Louise Bourgeois

To celebrate the recent acquisition and United States debut of ninety-five-years-young Louise Bourgeois’s fabric sculpture The Woven Child, 2002, an archetypal image of a mother and child, the Worcester Art Museum organized a lyrical exhibition of related cloth figures, a fabric book, and a series of silk screens on fabric made by the artist over the past ten years. Much of the imagery in the five sculptures and pair of two-dimensional installations in the exhibition “Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child (in context)” further explores themes that Bourgeois has grappled with for more than fifty years—sexuality, birth, childhood, and healing. Since so much of Bourgeois’s oeuvre is directly related to the comfort and anguish of her childhood in France as the daughter of parents who were in the tapestry-restoration business, it seems fitting that her late work should make use of hand-stitched fabric.

To make this body of work, the artist raided her closet for old dresses, napkins, satins, lace, and linen, fragments of which she sewed to newer pieces of material. According to the show’s curator, Susan Stoops, The Woven Child is an homage both to the idealized memory of Bourgeois’s tapestry-weaving mother and to her own experience of having three children. The figure of a newborn, encased in loosely stitched translucent blue netting, is cradled comfortably on its mother’s belly. The netting protects the child from the outside world and links it to its mother (whose neck is topped with material of the same color). Although the baby, while featureless, is a complete entity, the mother is only a partial figure. Lying on its back, the armless, headless torso resembles a dressmaker’s dummy patched together from wool, linen, cotton, silk, and satin, some of the pieces stained with age. But if the figure of the mother is unable to kiss or hold her newborn, she remains a nurturing being nonetheless—complete with prominent nipples ready to feed her charge.

Elsewhere in the installation, miniature terry-cloth lovers embrace, in Couple, 2001, and anatomically correct pink sock dolls are erotically entangled, in Seven in a Bed, 2001: All the figures also imprisoned in glass vitrines. Untitled, 1996, an early example of Bourgeois mak- ing art from castoffs and hand-me-downs, is the most powerfully strange and threatening image in the exhibition. A vintage red dress, stuffed and suspended from a steel rod, has been transformed into a monster with a grommetted black tail belt that trails on the floor, while a snakelike bronze coil hangs from a rod opposite it. The Cold of Anxiety, 2001, a human-scale totem pole composed of a stack of twenty-nine soft fabric rectangles, recalls Bourgeois’s skewered spiral columns of the ’50s. Diminishing in size toward its base, it looks at once designed and organic. Embroidered onto one of these flesh-pink units are the words THE COLD OF ANXIETY, conjuring an existentialist psychodrama, and transforming the usually comforting pillows into signifiers of harsh reality.

Paralleling Bourgeois’s fabric sculpture was a selection of prints and books. The editioned textile-and-lithograph tome Ode à l’oubli (Ode to Forgetfulness), 2004, is based on a unique fabric-on-fabric original that was stitched from hundreds of pieces of cotton, linen, silk, organza, and lace remnants. Thirty-six pages, framed for display, but designed with buttonholes to be joined to the binding, gather some of the artist’s familiar motifs: eggs, breasts, spirals, spiderwebs, and columns. Two pages of text include poignant and deliberately enigmatic declarations about the vagaries of fading memory, such as, “I had a flashback of something that never existed.” Like the figures, the words express the depth of a vastly experienced artist’s well-earned understanding.

Francine Koslow Miller