, demonstrating that unrest and productivity were intertwined in Bourgeois working life from the outset of her career.