Few artists manage to conjure up such a disquieting mood as Louise Bourgeois. She is best known for her giant spider sculptures, their sacs full of marble eggs, their spindly legs both threatening and protecting. Up until her death in 2010, at the age of 98, she seemed like some kind of art-world Miss Havisham, clinging to the murky traumas of her past and transmuting them into distorted forms that were cold as ice but disconcertingly sensual.
A tiny new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, contains nothing so monumental. It features instead a collection of etchings, drawings and sculpture crammed into one of the giant museum’s nooks (“M is for Mother”, 1998, above). But such is the power of the pieces on display that they transform this cranny into something akin to a cobwebbed attic, the kind of place you hide mad aunts, and where beings crafted from splinters and shadow stalk the twilight hours. As the nights get longer and the sunlight weakens, it’s the perfect place to lose oneself.
Chief among the disturbing delights is a series of cryptic engravings and enigmatic texts from Bourgeois’ 1947 book, “He Disappeared Into Complete Silence”. The engravings – in rickety, dare one say it, spidery lines – appear to show structures with a skeletal geometry. In one empty building a fire burns unattended. In another a platform with an eerie, gallows-like symmetry awaits its first customer. Mysterious Duchampian apparatuses made of wire and string haunt hollow rooms. Are these buildings or the ghosts of buildings? They seem both figurative and abstract at once: coffin houses with no bodies in them. In one of the more unambiguous prints a group of ladders hangs from a ceiling, going nowhere, offering no exit.
These discomfiting visuals are compounded by the dark little parables that accompany them. “Once a man was telling a story,” reads one. “It was a very good story too, and it made him very happy, but he told it so fast that nobody understood it.” In another, a deaf man has a hole drilled in his skull to let the sound in, but the hole slowly closes up, shutting him off from the world again. Another simply states: “The solitary death of the Woolworth Building”. Artists often write more than they should, but Bourgeois’ fragments are worthy of Fernando Pessoa or Franz Kafka. These are hopeless fairy tales in which no one lives happily, before or ever after.
Although her work is filled with the symbols of bad dreams and sexual repression, Bourgeois did not like being lumped in with the surrealists. Instead she called herself an existentialist – she was a peer of Sartre and Camus – and took particular inspiration from Sartre’s 1944 play “Huis Clos” (“No Exit”). In that play three people are trapped in a single room together for all eternity, and find out that, as Sartre wrote in his most famous line, “Hell is other people”. It is exactly that kind of helpless, closed-box struggle that Bourgeois mined for much of her life. Indeed, once you move past the engravings you encounter three figures that could have stepped straight out of Sartre’s play. Bourgeois called these skinny and teetering sculptures “Personages”, to reflect their discrete characters. But while they are grouped together, they are so distinct from one another – each is made from different cast-off materials – that each appears completely alone. “Untitled” (1952) is a column made up of vertebral plaster discs. “Spring” (1949) has protuberant wooden curves and bulges but is painted white like a ghostly African totem. And finally there are the intersecting red and black blocks of “Mortise” (1950), its punning name signifying both union (a mortise is a type of joint) and death at once.
On the other side of the room sits the exquisite “Germinal” (1967), a beautifully monstrous marble cone out of which small projections poke like intestinal villi threatening to digest you. And then there are the drawings in which even the simplest subject matter is rendered perturbing. “My Hand” (1997) is a drawing of Bourgeois’ hand on a piece of musical notation paper. But the hand is red, as if flayed, and the staves of the musical notation are as palpable as cheese wire. This hand pulses horribly, its skin pulled back and exposed. It seems a metaphor for Bourgeois’ unflinching and uncanny work.
Louise Bourgeois: No Exit National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, until May 15th