A lumpen, headless couple have sex in a vitrine. The woman has flung her arm over the man but the arm is a strapped-on prosthesis, the hand a metal pincer, cast over his lumbering back. Both figures are made of stuffed black fabric and make a bulbous silhouette behind the glass. Go round the end and you can see his balls and stitched black anus. They’re at it again in another vitrine. This time the woman has an articulated prosthetic leg, its calf a nasty paint-chipped pink ending in a horribly delicate shoe. It is a miserable thing, the mark of some kind of psychic wound dragged too far into adulthood.
There are vitrines everywhere, and sewn-together upholstered heads, and figures and legs dangling from the ceiling or hung out on stands. Ideas strung together by a thread, thoughts unspooling and reconnecting. Bourgeois’s art leads inevitably to psychoanalytic interpretation. She thought about Freud a lot, but hers was not a systematic appropriation. Her entire life and the things around her became her material. I don’t think she had a choice. Recounting the same old stories – her father’s affair with her nanny, her mother’s death, her relationships with her children, and rummaging about in the lumber rooms of memory and fixations – she kept coming up with marvellous, scary and provocative things.
Bodies reappear everywhere. There’s sex and motherhood, replays of her traumas and jealousies in everything she did. Bourgeois could be funny, bitter and surprising at every turn. The Hayward’s architecture and the variety of its spaces is ideal for her work. It is almost 12 years since her death at the age of 99, and 15 since her Tate Modern retrospective. The Woven Child focuses on the last two decades of her long life. Increasingly agoraphobic, she rarely strayed from home. But the work kept coming. This is a wonderful, often surprising and sometimes frightening exhibition.
Heads look back, staring at no one. Some are open-mouthed as though about to speak or gasp. Some might smile or sing – it is hard to tell. Some heads, Janus-like, wear several faces. Or several heads sprout from one neck. Other heads hang inverted, like decapitations, in one of her glass and wire-mesh cells. Elsewhere, another head represents her brother Pierre, institutionalised for much of his life, and with only one ear.
Ratty old fabrics – raddled, repaired and disintegrating on their hangers – are suspended in one of her constructed rooms, above a precise model of her childhood home outside Paris. Delicate, diaphanous old white camisoles and chemises, bits of underwear and a pale pink blouse, along with a little black dress, hang from cow bones on a stand, like a carousel. On another stand, a smock-like dress has a long red tail trailing on the floor.
Little sewn-together figures arch their backs or proffer their rears, which have become breasts. Their feet wear little high heels. A rudimentary body is covered in puffed-up French berets, like a cluster of bloated mushrooms. Body parts keep switching around. Another body twists into a spiral, as though caught in the dizzying whirlwind of frantic childhood play. There’s an element of play, too, in the way Bourgeois piles up little cushions into precarious towers, or uses bobbins, needles and thread to make sculptures that recall the cosmographies of Jean Miró.
Bourgeois kept working right to the end, drawing, writing and sewing, constructing her cell-like lairs, doing, redoing and going over old wounds, ancient jealousies, anger and rage. It all kept resurfacing and driving her on. The stories she told herself and the dramas her art enacted were of a piece. She never threw anything away and she kept on accumulating. She used her own old clothes as material, and her mother’s, which she’d saved and kept in the basement of her brownstone in Chelsea, New York. The smell of the clothes and the associations they triggered – as well as the metaphorical associations of sewing and slicing, suturing and ripping, joining and mending, patching and repairing – were all part of it.
The Woven Child is, inevitably, not just about textiles, but a way into Bourgeois’s later work in the light of her use of them. A giant steel spider stands over a cell whose walls are partially covered with ratty old fragments of tapestry. Another, smaller spider clambers over a woman in a chair. Is it the spider or the woman who spins and spins in her brocade-covered chair? Unpicking, reassembling and sewing together striped materials, Bourgeois made images of web after web, in beautiful later works. At the centre of some webs, there are flowers. She continued to draw spiders all the while. The spider, she said, was a repairer and a guardian. If you bash its web, the spider will patiently start another. She kept starting again, right to the end.