LONDON — For Louise Bourgeois, the act of sewing was rich in meaning. Tearing, cutting and sewing fabrics reflected psychological states, reconfigured childhood sufferings, fears of separation and attempts at repair and reconciliation. The woven child at the Hayward Gallery is a powerful and moving examination of the fabric sculptures that Bourgeois began to make over the last two decades of her life, drawing out themes of motherhood, gender, identity and trauma.

The exhibition opens with Bourgeois’ early forays into fabric and clothing, a significant departure from his decades of using traditionally masculine materials such as bronze and marble, as well as his well-known experiments on latex and plaster. “Untitled” (1996) is one of his most powerful “polar” pieces. Intimate garments belonging to herself and her mother hang from cattle bones; each slip, dress and blouse is both a social symbol of gender and a psychologically charged repository of memories constructed from the physical contact of the wearer’s body.

Around the same time, Bourgeois began work on his cells, which have become some of his best-known plays. (She installed several on a monumental scale in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2000.) “Cell VIII” (1998) combines personal clothing with sculptural elements such as architectural models and a small bronze spider, the all contained in a “cell” made of doors. The liminal space is both a trap and a refuge, a prison and an asylum (in every sense).

Louise Bourgeois, “Spider” (1997), steel, tapestry, wood, glass, fabric, rubber, silver, gold and bone, 449.6 x 665.5 x 518.2 cm (© The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021 .Photo Maximilien Geuter)

The spider is a key motif in Bourgeois’ later work. She associated him with his mother, and the arachnids often seem both protective and menacing. “Spider” (1997), a cellular work in which an enormous spider suspends a clutch of glass eggs above an enormous cage, is the largest piece in the exhibition. The walls are partially covered with strips of tattered antique tapestries, a nod to Bourgeois’ childhood work in his parents’ tapestry restoration workshop.

In “Lady in Waiting” (2003), a spider-woman hybrid sits in a tapestry chair in a dusty display case. Delicate threads pass from its mouth to five spools at the front of the display case. Bourgeois was drawn to the spider’s ability to weave its web from its own body, comparing this to its own creative process as well as her mother’s work in the studio. A similar motif emerges in “The Good Mother” of the same year, in which an armless woman fashioned from pink sponge, and contained in a display case, kneels as if pleading or submitting. The threads of five spools of cotton emerge from her nipples, pushing the boundaries of her body and suggesting the webs of connection that are part of a mother’s life. A wall text for “Lady in Waiting” mentions that Bourgeois often depicted objects in groups of five, in reference to her family unit as a daughter and later as a mother.

Many of Bourgeois’ sewn sculptures use the pink flannel material seen in “La Bonne Mère”. The softness and tactility of the fabric both resemble and parody skin, both appealing to and frustrating the viewer’s sense of touch. These pink pieces are among the most psychologically charged in the exhibition. In “Ne m’abandonne pas” (1999), Bourgeois stages a woman giving birth, attached to her child navel to navel by an elongated umbilical cord. The title is ambiguous; is it the parent or the child who asks not to be abandoned?

Louise Bourgeois, “Couple IV” (1997), fabric, leather, stainless steel and plastic, 50.8 x 165.1 x 77.5 cm (© The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021. Photo Christopher Burke)
Louise Bourgeois, “Untitled” (1996), fabric, bronze and steel, 293.4 x 109.2 x 88.9 cm (© The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021. Photo Allan Finkelman)

The artist’s genius lies in his way of alluding to the deep complexity of human relationships. In her unflinching portrayal of motherhood, she represents the immensely powerful parent-child bond (something she has called “monstrous” in her writings), but she also suggests the mother’s desire for freedom. Several works show a woman with a pair of scissors, ready to cut an umbilical cord that chains her to her child; in “Umbilical Cord” (2000), a fabric print hanging on the wall next to “Do Not Abandon Me”, a mother appears to throw her child away with wicked glee, despite still being attached at the navel.

Another key work in pink terry cloth is “Pierre” (1998), a modestly sized sculptural portrait of Bourgeois’ younger brother, who spent much of his life in mental institutions. Seemingly assembled from multiple scraps of fabric with visibly disordered seams, the disembodied head rests on its side, one ear missing, an expression of anguish stitched to its features. The psychological intensity of the portrait is heightened by its smallness, as well as what appears to be a casual placement to the side like a discarded object and the curatorial decision to include it in a display case with a series of other small-scale works. scale.

The wall labels and the catalog repeatedly underline the “rudimentary” and “raw” character of Bourgeois’ couture. It is certainly true that the stitching is not neat; clearly visible stitches are uneven in size and loose threads peek out from frayed edges. In the catalogue, the curator of the exhibition, Ralph Rugoff, quotes Linda Nochlin: “The ‘deliberate ferocity of [the] bad sewing”, as Linda Nochlin observed, simultaneously evokes “old age, which paralyzes virtuosity, or regression to childhood, the time before it is acquired”.

Louise Bourgeois, “Single I” (1996), fabric, hanging piece, 213.4 x 132.1 x 40.6 cm (© The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021. Photo Ron Amstutz)

That’s fine, but Bourgeois’ tailoring isn’t “bad,” nor are his works of art “roughly crafted” (in Rugoff’s words). For a piece like “Temper Tantrum” (2000) and many of its untitled heads from the early 2000s, the crisscrossing and frayed seams make the characters look like they’re made up of roughly assembled random pieces. However, this is not the case: despite the coarse appearance of the seams, the tailoring is actually very sophisticated. The pieces of fabric are cut and sewn to determine the shape and structure of the figure, rather than sewn onto a pre-made form. Many works contain no internal reinforcement and derive their strength from intricate patchwork construction and dense padding, which seems bent on testing “rudimentary” seams to their limits. The craftsmanship is actually virtuosic, perhaps intentionally subverting the image of the older artist hand-sewing many of them at her kitchen table in her Chelsea brownstone. Rather, their rawness is a deliberate choice, with strong psychological strength, and it seems a shame to downplay Bourgeois’ abilities, especially when the skill of tailoring has long been dismissed and downplayed as a female craft.

Nonetheless, throughout the exhibition, the curatorial approach is sensitive and engaging, weaving a spider’s web of complex, interconnected and often seemingly contradictory ideas. For some of his later pieces, Bourgeois began to collect versions of earlier works in large wooden display cases. In “Untitled” (2010), made the year she died at the age of 98, she combines a “pole” piece sporting spools of thread with a mattress-like torso, topped with a pile of padded berets. From the artist’s beloved hat collection, they occupy an ambiguous place between breasts and geometric shapes, balancing a fine line between intimacy and abstraction. These late works by Bourgeois show how the same things can appear both monstrous and endearing at the same time. This is an exhibition full of house truths.

Louise Bourgeois, “Untitled” (2002), tapestry and aluminum, 45.7 x 30.5 x 30.5 cm (© The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021. Photo Christopher Burke)

Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child continues at the Hayward Gallery (Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, England) until May 15. The exhibition was curated by Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery, with assistant curator Katie Guggenheim and assistant curator Marie-Charlotte Carrier.