In 1947, at Atelier 17 — the celebrated New York print workshop run by Stanley William Hayter — Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) conceived of the idea for He Disappeared Into Complete Silence: a book of nine black-and-white engravings of various sizes, with accompanying parables written by the artist herself.
Bourgeois had moved to New York from her native France in 1938, after meeting and marrying American art historian Robert Goldwater; as many critics have commented, He Disappeared Into Complete Silence marks the transition from her life in Paris to her life in New York. With this book, Bourgeois sought to showcase her prowess in the printing studio, and declare her importance as an artist.
For He Disappeared Into Complete Silence, Bourgeois recruited poet Marius Bewley, director of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century gallery, to provide an introduction. In addition to her work on the printing plates, she designed the beige linen cover and portfolio flaps after studying other artist’s books at various print rooms across the city.
‘Bourgeois knew about artist books in the traditional sense,’ says Lindsay Griffith, specialist in Prints and Multiples at Christie’s in New York. ‘Her father collected them, and she herself had owned a rare book store at one point in the 1950s. The project was really designed for her to be able to market herself and for people to get to know her in the emergent New York School.’
In their execution, the prints in the portfolio reveal a debt to the lessons Bourgeois learned at the Atelier 17 studio. Their compositions recall other Surrealist prints, particularly the etchings of her friend Joan Miró as well as Hayter’s own engravings. Entirely Bourgeois’ own, however, is the subject matter: the mundane nature of everyday life, and the tragic consequences of missed communications.
The bold lines and severe geometric nature of her engravings reflect Bourgeois’ fascination with the ever-changing New York City skyline. ‘Bourgeois was drawn to the architecture of New York City. The skyscrapers in particular were so unusual for her, having come from Paris in the 1930s,’ Griffith says.
‘But the portfolio is not only a meditation on New York. It's about that sense of loneliness when you’re in a new place. There’s a sense of solitude in these images — you feel like there’s something missing when you look at them.’
Also notable is the fact that she turned to engraving — a technique originally used by Old Masters such as Albrecht Dürer — for this portfolio. ‘Prints are ultimately about mark making, and Bourgeois, who would go on to become one of the most important artists of the 20th century, is using a technique that by this point has been around for more than 400 years,’ Griffith says.
Bourgeois marketed the book herself, sending copies to influential critics such as Alfred Barr at The Museum of Modern Art and printing postcard order forms for bookshops. But He Disappeared Into Complete Silence was not a commercial success: though Bourgeois had ambitiously intended for an edition of 54 examples, fewer than 25 copies were ultimately printed. Complete examples assembled by Bourgeois in 1947 are rarer still.
‘Bourgeois really thought about every aspect of this portfolio herself; it was very personal for her. So the fact that it didn’t gain any traction was a huge disappointment,’ Griffith explains — and it ultimately led her to abandon printmaking for decades.
By the 1970s and 1980s, the importance of He Disappeared Into Complete Silence had become clear, and the book was exhibited at several important exhibitions of Bourgeois’ work. But the edition’s commercial failure — compounded by the disappearance of the original 1947 printing plates — continued to haunt the artist. In 2005, she decided to publish a new version.
‘A real gift of the print medium is that you have the opportunity to revise and rethink images, even years later,’ says Griffith. ‘Bourgeois certainly did. She came back in the 2000s and reissued the 1947 portfolio, adding two new compositions and hand-colouring throughout, as she had originally intended.’
Today, He Disappeared Into Complete Silence is considered one of the most important works of Bourgeois’s early career. ‘It is certainly among the most personal in terms of how the images were created, how involved she was in the process, and how she returned to it again and again,’ Griffith says.
It has also become a touchstone for contemporary artists and printmakers, particularly female contemporary artists. In 2011 He Disappeared Into Complete Silence was the subject of a group show at the De Hallen gallery in Haarlem; the exhibition included reinterpretations of the portfolio by Carol Bove, Tracey Emin and Zoe Leonard.
‘Original editions of these books are exceeding rare — most are in institutions — so to have the opportunity to hold one and think about it and compare it to versions in major institutions is extraordinary,’ Griffith says. ‘The thing I find so striking about this portfolio is that it is intimately-scaled — you can really hold it in your hand and experience it as a personal object. I notice something a little different about these prints each time I look at them.’
On 20 April, a complete original 1947 edition of He Disappeared Into Complete Silence will be offered in the Prints and Multiples sale at Christie’s in New York.