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Louise Bourgeois The Woven Child, Hayward Gallery

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

Spider, 1997

Louise Bourgeois is famous for her spiders. Many of us remember the massive spider dominating the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern's opening. Although Maman (the Tate's spider) is not in the new retrospective, The Woven Child , at the the Hayward Gallery, there are several others. Indeed, spiders are very much connected to the show's central theme which is Bourgeois' obsession with textiles in the last two decades of her life when she was in her eighties and nineties (she died in 2010 aged 98).

Bourgeois might as well have been born with a needle in her hand, the daughter of a weaver and restorer of tapestries whom, as a child, she liked to help in the workshop, she always connected spiders with her mother. The spider also became a metaphor for her own creative processes – weaving its web out of its own body, again and again.

I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn't get mad. She weaves and repairs it – Louise Bourgeois

Cloth, bone and steel, 1996

The breadth and diverse range of the the fabric-based pieces in this show is staggering: sculptures, installations, collages and books. At first she uses her own clothes and later a wider range of materials (bedlinen, towels, handkerchiefs, tapestry and needlepoint). Bourgeois saved clothing throughout her life, including dresses and underwear from her childhood and items that belonged to her mother.

These garments have a history, they have touched my body, and they hold memories of people and places. They are chapters form the story of my life – Louise Bourgeois

She has incorporated these clothes into sculptures such as 'Cloth, bone and steel' (above). The delicate slips and nightdresses are suspended from cattle bones and float like ghosts. They feel personal and intimate. On the base of the sculpture are welded the words "Seamstress, Mistress, Distress, Stress" – a reference to Bourgeois' family history and its psychological impact on her. Similarly, her own dresses are locked in a cage – like wild animals from her past –  her history haunting her.

Cell XXV, 2001

Bourgeois is renowned for having tackled taboos in her work. In these textiles she returns to themes she has explored throughout her seven-decade long career: themes of identity and sexuality, feelings of ambivalence about her own mother and motherhood in general, trauma and memory, guilt and reparation.

We were at once drawn to and chilled by pieces such as Do Not Abandon Me (1999). The pink fabric figure is giving birth and yet the umbilical cord is still attached to the mother's naval.

Do Not Abandon Me, 1999

It is not comfortable viewing: stuffed fabric legs hang from the ceiling, needles pierce soft bodies, there are pregnant and birthing women without arms, copulating bodies, staring heads – some with two faces and other screaming. The x-rated and disturbing material means this exhibition certainly isn't for younger ones but for anyone old enough to engage with the writing on the walls and her previous work it is well worth it. What is interesting is that they are all open to multiple interpretations.

This emotionally charged show takes a closer look inside the psyche of a great artist. The textiles might be from the last twenty years of her career and yet they come out of her earliest memories. Let's hope the magic power of the needles repaired some of the damage for Bourgeois in her own final chapter.

Louise Bourgeois 'The Woven Child'

Hayward Gallery

from 9 February 9 to 1 May

Anya Waddington, 8 February 2022


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