Women in Art: Dealing with the past

By Lauren Treiser For my grand finale post on Women in Art I decided to visit the spectacular Heide Museum of Modern Art. Currently there are two exhibitions featuring the work of Louise Bourgeois (1911 – 2010). The first, Louise Bourgeois: Late Works is direct from the late artist’s studio in New York. The second exhibition, Louise Bourgeois and Australian Artists presents a selection of works by contemporary Australian artists who have been inspired by Bourgeois alongside her prints and drawings. This is the first exhibition in Australia since 1995 when the NGV had a major exhibition of Bourgeois’ works.

Left: Louise Bourgeois, 2009, Photograph: Alex Van Gelder Right: Cinq 2007 fabric, stainless steel (61 × 35.6 × 35.6 cm) Courtesy Cheim & Read and Hauser & Wirth Photograph: Christopher Burke © Louise Bourgeois Trust / Licensed by VAGA, New York / Viscopy, Sydney

Louise Bourgeois: Late Works, in the main gallery, focuses on the final fifteen years of Louise Bourgeois’ career. Prior to my visit I was unaware of Bourgeois’ work but she was an incredibly prolific artist and I feel lucky to now know a little bit about her. She was creating art right to the end of her life and even some of the large scale sculptures were created, with assistance, when she was in her nineties. The show examines the use of fabric in her works, and includes sculptures, suites of fabric drawings, watercolours, embroidered texts and lithographs.

The stories that provided life-long fuel for Bourgeois’ art are well known: her parents’ tapestry workshop in which she learnt how a needle could be a tool with reparative qualities; her father’s public infidelity; her mother’s early death; her constant analysis of self; her belief in art as a potential reconciliation with the past. This all equates to her work being quite dark and disturbing but nevertheless interesting.

One of her written pieces in the show states, ‘Art is a guaranty of sanity.’ Art became her whole life; it helped her deal with her anxiety, betrayal, frustration and disgust for her father. She created art to express emotion. Most pieces in this exhibition use her families old clothes and parts of fabric from her parent’s tapestry workshop. Whilst they hold a lot of meaning for the artist, often the meaning is ambiguous to the viewer.

Spider 1997 steel, tapestry, wood, glass, fabric, rubber, silver, gold, bone (449.6 × 665.5 × 518.2 cm) The Easton Foundation, New York, NY Photograph: John Gollings  2012 © Louise Bourgeois Trust / Licensed by VAGA, New York / Viscopy, Sydney

Central to the exhibition is Spider, 1997 one of the Bourgeois’ Cells sculptures which is dominated, enclosed and protected by a ginormous spider – a recurring and powerful motif in the artist’s work. Bourgeois created her spider sculptures in tribute to her mother, saying: 'Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. Spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother'.

Couple IV 1997 fabric, leather, stainless steel, plastic (50.8 × 165.1 × 77.5 cm) Courtesy Cheim & Read and Hauser & Wirth Photograph: Christopher Burke © Louise Bourgeois Trust / Licensed by VAGA, New York / Viscopy, Sydney

Another highlight of the exhibition is the haunting Couple IV 1997, depicting a pair of copulating, and decapitated lovers. The embracing figures are portrayed in black, and appear as an encased specimen in the vitrine. Looking in, one gets a sense of Bourgeois’ feelings of being a voyeur whilst growing up.

Femme Maison (2001) Picture: Christopher Burke

Bourgeois started drawing pictures of half women and half houses in the 1940’s. ‘Femme Maison’ dealt with issues of domesticity and the roles of women. This piece can be read in numerous ways, it could indicating that a house could take over a woman’s life, but also the house couldn't exist without the woman. She kept revisiting this idea of a woman and a house combined in her work. Her other sculptures in the show are far more sinister.

Untitled 2002 Fabric, steel and wood (35.6 x 38.1 x 15.2 cm) Courtesy Cheim & Read and Hauser & Wirth Photograph: Christopher Burke, © Louise Bourgeois Trust/ Licensed by VAGA, New York / Viscopy, Sydney

Inspired by surrealism Bourgeois’ small scale sculptures combines dismembered torsos made from material and kitchen utensils. On the one hand the shapes are soft and tender and on the other hand they are quite ominous.

Knife Figure 2002 fabric, steel, wood (22.2 × 76.2 × 19.1 cm) Courtesy Cheim & Read and Hauser & Wirth Photograph: Christopher Burke © Louise Bourgeois Trust / Licensed by VAGA, New York / Viscopy, Sydney

The pieces in the show deal with the artist’s raw emotion and are imbued with heaviness but nevertheless are incredible. What an amazing and prolific artist she was! There is still plenty of time to see this exhibition and with Café Vue on the grounds, there is no excuse to miss it!

Louise Bourgeois: Late Works 24 November – 11 March 2013 Heide Museum of Modern Art 7 Templestowe Road, Bulleen Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 5pm Closed Mondays

Lauren is graphic designer and founder of patchyrugs.com.au. She loves all things design (see her blog at blog.ilovelollies.net) and is particularly passionate about fine art, interior design and jewellery. Lauren is currently studying Gold & Silversmithing and doing graphic design on a freelance basis.