For the visitor, the Hayward Gallery’s extraordinary new exhibition of the late work of the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois is a major undertaking. Thanks both to its size – the show gathers together some 90 collages, sculptures and installations, many of which have never been shown here before – and to the ever-confounding spaces of the gallery itself, inside it takes a little while to get oriented. The eyes must adjust to the Hayward’s permanent dusk; the body must fight a powerful sense of expectation. You want both to rush around in a frenzy and to commune with everything for minutes at a time. In the end, I did two circuits, one fast and one slow, and even then I wasn’t satisfied. Enfolded in the dark pleats of Bourgeois’s mind, the longest glance still seems somehow to be cursory. Here is a series of caverns, each one of which demands to be fully explored.
What’s strange about this spirit of investigation is that Bourgeois’s practice would appear to work against it. Delicate though she may sometimes be, nuance is more or less unknown to her. This is art that’s easy to read, the messages it semaphores close to trite at moments (this may be one reason why the exhibition’s curator, Hayward director Ralph Rugoff, has kept his own interpretations to a minimum). What else could Femme Maison (2001), in which a fabric house has been stitched to a female torso, be about but the burdens of women? What more can be said of Do Not Abandon Me (1999), a piece that comprises the figure of a naked woman and her newborn baby, once you’ve finished speculating to which of them – mother or child – the fear suggested by its title most applies?
And yet this lack of ambiguity impedes our curiosity and excitement not one iota. Why? I think it has to do, sometimes, with her media. Even if we’re not allowed to touch it, looking at Bourgeois’s art is a haptic experience: her textures are almost as thrilling as her feeling for narrative drama (for melodrama, sometimes). Mostly, though, it’s connected to a certain lurid intimacy. As Robert Hughes said, her work has a “queer, troglodytic quality, like something pale under a log”. Ugh! you think. And then: but just let me take another look.
The Woven Child focuses exclusively on the last two decades of the artist’s long career, an astonishing burst of late life creativity in fabric and textiles that was born, in part, of memories of her childhood (she died in 2010, aged 98). We know that her growing up was traumatic – she came to regard her father’s affair with her teenage governess as a form of child abuse – but this fiery flurry isn’t only to do with psychological pain. Bourgeois’s parents were tapestry restorers, and in old age she returned to her roots, incorporating needles, bobbins, embroidery and weaving into her art.
If everyday objects are here transformed into miniature horror shows – in Untitled (1996), cow bones are used for coat hangers; in Untitled (2010), pale woollen berets become swollen, severed breasts – what’s displayed is also intensely domestic. Her totemic “progressions”, which revisit her vertical, segmented “personages” of the 1950s, are now made from materials such as bed linen and tapestry work (the latter bring to mind church kneelers). Eugénie Grandet (2009), a series of 16 panels that uses the handkerchiefs and tea towels from the trousseau she brought with her when she moved to the US seven decades before, is (to me, at least) a kind of update of the samplers girls sewed in the 19th century, practising their stitches. (This piece is named, of course, for Balzac’s heroine, a character with whom Bourgeois identified on the grounds that her father, too, was oppressive.)
How to pick out things for special attention in a show in which almost everything is fascinating, horrifying, strange, eerie, beautiful? The first object the eye sees is Cell VII (1998), one of Bourgeois’s enclosures: installations in which personal objects – in this case, a scale model of her childhood home in Choisy-le-Roi, and clothes that belonged both to her and her mother – may be spied as if through a keyhole. The peeping tom effect induced by such storytelling – a feeling of transgression on your part which, paradoxically, only brings you closer to the artist – is not, I should say, unusual.
Moving on, I almost blushed at High Heels (1998), a kneeling figure angled carefully to expose both her buttocks and the soles of her impossible shoes. The curator describes The Reticent Child (2003), in which a series of soft pink figures – they represent the birth and early life of the artist’s youngest son, Alain – appear contorted in the concave mirror behind them, as a “diorama”, and in a literal sense, this is correct. Really, though, it’s so much more private – and dynamic – than the word suggests: a flickering home movie as shot by Dr Freud.
Is there a spider? (A favourite motif of Bourgeois, arachnids, those super-weavers, stand for mothers in her world.) Yes, there are several, the biggest of which, Spider (1997), is in the upstairs gallery. This huge steel monster straddles a mesh “cell”, inside which are more of the artist’s belongings, among them a bottle of Bourgeois’s favourite scent, Shalimar. “The spider is a repairer,” she said, and perhaps this sense of restoration – a tapestry-covered chair is also inside the cage – is one reason why this piece induces a creeping sense of contentment as you circle it.
More likely, though, it’s simply the result of its triumphant size. Bourgeois was doing what she did long before feminism finally made her fashionable; it wasn’t until the retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1982 that she began to come out of the shadows as an artist. Nevertheless, it is inspiriting, at this point in the 21st century, to be able to claim her as one of our own; as a warrior who both embraces and disdains the domestic realm, who reads it as both haven and battlefield. The Shalimar, in particular, made me smile. Those heady woody-smoky-vanilla notes floating, in my imagination, in the air around all that metal! Somehow, this encapsulates Bourgeois for me. The female experience is her dominion, and it does not diminish her one bit to say so. But this realm must not merely be seen. It must be sensed, deeply, from within.