LONDON — For Louise Bourgeois, the act of sewing was rich with meaning. Ripping, cutting, and stitching fabric reflected psychological states, reconfiguring childhood suffering, separation fears, and attempts at reparation and reconciliation. The Woven Child at Hayward Gallery is a powerful and moving examination of the fabric sculptures Bourgeois began to make in the last two decades of her life, drawing out themes of motherhood, gender, identity, and trauma. 

The exhibition opens with Bourgeois’s first forays into fabric and clothing, a significant departure from her decades of using traditionally masculine materials such as bronze and marble, as well as from her well-known experiments in latex and plaster. “Untitled” (1996) is one of her most powerful “pole” pieces. Intimate items of clothing belonging to herself and her mother are suspended from cattle bones; each slip, dress, and blouse is simultaneously a social symbol of gender and a psychologically charged repository of memories built from the physical touch of the wearer’s body. 

Around the same time, Bourgeois began working on her Cells, which have become some of her best-known pieces. (She installed several on a monumental scale in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2000.) “Cell VIII” (1998) combines personal items of clothing with sculptural elements such as architectural models and a small bronze spider, all contained within 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 Maximilian Geuter)

The spider is a key motif in Bourgeois’s later work. She associated it with her mother and arachnids often appear to be both protective and menacing. “Spider” (1997), a cell work in which a huge spider suspends a clutch of glass eggs over an enormous cage, is the largest piece in the exhibition. The walls are partially covered with ragged strips of antique tapestry, a nod to Bourgeois’s childhood work in her parents’ tapestry restoration atelier.

In “Lady in Waiting” (2003), a spider-woman hybrid sits on a tapestry chair within a dusty vitrine. Delicate threads run from her mouth to five spools at the front of the vitrine. Bourgeois was drawn to the spider’s ability to spin its web from its own body, likening this to her own creative process as well as to her mother’s work in the atelier. A similar motif emerges in “The Good Mother” from the same year, in which an armless woman crafted from pink toweling, and contained within a vitrine, kneels as if in supplication or submission. The threads from five spools of cotton emerge from her nipples, extending 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’s sewn sculptures make use of the pink flannel material seen in “The Good Mother.” The softness and tactility of the fabric at once resembles and parodies skin, both appealing to and frustrating the viewer’s sense of touch. These pink pieces are some of the exhibition’s most psychologically charged. In “Do Not Abandon Me” (1999), Bourgeois presents a woman giving birth, attached to her child navel-to-navel via an extended umbilical cord. The title is ambiguous; is it the parent or the child asking 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), cloth, 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 is in how she hints at the deep complexity of human relationships. In her unflinching depiction of motherhood, she represents the immensely powerful parent-child bond (something she has described as “monstrous” in her writings), but she also suggests the mother’s desire for freedom. Several works show a woman with a pair of scissors, poised to cut an umbilical cord that chains her to her child; in “Umbilical Cord” (2000), an engraving on cloth hung on the wall beside “Do Not Abandon Me,” a mother appears to be throwing her child away with spiteful glee, despite still being attached at the navel. 

Another key work in pink toweling is “Pierre” (1998), a modestly sized sculptural portrait of Bourgeois’s younger brother, who spent much of his life in mental institutions. Apparently pieced together from multiple scraps of fabric with visibly messy stitching, the disembodied head lies on its side, an ear missing, an expression of anguish sewn across its features. The psychological intensity of the portrait is accentuated by its smallness, as well as what seems to be casual placing on its side like a discarded object and the curatorial decision to include it in a vitrine with a series of other small-scale works. 

Wall labels and the catalogue repeatedly emphasize the “rudimentary” and “rough” nature of Bourgeois’s sewing. It is certainly true that the sewing is not neat; the clearly visible stitches are unevenly sized and loose threads poke out from frayed edges. In the catalogue, the exhibition’s curator, Ralph Rugoff, quotes Linda Nochlin: “The ‘deliberate ferocity of [the] bad sewing,’ as Linda Nochlin has observed, simultaneously evokes ‘old age, which cripples 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)

This is all very well, but Bourgeois’s sewing is not “bad,” nor are her art objects “crudely crafted” (in Rugoff’s words). For a piece such as “Temper Tantrum” (2000) and many of her untitled heads from the early 2000s, the crisscross and fraying seams give the impression that the figures are made up of random scraps crudely pieced together. However, this is not the case: despite the unrefined appearance of the stitching, the crafting is actually very sophisticated. The pieces of fabric are cut and stitched to determine the shape and structure of the figure, rather than sewn onto a pre-made form. Many of the works contain no internal armature and are given their solidity by the complex patchwork construction and their dense stuffing, which seems determined to test the “rudimentary” seams to their limits. The crafting is in fact virtuosic, perhaps intentionally subverting the image of the older artist hand sewing many of them at her kitchen table in her Chelsea brownstone. Their rawness is rather a deliberate choice, with a strong psychological force, and it seems a pity to minimize Bourgeois’s abilities, especially when the skill of sewing has long been dismissed and downplayed as a feminine craft. 

Nevertheless, throughout the exhibition the curatorial approach is sensitive and engaging, weaving together a spider’s web of complex interconnected, and often seemingly contradictory, ideas. For some of her final pieces, Bourgeois began to bring together versions of previous works in large wooden vitrines. In “Untitled” (2010), produced the year she died, aged 98, she combines a “pole” piece sporting spools of thread with a mattress-like torso, topped with a pile of stuffed berets. Taken from the artist’s own beloved collection of hats, they hold 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 in the same moment. This is an exhibition full of home 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 Hayward Gallery (Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, England) through May 15. The exhibition was curated by Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff, with assistant curator Katie Guggenheim and curatorial assistant Marie-Charlotte Carrier. 

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Anna Souter

Anna Souter is an independent art writer and editor based in London. She is particularly interested in sculpture, women's art, and the environment.