As Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child opens at the Hayward Gallery, we speak to ten women whose artworks and designs are inspired by the artist’s vast and varied oeuvre
Textiles were transfigured, in the hands of Louise Bourgeois, becoming the very fabric of her life and experience. The artist’s prolific cutting, ripping, sewing, and joining were acts of repair and investigation, part of her ongoing enquiry into the fathomless depths of her psyche. Dissecting and reconfiguring time-worn materials – often sourced from her own household and personal history – these artworks are crafted from the fabric of memory, trauma, identity, sexuality.
Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child (currently at London’s Hayward Gallery) focuses exclusively on the textile and fabric artworks made by Bourgeois in the final few decades of her multivarious career as an artist, working across numerous mediums and touching on some of the most significant artistic movements of the 20th century.
Including over 90 artworks, this major survey of Bourgeois’ textile work includes her famed Cells series, in which an arrangement of her old dresses and nightwear invites the viewer into an intimate view of the artist’s personal history. The dramatic installation “Spider” (1997) incorporates fragments of antique tapestry, enmeshed with history and meaning. Recalling Bourgeois’ recurring fascination with spiders as a motif, the arachnid represents ideas of motherhood and weaving, complicated by the spider’s associations as both predator and preserver.
As an artist who so profoundly expanded the visual language around the bodily, psychological, and emotional experience of womanhood, boldly examining the darkest recesses of her internal landscape, Louise Bourgeois has had a far-reaching influence on generations of women who’ve recognised aspects of their most private selves articulated in her work. Below, we talk to ten female artists and designers who have found inspiration in Bourgeois, not only through their encounters with her work but also the intrepid example she set as an artist daring to reveal uncomfortable truths.
“Bourgeois had little to no recognition throughout the majority of her life, and so she was working unfettered by anyone’s opinions or feedback. By the time she came to prominence, she had an entire life’s work behind her… her own private explorations of her inner psyche, her practice being her lifelong way of dealing with the world.
“I love her sculpture but, as someone who makes quilts, I really love her textiles. There’s a particular textile piece, ‘Hold My Bones’ (2000), on a simple piece of white cloth that has embroidered letters on it reading, ‘Keep me together, do not abandon me, hold my bones together’. I find this piece extremely moving and profound, but also deeply romantic.”
Follow Christabel MacGreevy on Instagram for updates about future exhibitions
“There’s a quote from Louise: ‘Mirror means the acceptance of the self. So, I have lived in a house without mirrors because I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t accept myself. ... Now, the mirror cannot be your enemy, the mirror has to be your friend, otherwise you are badly off. So, instead of seeing the mirror as a symbol of vanity, I saw them as a symbol of acceptance.’ I think this quote really struck a chord with me, because I always find myself with a lot of mirrors. I currently have five mirrors and counting in my bedroom, and I’m always using them in my images and my performances.
“Up until a few years ago, I was really hating on myself and struggling with self-acceptance. I would literally make myself walk a really long route around my room just so I wouldn’t have to cross paths with a mirror. But these days, I have grown to have a very different relationship with mirrors. Instead of them causing me anxiety, they actually calm my anxiety. I can spiral very easily. And when this happens, a mirror can help me see myself from the outside and place me back in the current moment. Call me narcissistic or vain, but I think it’s deeper than that.”
“Visiting ‘Maman’ at the Tate Modern exhibition of 2007 was like witnessing my own psychic trauma writ large. Coincidentally, this was shortly after my own mother’s death and there was probably no better time to connect to it. Her investigations into mourning and guilt prompted introspection into my own remorse, memories, and position. It’s the symbolic associations that resonate with me, whether they manifest in sculpture or painting. The house as body, body as landscape, body as leaky vessel, as battleground. I feel like my paintings draw from the same psychic well.
“She was one of the first female artists I encountered that exuded dark complexity, presenting death, motherhood, violence, alienation and guilt while questioning the perception of women in society. A rebuke to the chauvinism of the male surrealists, her own psychoanalytical journey was very much her work.”
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“I’ve always admired the cathartic personal process of her work from her memories and innocence, so beautifully translated in materials, textiles, bronze, and glass, to the complex tapestries and the contrast from personal found objects to the huge industrial scale of her work.
“‘Seamstress, mistress, distress, stress’ (1997) has always felt very poignant. I’m most drawn to the Cells series which house her own clothing, her mother’s clothing, and her memories. The fragility of the garments housed within the industrial doors and broken glass, also her mother and child works, how she represented the process of pregnancy and childbirth.”
Take a look through the gallery above for some glimpses of Simone Rocha’s SS22 collection
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“The main thing I’ve learnt from Louise Bourgeois is that if you make one’s ugly life challenges visible, they will turn into extraordinary experiences for all. She has taught me that in order to make work that is meaningful and moving, the intention has to be authentic, aligned with one’s true self, and this often involves bringing light onto the darkest corners of our past experiences.
“I remember I was on a travelling residency in China. It had already been some time since I had last spoken to family and friends, I was feeling homesick, until we stumbled upon a solo show of Louise Bourgeois’ work. I felt I had come home… so much so that her work resonated with me tenfold and moved me to tears. This is the only time I ever cried in front of artworks.”
“I first encountered her work that I was able to take it in properly with the Tate Modern Turbine Hall exhibition I Do, I Undo, I Redo in 2000 and then her Tate survey show in 2007. I was 30 years old, racked with confusion about how I managed my own identity – I was an in-the-closet trans woman, and I was struggling with my own family’s relationships. Bourgeois was an eye-opener, such daring and vision encouraged me to think about how I could approach my personal demons. Her work threw down a gauntlet, defying me to respond as a viewer but also to respond as an artist. Her work is often feminist, making the woman the subject of the work rather than just an object in the work. I also love that she didn’t shy away from putting it all on the block.
“Her spiders shock and awe me the most, attracting me with their beauty, scale, and delicacy. But they also terrify me much for the same reason. I am by turns a child filled with curiosity and the next moment I’m filled with abject horror… even though I know Bourgeois was making work about her mother and that I should think about the wonder that is a spider – how it can make and repair such a beautiful web and what a dedicated mother it can be to its young. What type of ‘mother’ am I? What type of mothering did I have?”
“One thing I love most about her work is that it was so often made from the detritus of her life. This alchemical process is something I’m conscious of when working. How to alter the significance of a material or an object just by shifting its position or context? An equally inspiring thing about her was that motherhood only enhanced her work. When my career was taking off in my twenties, I had absorbed the idea that motherhood was somehow anti-art and would sound the death knell for my creativity. To see a woman’s work flourish after motherhood and to continue to feel relevant right up to her death has given me optimism since becoming a mother and noticing that my own work has benefitted from the experience.”
Follow Polly Morgan on Instagram for updates about her future exhibitions
“I look to female artists who can break down gendered conformity surrounding particular topics, especially taboo or eroticism. In the work of Bourgeois, autobiographical rage, desire, memory, dreams, and reflections are translated into erotic, organic, luxurious, and tender compositions made from marble, bronze, fabric, and text, positioning you in a space where you can really deepen and explore your state of mind. What can we learn from Louise Bourgeois? Be fearlessly experimental and vocal in how you perceive the world.”
Alongside an upcoming residency in the Chilean desert and curating an all-female group show of environmental artists, Jen O’Farrell will feature in a solo show at London’s Guts Gallery in November 2022
“I remember the time I first came across her paper works. There was one in particular that has seared into my memory… a really simple drawing in red, of a leaking nipple. There was something very human, raw and tangible about this piece that gave insinuations of pain, corporeality, and sexuality despite its simplicity. It was extremely effective. Having seen predominantly male artists at shows throughout my childhood, her work had a lasting effect as it was one of the only times I had seen an extremely successful female artist that created haunting, personal, and sad artworks that felt synonymous to my own experience as a woman.”
“I could speak endlessly about her sculptures but I am most inspired by Bourgeois’ drawings. Drawing is a cornerstone of my practice. Every sculpture begins as a sketch. I recently saw a drawing of hers that has been haunting me in which ladders extend from the ceiling rather than the ground.
“I’m most influenced by the knowledge that being an artist is a lifelong endeavour. It extends well beyond show histories or commercial interests. Louise Bourgeois made art because she had to rather than because she was asked to. This idea of ‘making’ a compulsion is something that I relate to.”
Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child is running at London Hayward Gallery until May 15 2022