Louise Bourgeois’ 2010 piece I Give Everything Away, after which the exhibition of her late works at the Fruitmarket Gallery is named, is composed of fleshy organic forms and scrawled aphorisms. At points figurative, at points almost entirely abstract, the large work, consisting of six paper panels of human proportions, seems confessional, bringing the viewer into its confidence as it unfolds. Developing a narrative of distance it reads: ‘I give everything away / I distance myself from myself / From what I love most / I leave my home / I leave the nest / I am packing my bags’. Typical of Bourgeois’ refrains, it feels as though the viewer is being brought into something private, entrusted with material that is deeply personal and revealing. However, when we analyse what it is that is being exposed, either in her texts or in her images, we find that we are always kept at a distance from any cathartic divulgence: Bourgeois remains ever enigmatic.
The two exhibitions on view in Edinburgh offered a survey of Bourgeois’ extensive oeuvre. Exploring a chronological range that starts in 1947 with her early book of delicate engravings He Disappeared into Complete Silence, and includes pieces made up until 2010, the year of her death, this selection of works demonstrates the extraordinary range and compelling wit of this major artist. Together, the two exhibitions illustrate both the breadth and detail of her practice in a valuable curatorial collaboration that enriches the experience of both.
In the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Bourgeois’ manipulation of material is aptly demonstrated. Fillette (Sweeter Version) (1968- 99) is one of her latex and plaster phallic objects that dangles on a string away from the wall. Its brown, dehydrated surface implies both fleshiness and mortification. Her bronze patinaed Tits (1967) emerge strangely from each other. Their pointed, hard ends look almost animalistic. The 1996 fabric sculpture Couple I consists of headless pyjamas which are stuffed and hanging, seeming to embrace. Conscious and Unconscious (2008) is constructed of two towers, one a steel pole topped with a rubber cone punctured by needles that connect to spools of thread, the other tubes of knitted fabric stacked on top of one another. The allusion to psychic states is mysterious, but the forms seem poised and loaded with meaning.
A highlight is Cell (Eyes and Mirrors) (1989- 93). Demonstrating Bourgeois’ attention to detail and aesthetic play, the mirrors reveal parts of the large structure that are hidden from us by the cube of wire fence that encloses the installation. The stone shapes, rounded and doubled, become eyes, breasts and buttocks in the various reflections created by the combination of mirrors. However, despite the evocation of flesh, the hard, cold stone negates any sensuality. Instead, the mirrors lead us to a language of fetishism, presenting an uncomfortable, fragmented and alienated body that is removed and distant. Throughout the exhibition, formal and thematic coherence is established among the works, which means that even though Bourgeois takes a variety of technical, material and intellectual approaches, the work is experienced as substantial and satisfying. The Insomnia Drawings at the Fruitmarket Gallery were created between November 1994 and June 1995, made at night as a result of the artist’s sleeplessness. These beautiful works are made on lined paper, musical manuscript, notepaper from the Pompidou Centre, and headed paper from the artist’s studio. Comprising both text and image, the 220 drawings demonstrate the range that makes Bourgeois so exceptional. Created with red and black ink and pencil, they feel less like a series and more like a single project that expands to fill any paper surface it comes across. Their display along the centre of the gallery highlights the formal consistency of their delicate lines and carefully sketched shapes. Sometimes scribbles, sometimes illustrations, sometimes texts, the vastly different types of picturing seem to flow in and out of one another. Both geometric shapes and figurative drawings seem to work in the same way, representing something obscure but evocative. #170, for example, is made from an accretion of cursive lines that looks almost like a hydrangea, building in such a way as to make something that evokes the beauty and delicacy of petals. However, the shape is repeated so many times that it seems entirely inorganic. A huge amassing of lines, it is edged by large red polygons, coloured in with scribbled ink. Marked on both sides of the page, Bourgeois has made a note on the back. It reads ‘sudden change of mood / dark red’. This play between beauty and excess recurs throughout. The scribbled pencil oval of #180 implies a compulsive repetition. #72 shows bare-breasted women, phallic shapes, plants and rabbits, and scrawled texts in French; the page is over-filled, its scratchy doodling suggesting a late-night purgation.
That the Insomnia Drawings are marked on both sides of the page creates an enticing viewing experience. Because the paper is thin, the lines on the back are sometimes visible but never clear enough to be fully discernible. The analogy to her practice is clear: something is revealed but kept at a distance, nearly forming in our vision but remaining just out of reach. Importantly, however, it does not feel as though Bourgeois is keeping it from us. Embroiled in her own aesthetic and conceptual expedition, we are shown the artist’s attempts to grasp at meaning. What is displayed are Bourgeois’ ever-developing efforts to understand and represent her own psyche, or at least a version of it. In a text contained in a vitrine displaying the artist’s poetry and prose at the Fruitmarket, there is a short list composed in 1958, which delineates the artist’s sense of her own failures. ‘I have failed as a wife / as a woman / as a home hostess / as an artist / as a business woman / and I am 47 – / as a friend – / as a daughter / as a sister – / I have not failed as a / truth seeker / lowest ebb – ’, she tells us. Maybe she fails to find the truth, but what is on view here is just this search, and it is as compelling and beautiful as such a quest can be.