‘Louise Bourgeois talks, talks to herself, reviewing the scraps of her long life in all their disorder. This is the portrait, from memory, of a woman who devoted her life to her art, a life that was also the life of the century,’ writes J. Frémon. The art world’s grande dame and its shameless old lady, spinning personal history into works of profound strangeness, speaks out with her characteristic insolence and wit, through a most discrete, masterful writer. From her childhood in France to her exile and adult life in America, to her death; through the moods, barbs, resentments, reservations and back, at full speed – this is a phosphorescent poem-in-prose describing Bourgeois’s inner life as only one artist regarding another can.
Copyright P.O.L, Editions Gallimard, First published in English by Les Fugitives, London, 24th September 2018. Published in the USA by New Directions, May 2019.
Ambush is a favorite spider technique. Water spiders construct a covered lair with a trapdoor made of their thread and excrement. The spider waits inside the lair with the door closed. As the prey approaches, she leaps from her hiding place and makes short work of her victim. The lair itself is a tiny architectural marvel, a kind of cone, a silky funnel. You studied it for a long time through a magnifying glass, then drew a minute, meticulous floor plan. What a beautiful thing, the lair, the hidden house, the anti-architecture, anti-sculpture, copied from the organic. There are paintings known as informel; you’ve done informel sculptures, lairs, nests. The form is within. Interiority is their essence. The form is the content. And it just so happens that the content is a container.
Creating ambushes, hunting traps, to catch a little bit of love, that’s how you spend your time. Though you couldn’t say that they’re all that successful.
You don’t sleep. Insomnia has always been your friend, though it’s a stormy friendship, it must be said. When the children still lived with you, you would wake them up in the middle of the night. Simply because you were the only one not sleeping. Now that you no longer have anyone to wake up, you ponder, you draw. In the morning, there are drawings everywhere, on the bed, on the rug… Jerry picks them up. They’re called insomnia drawings. They are cries, letters of love or of pique.
Dear X or Y, I’m writing you today to tell you how much I miss you. All I need is a word from you, and then I can exist.
That’s the kind of letter you should have written every night when you couldn’t get to sleep. But you didn’t. You found it simpler to do two or three drawings that screamed in silence as you kept your mouth shut.
With every intention of eating it, you peeled an apple. Then you cut it into pieces. And then the pieces into pieces, and then each piece into smaller pieces. When your plate was full of very small pieces of apple, you felt that you could no longer hold back your tears, your heart was too full, it overflowed, your arms fell to your sides, and you cried and cried and cried.
Jerry came in silently and sat down next to you. He said nothing; he let you cry. Then, very softly, he said: It’s not you on the plate, nor your father, nor your mother, nor your brother, nor your sister Henriette nor your cousins Jacques and Maurice, nor any of your children. You have cut no one into pieces; as a mother, you haven’t been any worse than others – all mothers are wonderful – and as a daughter, you haven’t been any worse than others. No one could reproach you on that point, and you can reproach no one on that point. These little pieces you’ve cut up are an apple, nothing but an apple in little pieces, and you’re going to eat them because that’s why you peeled it and cut it into pieces, and it doesn’t matter whether the pieces are large or small or even very small. They’re pieces for a very little girl, but today it’s a grown girl who’s going to eat them. And one after the other, he held spoonfuls of chopped apple out to you as he dried your tears. Then he hugged you, and you hugged him, and you cried again, and he cried too. A few minutes later, you were naked in a hot bath; with one hand, Jerry sponged down your body, he was kneeling, radiant, his Christ’s face under all that hair. You were calm; you said: Cleaning up the dead! It was warm, not at all aggressive, grateful. He said: we’re going to go to bed, and we’re going to sleep; it will all be much better tomorrow. He dried you with a large towel and rubbed you down with eau de cologne. Then he undressed and lay down next to you and took you in his arms and together you cried from joy.
Early the next morning, you went down to the studio. Jerry was still sleeping; you could smell his body on you, the scent completely surrounded you. You started to gather pieces of wood from various sculptures, scraps in different shapes, and you piled, glued, screwed, and wedged them together, making a curious scaffold, very solid, but with the feel of something about to collapse, full of tiny outcroppings, overhangs, and misalignments. Jerry came in silently. You said: You see, I put the apple back together again. You both laughed.
The next day, you wrote to Jerry:
1) I love you
2) bad daughter bad wife bad mother
3) it’s hopeless
4) who ever said it wouldn’t be?
5) I miss you
6) bad woman
7) bad life
8) where is it all leading us?
9) who cares?
10) I love you
You tore up the letter. You wrote: Not guilty. Using scotch tape, you put the letter back together. You wrote: 11) Not guilty Not guilty Not guilty. You put the letter in a drawer. It’s no one’s business but your own.
And you sang:
Je pense à vous quand je m’éveille
Et de loin, je vous suis des yeux
Je vous revois quand je sommeille
Dans un songe mysté-ri-eux
Le seul bonheur auquel mon cœur aspire
C’est d’obtenir un aveu des plus doux
Voilà voilà ce que je veux vous dire
Mais hélas j’ai trop peur de vous
You remember how it climbs and extends when it gets to the ce que je veu-eu-eux vous dire.
and the same on the brûlant:
Je veux je veux dans mon brû-û-ûlant délire
Dire je t’aime en tombant à genoux
The ingénue singing torch songs…
To him, the Opera; to her, the operetta.
You hardly knew Jerry; you’d only seen him two or three times. And in fact, after Robert’s death, you hardly went out at all. With the children gone, you roamed around the enormous house. It’s actually not all that big – it’s rather narrow, but all the same, with the three floors, the mezzanine, the basement, and the attic – now it’s all in complete disarray, but when Robert died, it was simply a large house in which you wandered like you wander in yourself. You, too, were an empty house. Sounds like the words to a song, of the sentimental, tear-jerky sort – ♩♫ Ne me quitte pas, (or something like that) Je suis une maison viiide . . . ♫♩ It keeps running through my mind. It was in a Varda film, though I’ve forgotten the title. You were a bit like that, passive, in black and white, time going by, piling up on you. What happened? Nothing, time passes, that’s all. It was five o’clock, now it’s six o’clock, and in an hour, it will be seven. What’s that mean? Nothing. Does it bring you closer to your death? Not even. Does it enrich your experience? God forbid.
Jerry telephoned to say that he had seen your figures from the 1940s, that he was organizing an exhibition for a gallery in Soho, that he wanted to include one or two of your things in wood, that he’d also use X, Y, or Z, and that he’d like to come to the studio to choose some things. The studio. To which you replied: I don’t have a studio. I have a big empty house that I fill up with little emanations, little hair-brained schemes that come out of the woodwork to keep me company. You said: Sure, come over.
The first meeting was glacial. You were terrified. He was, too. You were decked out outlandishly; you’d found an old black and white Poiret dress that reeked of mothballs, and you’d topped it off with your old blue hat, worn like a medieval helmet to protect you from the club wielded by the white knight on the way.
The hat, nothing like it for hiding behind, creating a diversion, outwitting the enemy. Maurice Chevalier ♫♩ Z’avez vous vu le nouveau chapeau de Zozo? / C’est un chapeau, un chapeau rigolo. / Sur le devant la la la trois plumes de paon / et sul’ côté un amour d’perroquet. ♩♫
He mumbled some sort of compliment. You said, Go for it; take anything you want, it’s got nothing to do with me. Then you pretended to be busy, and in fact, you completely destroyed a sculpture by sanding it vigorously in every direction the entire time he was there. You did not walk him to the door; you said, I’m sure you can find your way out.
He found it. So well that he came back. To take the sculptures he’d chosen and to tell you about the exhibition, to bring you a press clipping, and to see if you needed anything, to say hello, and to offer his services – he’d be happy to go find you materials, have blocks of marble delivered, and on Saturday, he’d take you bargain-hunting at the flea-market on 17th Street. He came every day until the day of the apple. When life took a new turn. Your sons were lukewarm about it. And simply waited for an excuse to distance themselves. Not great-grandmother material. Though they’d been expecting something like this. And then they must have told themselves that at least they didn’t have to worry about you anymore. You were taken care of. Vita Nova. Reprieve.
Je suis la bonne
La bonne à tout
La bonne à tous
La bonne à tout faire
La bonne à rien
First comes love
Then comes marriage
Then comes etc. in the baby-carriage
I’d had enough. And then life extended me credit. Now it’s my turn. I’m the dog of Jean Nivelle who runs away quand on l’appelle. I know where I’m going. As the young Sagan said of her father’s mistress, she kept me from loving myself. Over. Done. You take yourself in hand. Out of frustration, you make sculpture. Destroying, repairing, mending, patching together, there’s love in all of it. You have to take control of the situation. It’s a kind of equation – on one side, pain, anxiety, and frustration; on the other, wood, marble, bronze. The trick is to get them to infuse each other. With sculptures, you weave connections. Everything’s a matter of weaving. White thread, red thread, one for lies, one for truths…
♩♫ N’vous mariez pas, les filles, n’vous mariez pas
Changez d’amant quat’fois par mois
Restez pucelle chez votre papa
Mais ne vous mariez pas ♫♩