‘Pink is feminine. It represents a liking and acceptance of the self’ – L. Bourgeois
‘The skeins of wool are a friendly refuge, like a web or a cocoon. The caterpillar gets the silk from his mouth, builds his cocoon and when it is completed he dies. The cocoon has exhausted the animal. I am the cocoon. I have no ego. I am my work’ – L. Bourgeois
Standing Figure (2003) is a brave apparition. Elevated and proudly alone, a totemic female form stands tall in a glass cell; though deprived of arms she remains firmly upright, and is poised open-mouthed as if delivering a speech. Executed in Louise Bourgeois’ ninety-third year, Standing Figure sees her work come triumphantly full circle: the use of needlework returns to the initial aesthetic impulse that began with her helping in her family’s antique tapestry repair workshop in Aubusson in the 1920s. Reminiscent of a primitive fertility idol or, in its swaddled texture, a mummified Ancient Egyptian body, the figure is a typically potent revisiting and exorcism of Bourgeois’ own past. The glass container also invokes the compelling interiority of her 1980s Cells series, lending the figure a deep existential framework. Memory and selfhood are explored, reified into a material presence that exists firmly in the world. Repurposing her early talents as a seamstress, this figure is a bold new configuration of Bourgeois’ practice. Having worked in lithography, carving, casting, assemblage, installation and performance art, her return to fabric creates a form that bares its skin and sutures openly, with a sense of the body radically cut up and reassembled. The result is a succinct and powerful expression of the essence of Bourgeois’ work: the fluid nature of the self and the sexual, psychological and intellectual threads that knit us together.
The metaphor of weaving is an important motif in Bourgeois’ oeuvre. From its autobiographical genesis in the textiles atelier owned by her parents, the idea of sewing together and repairing was closely associated with her mother, who Louise saw as a protective, nurturing figure, and who had herself been irreparably damaged by her husband’s unfaithfulness and cruelty. The image of a spider – a patient, maternal weaver, meticulous and diligent – appears in drawings as early as 1947, and is the subject of numerous important sculptures including the monumental Maman (1999). More than simple cipher for motherly care, however, the spider can also be read to stand in for Bourgeois herself, forming a radical statement of female creativity in a field dominated by male artists. Her weaving is no domestic chore, but a visionary fabrication from deep-seated narrative strands of self. In 1988 Bourgeois stated that ‘[t]he skeins of wool are friendly refuge, like a web or a cocoon. The caterpillar gets the silk from his mouth, builds his cocoon and when it is completed he dies. The cocoon has exhausted the animal. I am the cocoon. I have no ego. I am my work’ (L. Bourgeois, ‘Statements 1988,’ in H-U. Obrist and M-L. Bernadac (eds.), Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father, Writings and Interviews 1923-1997, Cambridge, MA, 2005, p.173). With an emphasis on the generative body, Bourgeois affirms the transubstantiation of her inner self into the external in her art – a process further implied by the potential pregnancy of Standing Figure. Indeed, while many of her works traffic in the trauma of human relationships, Standing Figure is emphatically alone; despite its apparent incompleteness it exists in expressive self-sufficiency, not clothing or illustration but something more like extruded flesh, an object embodying that which it was once part of. This free-standing state of serenity is also conveyed, claims Bourgeois, in the colour. ‘Pink is feminine. It represents a liking and acceptance of the self’ (L. Bourgeois (1992), quoted in G. Celant (ed.), Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works, exh. cat. Fondazione Emilio e Annabianca Vedova, Venice 2010, p.111).
The figure’s placement in a glass container echoes an important series of works that Bourgeois executed in the late 1980s: her Cells were room-sized assemblages of objects and sculpture, inviting the viewer into an intimate psychological interior. These rooms were ambiguous; were they a home, a place of shelter or a prison cell? Similarly, Standing Figure’s vitrine makes the viewer a voyeur. We gaze upon a contained body, recalling the cage-like motif found in Francis Bacon’s paintings as well as the encased sculptures of Giacometti, both of whom Bourgeois admired. There is a fine line between self-containment and entrapment. It seems, however, that Bourgeois works better alone: the figure is of course protected by its glass, and imbued with a sense of iconic and reliquary power. ‘I’m a complete loner. It doesn’t help me to associate with people; it really doesn’t help me. What helps me is to realise my own disabilities and to expose them’ (L. Bourgeois, ‘Statements from an Interview with Donald Kuspit, in H-U. Obrist and M-L. Bernadac (eds.), Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father, Writings and Interviews 1923-1997, Cambridge, MA, 2005, pp.164-65). In Standing Figure, Bourgeois conjures an aspect of herself knitted from experiential filaments, an imperfect but rich tapestry that expresses ability as much as restriction. Materially referencing cocoon, tapestry and body, the fabric also recalls bandages, the bindings for wounds; in creating and recreating herself through her art, Bourgeois explores and even heals the pain of her past while weaving a work that will stand long into the future.