Louise Bourgeois is a dominating character in 20th century art. Like ‘Maman’, her towering bronze spider sculpture that loomed alongside the British Tate Modern and the Spanish Guggenheim, Bourgeois is an imposing international figure. And for the upcoming months her work will be physically dominating Edinburgh, as two exhibitions display some of the pieces that, as The Fruitmarket Gallery labels, ‘have entered the collective unconscious’.
The artistic authority that Bourgeois’ name now holds is perhaps peculiar, given her relative obscurity until she was in her 70s. Photographs of her show an elderly woman, diminutive and wrinkled – an unlikely candidate for awe and esteem as the majority of older women are confined to the margins. Yet any conception of frailty is mistaken; Bourgeois’ pieces are intensely powerful.
The Fruitmarket exhibition leads the viewer through a maze of paper drawings. These are Bourgeois’ ‘Insomnia Drawings’, all scrawled in a period of eight months during an acute bout of sleeplessness the artist suffered. The sheer scale of the display is overwhelming – over 200 pieces line the walls, in Bourgeois’ typical colour palette of blood red ink.
The restless nature of the artist’s mind is clearly apparent. All sketches, whether geometric patterns, spiralling spheres or unconventional landscapes, contain a certain frenzy; the floral spheres that appear at a distance to float become scratchy and unsteady when seen up close. The same images repeat over neighbouring frames, morphing into other patterns only to re-emerge later in the series. It is no wonder Bourgeois has entered the cultural consciousness – these works come from and display a struggling unconscious. They get inside your mind.
Yet it is on leaving the insomniac scribbles and moving upstairs that Bourgeois’ artistic dominance, and her talent, is made clear. If the downstairs gallery seems haunted by a spirit of unrelenting drive, the upstairs presents a more deliberate and developed collection. However, the sense of mental struggle remains in these larger, partially printed pieces. The messy, apparently impulsive drawings below are in some ways reflected in the giant papers above – paint is smeared across dark, sketchy outlines, each accompanied by shaky, handwritten words. These are personal pieces; the words are of anxiety and anguish and the images are of twisted bodies. While the drawings may only work en masse, with the context of Bourgeois’ insomnia, these are stand-alone and striking pieces. Bourgeois’ unconscious is revealed and the viewer’s unconscious is invaded – these creations remain imprinted on the mind.