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Gauguin – Tate Modern – Winter 2010

Though ephemeral events, exhibitions can have powerful effect in redressing the reputation of an artist, uncovering previously hidden gems or revealing new aspects of a known master, perhaps. In the case of the current Gauguin show at the Tate, it has utterly destroyed his reputation as an artist of the first rank. In his poor sense of composition, complete mishandling of colour and his inability to develop a sense of narrative, Gauguin has revealed himself to be, at best, a brave decorational painter, and at worse, an over zealous amateur.

The Tate exhibition parades numerous chapters of his incompetence. Take a picture such as Te Poi Poi. From a distance, a vibrant splash of colour. But up close the painting falls apart; a mad rainbow in a blender.

Te Poi Poi, 1892, private collection

The woman in stark red (whom I presume is cleaning clothes in the river, but her unfortunate posture makes it seem as if she is relieving her bowels) provides some focus in the foreground, but all around her is a maelstrom of confused colour. The blurry morass of black, blue, green and white in front of the woman makes it unclear what is land, stone or water; where does she actually exist? Above her head, daubs of livid green form a tree, painted in a manner of a ten year old copying Howard Hodgkin. The river is a bizarre colour – a creamy white giving way to an unforgiving dark blue. Further back, nothing much happens – just more application of bright colours, with an ill painted stick figure on the other riverbank. What is this picture about?

Te Pape Nave Nave, 1898, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Gauguin’s insistence on using as many colours as possible detract from the paintings. There is no articulate use of the palette to encourage a particular emotional environment. Rather, he is like the primary school pupil let loose on the colouring set, a meaningless melange of reds, oranges, purples, yellows etc etc. Sometimes, the colours coalesce in a blackening mess. In Te Pape Nave Nave, the characters become lost; to work as as a painting, the characters need to be bigger and dominate the canvas; instead they are overwhelmed as the kaleidoscopic landscape prevails over them, reducing their presence to bystanders.

Of course it wasn’t Gauguin’s aim to create realistic or perspectivally true images. As contemporaries such as Cezanne and successors like Picasso would explore with far greater rigour, there was a lot painterly mileage in such investigations. And perhaps I am being unfair to him in criticising him for his obvious weaknesses as a figurative painter, when his oeuvre is part of the pathway to abstraction. You can see Gauguin in this exhibition (which really emphasises the experimental nature of his art, his constant dallying with different media and styles of depiction) trying to explore the ramifications of the flatness of the canvas he is painting on. But it becomes sloppy. So instead of the landscape spitting up and then reforming itself in renewed and different dimensions, the landscape itself just falls apart, leaving its unhappy combination of colour.

Arearea No Varua Ino, 1894, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Arearea No Varua Ino is perhaps beguiling at first glance, but quickly becomes ludicrous. The woman leaning downwards has no facial features; she is a just a chunk of body, seeming to wash her hair in the inexplicable pink flames. The other woman, on the left of the canvas, is surly in expression, possibly under the malign influence of the totem behind. But it’s difficult to unpack why. Two figures in the background gesticulate aimlessly. As happens elsewhere, his characters lack in an emotional narrative – they become passive, shorn of activity and Gauguin ends up not painting individuals but cyphers. It is difficult to read, empathise or admire Gauguin’s paintings; any sense of drama evaporates in the coloured fuzz of Gauguin’s own view of paradise.

Overall, his treatment of women is ludicrous, reducing them to mutes with a squashed inner life (although, at least they appear – apparently men hardly exist in Gauguin’s world). They are sometimes sensuous, sometimes brooding, occasionally anxious, but nearly always one-dimensional. There are no clues as to why such characters are acting in a particular way. Do any of the women in Gauguin’s visual universe actually talk or interact? Or are they simply vehicles for Gauguin’s own narrow binary views about the innate goodness and badness of women, tarted up by some cliched myths? Despite the nudity and the presumed sensuality, his females lack much trace of tenderness. Closer inspection indeed reveals something a little more interesting, a touch more ambiguous – their eyes are often askance, hinting at a kind of suspicion of the world around them. The figure at the very left of The Bathers glances out of the canvas – as if berating Gauguin or the viewer for invading their territory. At least Gauguin had the gumption to include a degree of self reflection.

Ondine, 1889, Cleveland Museum of Art

Or perhaps it was simply the fact that Gauguin could not paint faces very well; providing the nuance of tone that would allow for the nuance of emotional expression was just beyond him. Have a look at the lumpen, boiled down profiles in the late paintings, Two Women and The Escape. He even resorted to turning females around to avoid painting their faces, such as in Ondine / In the Waves and The Bathing Place.

And yet Gauguin continues to be popular. His myth embodies the industrial dream of escaping to a personal and geographical Eden. The inclusion of text (always a handy anchor for those uncomfortable with the strangeness of the image) provide a faux philosophy to underpin such a myth, easy reference points for the cliched mind. The question “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where are we Going?” is not very original.

The exhibition does an intelligent job of deconstructing all this. Not only did Gauguin cultivate his own myth (Gauguin calls himself seduced by Tahiti’s “virgin land and its primitive and simple race .. the Eve of my choice is almost an animal”), but it blossomed after his death, Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and the Sixpence being only of many cultural productions that allowed the romantic notions of Gauguin to spin out of control.

Equally, Gauguin suits the age of reproduction. His paintings and his colours often appear in print, on television. The actual paintings are so flat, with the paint to thinly applied on the canvas (Braque is another painting in this mode), that one actually loses little when the painting are printed in miniature – the bright colours fluoresce and attract the roving eye. Compare this to Van Gogh whose shares a richness of palette but whose fecund, passionate impasto becomes lifeless when printed in a book.

Te Faaturuma, 1891, Worcester Art Museum

Is there anything to save him? Occasionally, Gauguin achieves success when he reduces the complexity of his paintings – fewer figures, fewer colours, a more confined space. Te Faaturuma sticks out. By ditching the coloured foilage that pollutes most of his paintings, replacing it with solid planes of colour, Gauguin attains a must greater psychological impact – this is one of the exhibition’s paintings where the characters inner selves have much greater resonance – it’s interesting to note that Gauguin’s paintings set inside are almost always more powerful than those set out of doors. There is a closer link with abstraction, and the destination of Gauguin’s oeuvre becomes clearer. More broadly, the colours themselves are superficially attractive, and his experiments in colour are a part of the link between the Impressions and the Cubists. I can see an argument that says every gallery in the world should have a Gauguin. But I think one is enough.



Filed under Gauguin, National Gallery, Tate Modern, Uncategorized

Van Dyck and Britain – Tate Britain – Spring 2009

The crucial painting in Tate Britain’s excellent Van Dyck and Britain show isn’t a Van Dyck after all. Robert Peake’s Henry, Prince of Wales and Sir John Harington in the Hunting Field stands proud but confused in the very first room. The absurd boy in a hunter’s body, the pistachio green clothes, the misshapen limbs, the angular style, the cadaver of the stag hanging awkwardly at the bottom of the canvas, the miniature crests swinging on twigs: Peake’s magnificent yet deeply flawed British school painting represents everything Van Dyck’s majestic style would eliminate over the course of the seventeenth century.

For the connoisseur and the art historian this is a brilliant exhibition. It shows how British art became European. How the stiff Dutch and oblique British painters of the sixteenth century gave way to the flowing, regal style of the seventeenth. How we got from the Cholmondeley Sisters to Kneller, Lely and beyond.

But it’s more than just transformation in the history of art. Van Dyck developed not just a pictorial manner, but a whole visual concept of nobility and royalty emanated from his workshop. The portraits of Charles I would become a touchstone for depicting kings and queens, or indeed for imbuing any sitter with a sense of majesty. And because Van Dyck has been so influential, because we are so used to a certain type of regal portrait, it is Peake’s painting that leaps out (here compared against Van Dyck’s painting of the future Charles II)

Robert Peake, Henry, Prince of Wales and Sir John Harington in the Hunting Field, 1603, Metropolitan Museum, New York

Young Charles II
Anthony Van Dyck, Future Charles II as Prince of Wales, c.1637-8, Private Collection

And just as Van Dyck canceled out a whole aesthetic, removing not just the painted stiffness, but he clarified what a painting is, a recording of the visualised world which suspended disbelief.

So in Peake’s canvas, there still remain the artificial elements which would leave a viewer to question its visual authenticity. The studded colouration on the saddle, giving the canvas a tactile presence, the two crests dangling from the trees or the text at the bottom left or etched on the trees. Such devices were relics of a mode of visual communication which thought not of painting as simply representing the visual world but providing a more heterogeneous mode of communication, which documented abstract values in more concrete fashion.

In Van Dyck’s oeuvre just about any device which distracts the illusion of verisimilitude is eliminated; the Fleming has such belief in the rhetoric of his style that he is not need to bolster the message of majesty with other symbols and icons. The paintings speaks for itself. And once Van Dyck had made this transformation Britain, or perhaps more correctly England, could no longer be insulated from southern as well as lowland Europe.

How did he do this?

Anthony Van Dyck,Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart, c.1638, National Gallery London

Van Dyck creates sitters that are effortlessly relaxed. The splendid clothes (probably done by assistants as well as Van Dyck) show an absolute mastery of the textures of silk and satin – close-ups of trousers and skirts form their own abstract symphonies.

Detail of Stuart brothers painting above

Each item is unsullied and loudly declares that their wearers need not work nor labour.

William Killigrew, 1638, Tate Britain

Emotions are calm and restrained, showing the sitter’s absolute control of any internal sentiment and often stand in contrast to the more tempestuous weather in the background (for example the portrait of William Killigrew) And while there are dark greens and browns in the background, the lead characters are illuminated by a clean, pure light.

Details of noses

And with the poses themselves, the way the sitters organise themselves within the space around them, that each characters asserts his regal bearing. Van Dyck’s characters are often (although not always) haughty in their attitude, carrying their arrogance before them. The gaze of the viewer is disdained. Sitters either look askance, bearing acknowledging a spectator’s presence, or simply look through the viewer. This is no level playing field; the spectator is clearly in the presence of superiors The phrase ‘looking down your nose’ seems a perfect fit for Van Dyck’s sitters. The fingers too are worth noting, long graceful digits that add to a sitter’s elegance.

Details of fingers

Yet all the while that Van Dyck was concocting the new regal approach, the English political scene was fermenting – the Civil War would explode in the year of Van Dyck’s death. Does the exhibition blindly ignore all the fault lines cracking open in English society, the gaping ideological differences which would result in twenty years of trauma? Well, in a sense yes. There is little or no mention of politics in the labels, and there is no contextual visual documentation to place Van Dyck in the society in which he worked. We learn nothing about this history. But at the same time, Van Dyck gave the contemporary curator very little to work with. Van Dyck’s visual world, entirely focused on the world of the cavaliers rather than the roundheads, offers no indication of the friction and strife that would follow. Is that really a surprise? Patrons did not commission paintings that reflected doubt. I suppose the political interpretation is in the very absence of politics in Van Dyck’s oeuvre, showing a mindset that was desperately trying to close itself off and develop in splendid isolation. The great antagonisms of the Civil War were everything Van Dyck’s leisured, majestic world was not.

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Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons – Tate Modern – Winter 2008

Cycles and Seasons

Any proselyter for modernism will face their biggest challenge with Cy Twombly. The rough scribbles, messy blobs of impasto, uncontrolled drips of paint, simplistic representations of the world and smudged fingerprints are all strongly redolent of the nursery; Twombly seems to embody that disdainful phrase of the anti-aesthete: “My child of four could do that”.

Ferragosto V, 1961, Private Collection

And, indeed, I couldn’t quite escape the feeling that Twombly’s most iconic paintings were something of a rip-off. Even where there are astonishing bursts of colour as in the blood-red Ferragosto, it all seems too random and uncontrolled to really merit serious praise. There is so little apparent meaning in them and so little painterly depth … great stretches of the paintings are merely just primed or lightly washed canvas, and then there are areas of random splurges and curved scribbles. Meaning drifts in and out, but it again seems too superficial – rather than being visual retellings, the references to Greek or Roman myth seem like lazy gestures to add pathos, a kind of intellectual name-dropping.

A contrast with Jackson Pollock is useful. Whereas Pollock’s greatest paintings are full of tactile warmth, glistening like a phosphorescent cave and seem to possess their own pulsing, inner life, Twombly’s paintings just don’t reach that same transcendence – the artist’s hand is too transparent, the lack of coherence too jarring. The build up of paint, the construction of layers that gives any painting its richness does exist in Twombly but in a superficial way, with everything reduced to raw, jagged gestures.

Given all that there is something that still draws me to Twombly’s work. The sheer freedom with which he paints and expresses himself is a classic statement of artistic (and emotional) liberation. But I’m not sure that’s quite enough to create great art – it too easily ends up as the indulgent outpourings of the patient on the couch.

Indeed, there a plenty of connections between the exhibition and the art of psychoanalysis. The presence of forced deletions corresponds with the patient’s conflicting desire to both repress and recall a traumatic incident; the return to primordial sexual matters, and of course, the rough, ghostly outlines of genitalia in Twombly’s work represent the As in the work of De Kooning, primordial symbols float around like Jungian archetypes. Painting as a grand spiritual express of some cosmic essentialism.

And yet, as the exhibition progressed, a different Twombly began to emerge, one that was perhaps more comic, more ironic, more referential; an artist more suited for postmodernity, even if trapped amongst the frame of the modernist canvas.

Take for example, the suite of four paintings entitled Nini’s Paintings. At first glance, they seem modernist monoliths – fully abstract paintings, working to their own sealed logic. But in actual fact, not only do the canvases seem to take a naturalistic life of their own, depicting a flotilla of shimmering waves, there are echoes and references to earlier styles and artworks. Maybe, Twombly is not such a hardcore modernist after all.

Monet seems to be a particular reference point. Firstly, they recall series of paintings such as the Haystacks or Rouen Cathedral where the same subject is painted under changing light over time.

Nini’s Painting, 1971, Kunstmuseum Basel


Claude Monet, Water Lillies, 1916, Tate Modern

But they also reference Monet’s late paintings, those splurges of colour that form the lilies drifting on the ponds at Giverny. Not only is there the same engagement with paint, hovering close to the no-man’s land where abstraction and representation blur, but there is the same insistence on thrusting the viewer into the middle of the space. At the bottom of the canvas there is no platform, dias or fence to block the viewer’s line of sight and so she becomes embedded in the painting, immersed in the encircling waters.

But there is also something faintly comic as to how the serpentine forms, traced in childish pencil, can build up to some misty melancholic state. Look closely at the badly drawn sine curves and the painting seems a like a childish stab at repetition; stand further back and the waves coalesce with the sombre background colours to give off a rather haunting glow. The low-brow and the high-brow blend together.

In other places, the references are more reverential. The triple set of paintings that Twombly based on the story of Hero and Leandro have strong echoes of late Turner; again, that deep painterly immersion in fluid brushstrokes, providing a strong sense of aquatic movement.

The series of water paintings (Untitled (A Painting in Nine Parts) throw up other visual echoes, most noticeably in the elaborate shapes of frames that mimic those used by extravagant rococo painters. The reference starts off as comic; the level of abstraction in Twombly’s work and the chromatic reduction to just two colours – his favoured white and a mossy green – seem to mock his the many-hued palates of his antecedents. But the intensity with which he homes in on the details of, say, a fast stream by a bank (again, close-up and immersed like Nina’s paintings), reveal a passion for his subject matter, for the simple fact of moving water.

Quattro Stagioni (A Painting in Four Parts), 1993-5, Tate Modern

This is not to say that Twombly was some crypto old-style Romantic. The towering Quattro Stagioni follow on from the mossy green water paintings, emphasise his modernist credentials and remind us of the overarching thrust of his oeuvre. Some critics love them. I remain to be convinced that the deliberate of use, conjuring up a world of angrily beautiful but failed articulation is the great moment of American modernism.

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Francis Bacon – Tate Britain – Autumn 2008

It’s possible to pontificate lots on Francis Bacon (and I shall probably try here), but there is a raw, burning intensity in Bacon’s best work that forces an immediate and rapid response. One can walk through this exhibition in twenty minutes and get just as strong as a reaction from the paintings as you could from an hour and a half of measured academic study. Indeed maybe even the charred, dark faces, the contorted flesh, the monstrous teeth are at their most dramatic when seen for the first time – innocent eyes exposed to twenty minutes of compressed horror.

Francis Bacon, Triptych, 1973, Private Collection

Nevertheless my brain went through some strange mental processes when visiting the Tate’s Bacon blockbuster, and I began thinking of the impressionists.

Like Bacon, the impressionists were creating artifacts that could be easily assimilated by the viewer in a short space of time. For Monet, Sisley and the like, the bright palette and the unambiguous emotional unity give the viewer an immediate visual impact, as do the dimensions of the landscapes; rarely panoramic in scope but based on dimensions the human eye can immediately absorb. Of course, the gentleness of many impressionist works is the polar opposite to Bacon’s emotional register. But the similarity is not in the content, but the way in which the image can be immediately apprehended by the viewer – unlike say work by Velazquez, David or Picasso.

Bacon also shares the impressionists’ lack of interest in telling stories. There is no need for the viewer to decipher expressions and gestures to understand what the painting and its characters are about. This, too, enhances the immediacy. Bacon’s poor sitters are ripped out of their context, their life reduced to flesh, blood, violent unbalanced copulation. Critics (and Bacon himself) have alighted on the cinematic nature of his paintings and certainly the emotional punch has similarities to the effect of the silver screen. But cinema, whilst being dramatic, still demands a narrative around which its characters are wrapped; Bacon does not offer his paintings this context – the genre he develops is very much his own.

The exhibition booklet reminds you that Bacon is a portraitist, and the effect is somewhat jolting – when one thinks of an English portraitist one things of coiffured hair at a Regency club, or an aristocrat surveying his estate with proprietorial pomp. Yet it is useful to bear in mind, for it emphasises how Bacon, like many grandees of twentieth-century art, carves out a space which floats between the inherited traditions of representation (in this case the tradition of the portrait) and the modernist urge towards abstraction. Paint as a tool for representation merges into painting as an end in itself. This gives Bacon’s paintings not only aesthetic weight but also emotional impact.

His portraits struggle to asset their physical appearance. As soon as they make themselves apparent on the canvas they began to become deformed under the weight of being represented on a flattened plane of paint. Extraneous detail in background is eliminated, locking the sitter in the immediate foreground. Thin yellow bars that frequently act as cages jut awkwardly into non-existent space, framing and trapping the sitter. Like Richter’s anonymised portraits, as soon as the character is represented they become lost in the painted surface, the thickened oils scraped along the surface, almost erasing their features.

Francis Bacon, Study after Velazquez, 1950

The series of Innocent X portraits are the most striking examples. The 1950 Study After Velazquez, painted exactly 350 years after the Spaniard’s stunning papal portrait, shows the pope trapped behind flat grills of paint, his screaming face evaporating into the gloomy darkness; his very identity being wiped out. As the shutters descend downwards on the canvas, they develop into large waves of kinetic energy, as if representing the lifeforce being dragged out of the unfortunate Innocent. Interestingly, these waves also reveal themselves to be folds of a curtain – once can see the curved bar with the rings holding the folds in place. With this motif, a new horror for the sitter is implied – that the curtain can be pulled shut, and the sitter will disappear into the darkness, out of sight, out of mind. It is motif that reoccurs within the exhibition.

Amongst all this pain, there is pleasure too, violent, sensuous pleasure. Bacon takes an arrogant pleasure in these bodies, creating tactile, sculptural forms with large chunks of flesh that one wants to meld and push. Equally the painted surface itself is pleasure, stained solemn backgrounds (the rich colouration of which would not disgrace Rothko’s palette), then tougher scratches, and then the thicker blobs of impasto that construct the bruised faces, only to find themselves flattened out so as to emphasise their entrapment within the frame of the canvas.

Nevertheless it is the immediate visceral horror that predominates – the echoes of the slaughterhouse, the grim torture chamber – the horrific immediacy of it all. And it can’t help but create a certain image of Bacon in your mind – the tortured post-Romantic artist, obsessed with sex, flesh and death, a visionary world documented in layers of paint, with each canvas a failed exorcism of the demons haunting his living hours.

But this exhibition has another angle of interest. Besides the paintings themselves, the Tate also includes the Bacon archive, the massive jumble of papers, documents and images torn or ripped out from newspapers, journals or whatever source Bacon came across. It provides a fascinating and vital gloss to Bacon’s work.

Often these are the rooms the visitor skips through – irrelevant social details in tiny print that require a different mental approach to assimilating the images on view. But here the Bacon archive is stuck almost in the centre of the exhibition, and the mass of material provides a much richer perspective on Bacon the artist; not as an artist that responded solely to his own lone, tortured view of the universe, but one who responded to the wider world around him, soaking up its images, it own ways of seeing. With this, Bacon comes across as a much more calculating, analytic artist, and also one with a broader range of sympathies and concerns.

Francis Bacon, Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, 1951

Parts of the archive provide tiny visual clues – the vaulting in a photograph of some Vatican dignitaries was used as the ghostly outline of a church in the 1951 Pope I – Study after Pope Innocent X by Velazquez. Other parts reveal broader thematic preoccupations. Bacon, for instance, often alighted on laboratory images of animals in caged captivity, or scientific studies of human forms walking or growing over time. This gave him an immense range of source material for the captured and caged sitters in his portraits. Again, some of this is about details – in one or two of Bacon’s paintings there are ghostly echoes of the measuring tape and slide rules that appear in the scientific images. But it also illustrates the obvious resonance for Bacon between scientific and artistic modes of control.

One can see why Bacon had such interest in this genre of documentary images, for it provided him with a pool of visual and intellectual ideas which he could adapt, expand and incorporate. But the curatorial decision to exhibit such work also provides a different emotional context to Bacon’s oeuvre; seeing the Bacon paintings not as only his projections of the artist’s own emotional state, but as desperate stabs at empathy with his sitters, reflecting a world that objectivises under a scientific gaze.

This should not distract from Bacon the painter – what the curators have assembled here is a magnificent roll call of his work – and such paintings still speak with their garbled eloquence whether the contextual evidence is present or not. But we should also be thankful to Tate for exhibiting the Bacon archive; it does a tremendous job in breaking down the Hollywood reflex of thinking of the artists as a tortured genius instinctively responding to the manic visions in his head, and replacing it with a much more human, complex person.

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Work No. 850 – Martin Creed – Tate Britain – Autumn 2008

Work No.850 - Francis bacon

Why does art need to be reserved for tormented geniuses, revealing hidden truths, displaying grand passion and exhibiting miraculous skills?

Obviously, it doesn’t really. 

Martin Creed’s suitcase of numbered works happily punctures all of those received ideas. Effervescent, jokey and nagging, they don’t demand lengthy attention, but do enough just to make the viewer notice something different is happening. Little packets of viral art that are simple and stupid enough to lodge themselves in the brain.

After a largely humourless and uninspiring visit to the 2008 Turner Prize exhibits, Martin Creed’s Work No. 850 was a breath of fresh air. Professional runners sprint down the Tate’s spacious Duveen gallery, with metronomic regularity. You hear the patter of feet first, then pick out a forceful figure picking out a route through the often unsuspecting visitors. A blur of lycra, coloured cotton and flesh then flashes past and disappears. The process repeats itself.

As well as running concurrently with the Turner Prize, Work No. 850 can be seen after the Bacon exhibition. I grabbed some images of the runners shooting past – their contorted elasticised shapes seemed familiar.

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Louise Bourgeois, Tate Modern

The logic of the Tate Modern’s recent exhibition divides Louise Bourgeois’ significant works into two convenient categories – objects and cells. Both categories of artwork are laden with allusions and enigmas; chock-a-block with references to distant half-remembered sensations and memories. They spark off a parade of associations, providing enough frisson to keep an battalion of psychoanalysts occupied. Bourgeois is one of those artists that gets scholars salivating – clambering to theorise her art will require a surfeit of monographs, articles and conferences.

Louise Bourgeois, Cumul1

After a detour through her earlier work, the sixth and seventh rooms at the Tate exhibition revealed her objects – glistening blocks of latex, rough-hewn slabs of wood and sensual, polished lumps of marble, all looking like inexplicable alien objects with the seductive power of succubae. The marble Cumul1 is perhaps the most evocative. What starts off as a polished moonscape then proceeds to conjure up some of the suggestive parts of the body. Sleepy eyelids awakening? An army of breasts? Erect phalli being unveiled? And are these body parts hostile in mood or something more playful? The extreme polishing, the perfected roundness suggest a fetishist’s love for playing with the object; but there is something aggressive about such works, like anatomical parts breaking off from the human body and forming their own independent union.

Louise Bourgeois, SleepII

Each of these hard objects are threaded with confusing ambiguities, tracing a line between the feminine and the masculine, the figurative and the representational, the pleasurable and the painful – issues any old school therapist will come back to time and time again. It is these psychoanalytic issues that trouble Bourgeois’ human subject and her sculptures represent this magnificently. Bourgeois’ work touch upon areas of the psychological spectrum that few sculptors had thought to explore before; earlier sculptural forms with organic tendencies, say work by a Hepworth or a Moore, are reduced to decorational ornaments when placed next to the canny intelligence of Bourgeois’ work. The pleasing but unchallenging forms of early modernist sculptors (and you could include Arp, Brancusi or many others) create a distance between art object and appreciative spectator; there is none of this cold-eyed connoisseural distance in Bourgeois. Here is what the human enjoys but also what the human fears.

For the spectator, Bourgeois’ objects are the perfect playthings for nudging strange long-vanished sensations back into focus. These are objects you want to touch and caress, bringing you back to some old object of desire or some blissful state of mind that exists as nothing more than a tiny bubble of memory. But, of course, it’s a little difficult to test out such fantasies. Adults visiting galleries are well aware that giving into such desire might seem rather odd and will invoke a telling off from the security guards spying for the merest hint of tactile transgression. Never has art so well delineated the line between childish desires and adult repressions.

Whereas the objects are little psychological renderings portraits in stone, the cells are recreations of the chiaroscuro stage sets of her (and maybe our) dreams.

Bourgeois draws heavily on her own history here, her overbearing father and his work in textiles, the English nanny taken as mistress, the assortment of family traumas, but her special skill is neither to demand the viewer responds to the particular narrative of her childhood nor expose the viewer to a set of objects so ambiguous that they could mean anything. The rich set of interpretative possibilities give a living vibrancy to Bourgeois’ work which others dealing with dreams, notably the surrealists, fail to attain.

Louise Bourgeois, Red Room (Parents)

Taken together, the suite of cells in rooms eight and nine of the exhibition demonstrate a tangled pattern of motifs and techniques that evoke a range of emotions relating to the dream state. Often the initial emotion is a negative one, of terror just passed, or terror awaiting. The sense of uneasy expectation as one witnesses the dormant giant spider hovering above its prey in Spider; the claustrophobia of the metal cage trapping the people and objects of Dangerous Passage; the obvious symbolism of blood red, seeping into objects and clothes in more than one of the cells. Elsewhere, there is sense of comfort lost and destroyed – the shards of shattered mirrors, the luxurious chairs fallen into disuse, spilling teardrops of gray stuffing or the patterned rugs worn threadbare. And while the profusion of glass bottles in the cells may suggest the presence of the softer, less roughened feminine form their thin fragility and, even more tellingly, their similarity in form to the ventouse cups (once used to invoke blisters in infected hospital patients, but also used in childbirth) invoke something much less comforting.

Louise Bourgeois, Ventouse

Above all, Bourgeois seems to be conjuring up the child like sense of frightened wonder caused by the stolen observation of a bedroom episode that makes no immediate sense. Red Room (Parents), in which the viewer has to enter a bedroom through a wooden spiral and only gets a restricted view of the bed via a mirror, in particular seems to be trying to conjure up memories of that Oedipal (or Electra-ian?) moment when the young child pulls open the bedroom door to be confronted by the confusing parental entanglement.

However, one should not let the Freudian weight of Bourgeois’ work obscure the artfulness of her oeuvre. She may be a thoroughly modern artist but she shares a love of materials that even the most churlish traditionalist could not deny her. Some good curatorial imagination meant that room seven demonstrated this beautifully; no two of the visible artworks exploited the same materials. There was the contrast of polished bronze sheen of Arch of Hysteria, located next to the solid granite of Ventouse; or alternatively the refined marble of Sleep II sitting on two rough wooden railway sleepers of outsized proportions. Equally, the creation of her cells has a baroque flourish of theatricality. Striking lighting, staged openings, an abundance of richly textured props. Just as the objects have a tactile beauty, so the visual beauty is cells revealed to the visitor with an array of dramatic gestures.

For all the Oedipal fear lurking in her cells, there is defiant pleasure-seeking in her manipulation of objects and materials. Her artworks may focus on mental terrors or psychological ambiguities but such passions are accompanied by an artistic delight in their form of expression. It is almost as if the aesthetic power of the Bourgeois oeuvre is the method for resolving, or at least attempting to resolve, the troublesome ideas which bubble furiously underneath – the pleasure of style overcoming the trauma of content.


Filed under Contemporary Art, Louise Bourgeois, Tate Modern