Louise Bourgeois is known as many things: the founder of confessional art, one of the most influential artists of the 21st century, the Spiderwoman, a feminist icon. To Jason Smith, curator of Louise Bourgeois: Late Works, Bourgeois resists categorisation. “She was always thought-provoking,” he says. “She was a restless spirit and I think that restless spirit is the reason why we see such diversity in her work.”

At the heart of the exhibition are the fabric sculptures that Bourgeois created in the last 15 years of her long life. They reveal the artist at her most intimate. “The work used her own clothes so the sculptures became more poignant, somewhat more tender at times and very reflective on her life,” Smith says, pointing to the way techniques such as cutting, stitching and sewing reflect a binary of anxiety and calm.

What is most striking about Bourgeois’ work is its ability to visually lay bare the profundity of her inner life. While her art may sit historically alongside movements such as French surrealism, Smith sees Bourgeois foremost as an existentialist. “Her work is about emotional reality at any given time, whereas surrealism is more about the subconscious dream world,” he explains. “It wasn’t ideas or concepts she was trying to capture – it was emotions.” The result is a highly intimate, autobiographical account of the emotional states that chequered her long life.

Bourgeois was a tormented figure, traumatised at an early age by her father’s betrayal of her mother and later, the death of her mother in 1932 while she was studying mathematics and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris (she moved to New York City in 1938).

According to Jerry Gorovy, Bourgeois’ long-time studio assistant in New York City, it was Bourgeois’ “fear of abandonment” that conditioned all her emotional responses. “Her fabric work was a combination of looking back and dealing with the present,” Smith says. “It’s the impact of the past on her present mood.” Works such as Couple IV, which features a headless copulating couple trapped in a pose of the forbidden, harbours irrepressible emotions attached to a disturbing scene.

The two key images in Bourgeois’ work are the spider and the cells. On display at Heide is Spider from 1997, an architectural arachnid which hovers at over 12 feet tall and whose cage-like ‘cell’ embodies memory using an old kitchen chair and fragments of tapestry which link back to her family’s own tapestry restoration business. The cell is a place of mixed emotions, which Smith describes as “a place of prison, of incarceration, of nurture and sanctuary”.

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The spider represents the mother, a protector and nurturer, rather than an aggressor. Articulating this connection, Bourgeois once said in an interview: “The spiders were an ode to my mother. She was a tapestry woman, and like a spider, was a weaver. She protected me and was my best friend.”

Bourgeois left behind a legacy that is inextricably linked to the cult of the personality in art and the mystique of a brave and provocative woman who created work up until her death in 2010 at the age of 98. “Here’s this woman working into a very old age making emotionally powerful and controversial subjects we don’t often see older people dealing with: sex, love, desire – they’re eternal themes,” Smith says.

“As a personality she was so uncompromising in her belief and demonstration that one’s emotional life is the source of great art.”

Louise Bourgeois: Late Works runs until March 11, 2013 at Heide.

Curator Jason Smith is offering a private tour to one Broadsheet reader and five friends on Thursday January 31 from 6 - 7:30pm. Also included is a hamper of from Café Vue at Heide and wine from Yering Station. To win, email us at win@broadsheet.com.au with your postcode and the subject ‘Tour at Heide’.

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