Louise Burgeois “The Woven Child” exhibition is at Hayward Gallery London Until 15 May
Updated: Apr 26
In the last quarter of her career, installation artist and celebrated sculptor Louise Bourgeois integrated clothes from all stages of her life into her art, as if she was using fabrics and needles to exorcise and make peace with The Past. With "Woven Child," Hayward Gallery showcases this extraordinary collection of fabric-derived artworks alongside pieces that carved Burgeois's place in the history of art, including a few of her "Cells" and the Spider.
“I cannot separate myself from my clothes,” she wrote in 1968. “It gives me great pleasure to keep my clothes, my dresses, my stockings. I have never thrown away a pair of shoes of mine in 20 years. Clothes are part of my past and as rotten as it was I would like to take it and hold it tight in my arms.” She even believed that throwing things away and “abandoning” one’s possessions was a kind of death.
Bourgeois kept garments from her childhood, or that belonged to her mother. Thirty years later this developed into a diverse, witty, visceral, and compelling body of work that features various domestic textiles from needlepoint to bed linen, tapestry, and handkerchiefs. The move marks a return to her roots, since, as a child, she grew up around her family’s tapestry restoration atelier in France.
The Woven Child brings together abstract collages, figurative sculptures, and monumental installations that dive deep into how she relied on the past to shape the present in stimulating new techniques.
Focusing on her masterful way with textiles and fabric, between the mid-1990s and until her death in 2010, the artist revisited her early artistic practice to reiterate her lifelong explorations and themes of choice, such as identity, personal history, family relationships, trauma, memory, sexuality, guilt, and reparation.
This psychologically-charged closing chapter in this extraordinary artist’s work is revealed through a wonderfully inventive collection of hanging fabric sculptures, textile heads, and fantastical - mainly female - bodies echoing the disquieting atmosphere of a fairy-tale.
“When I was growing up, all the women in my house were using needles. I've always had a fascination with the needle and its magical power. The needle is used to repair the damage. It's a claim to forgiveness. It is never aggressive, it's not a pin.”
Prominent works such as the artist’s famous striking Spider (1997) will also be on display. For Burgeois, the spider was a powerful metaphor, representing both the predator and protector. She associated this duality with her mother who was a tapestry restorer and a weaver. Above everything, she was particularly mesmerised by the spider’s capacity to weave its web from its body, a remarkable parallel with her career.
“The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. . . Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”
Although Bourgeois' mother Jósephine died when Bourgeois was only 22, for the artist she remained the symbolic spider who hovered over her furious, anxious, daughter, a motif of protection and disciplined repair.
One of the most instantly haunting sculptures on display is a “pole piece” called Untitled (1996). Stuffed sheer blouses and ghostly see-through slip dresses that belonged to her and her mother are dissonantly hanging from dense cattle bones suspended from a signpost steel frame like a constant ethereal yet monstrous threat. For Bourgeois, clothes were “signposts in the search for the past.”
During the 1960s she wrote: “My garments and especially my undergarments, have always been a source of intolerable suffering because they hide an intolerable wound.“ The contrast between the thickness of the animal bones and the clothing’s ghostly air overwhelms the viewer. At the base of the structure are the words “SEAMSTRESS. MISTRESS. DISTRESS. STRESS,” defining the tumultuous upbringing that informed her work.
Another poignant encounter with Bourgeois’ work in the gallery is represented by her famous “cell” pieces that explore the troubled relationship that Bourgeois had with childhood and her parents.
Cell VII (1998) is a tight space made of old damaged doors huddled together. The splintered wood and the cracked gall panels claustrophobically “shelter” yellow and heavy cattle bones, floating feather-light undergarments, and a model of Bourgeois' childhood house in Choisy-le-Roi. On the floor, a vigilant metal spider and a spiral staircase. The traumatic tension that arises is almost palpable. “I have been to hell and back, and let me tell you, it was wonderful.”
In an interview for the BBC, Katie Guggenheim, assistant curator of The Woven Child, observes Cell VII's eerie assemblage of thin fabrics: "They're intimate clothes – night clothes – and they're ghostly in the way they float… Like nightmares [or] apparitions. Because they're textiles, they are very fragile. You can see these have yellowed. They're not marble. They're vulnerable fabrics. They are ageing… like second skins." Clothing extends time, but it doesn't freeze it. We can't hold on to anyone forever.
“I am not what I am, I am what I do with my hands.”
Burgeois once admitted: “I always had the fear of being separated and abandoned. The sewing is my attempt to keep things together and make things whole.” Apart from the cells where clothes remain intact, the entire exhibition is full of mutilated and patchworked materials. Household linens, coats, and textiles are cut, frayed, stuffed, and stitched in an attempt at emotional repair.
📍 Visit "Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child" at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX
📆 Until 15 May 2022.
⏰ Open Wednesday – Saturday, 11 am – 7 pm and Sunday, 10 am – 6 pm (the gallery is closed on Monday and Tuesday).
🎫 Book tickets here.
🚇 The closest London Underground stations are Waterloo (Bakerloo, Northern, Jubilee, and Waterloo & City lines) - a five-minute walk - and Embankment (District & Circle lines) - a breezy seven-minute walk across the Thames.
*All photos were taken by Ina/WithinLondon unless stated otherwise.