Louise Bourgeois



Not on display

Louise Bourgeois 1911–2010
Drypoint on paper
Image: 236 × 182 mm
Purchased 1994


Birth is one in a portfolio of fourteen drypoint etchings collectively titled Autobiographical Series. It is based on a drawing Bourgeois made in 1941 (Untitled, Museum of Fine Arts, Bern), the year her second son was born. It portrays the painful moment of separation as the infant leaves the mother's body: her difficulty in letting go is suggested by the cocoon of her hair which encloses both their bodies. Although her hands seem to be pushing the baby out of her belly, her hair is holding him back. Baby and mother's heads are of equal size, separated by her little body. A line across the top of the mother's neck mirrors the line which separates her body from her baby's head, suggesting a similarity between them, although her eyes are open and she has a pained expression on her face, while his eyes are shut and he appears peacefully asleep. Bourgeois said of Untitled, 'it's a self-portrait, but I'm in a really difficult position. It's not flattering and it's not simple.' (Destruction of the Father, p.294.) These two images anticipate the dual nature of the parent-child relationship, in which both are interdependent, at once separate and attached.

Bourgeois's work is based, more or less overtly, on memory. The recounting of her early years has become a fundamental part of her artistic expression. Through her work she is able to access and analyse hidden (but uncomfortable) feelings, resulting in cathartic release from them. She has said:

Some of us are so obsessed with the past that we die of it. It is the attitude of the poet who never finds the lost heaven and it is really the situation of artists who work for a reason that nobody can quite grasp. They might want to reconstruct something of the past to exorcise it. It is that the past for certain people has such a hold and such a beauty ... Everything I do was inspired by my early life.

(Destruction of the Father, p.133.)

Printmaking, like drawing, has been an important element in Bourgeois' artistic production. She first took it up in 1938, the year she moved to New York with her husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater (1907-73). She experimented widely with techniques and effects, producing an important portfolio of etchings titled He Disappeared into Complete Silence (The Museum of Modern Art, New York) in the 1940s. After a long break she took up printmaking again in 1973, the year her husband died. In the late 1980s Bourgeois began collaborating with workshops and publishers. She started to rework and reprint some of her old plates and to create new portfolios. Several of the images in the Autobiographical Series had already appeared in earlier forms. They range broadly in time and concept, encompassing both specific memories and more abstracted and ambiguous states of being. The portfolio was published in an edition of thirty-five plus ten artist's proofs by Peter Blum Edition, New York, and printed by Harlan & Weaver Intaglio, New York. See Tate P77682-3 and P77685-95 for the other images in the series.

Further reading:
Louise Bourgeois, Marie-Louise Bernadac, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Destruction of the Father/Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews 1923-1997, London 1998, pp.294-5
Louise Bourgeois, Lawrence Rinder, Drawings and Observations, exhibition catalogue, University of California, Berkeley 1995, p.30
Deborah Wye, Carol Smith, The Prints of Louise Bourgeois, exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1994

Elizabeth Manchester
July 2001

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Display caption

Much of Bourgeois' work is autobiographical, and relates to her traumatic childhood. She idolised her mother, and loathed her overbearing, adulterous father. Bourgeois made her first prints in the 1940s and, after a gap of about forty years, returned to printmaking in 1990. Frequently child-like in style, these works portray the events and fantasies of her childhood and adolescence. The scenes include the trauma of birth, the pubescent discovery of the body, the moulding of a daughter by her mother, and the stifling of a daughter by her father.

Gallery label, August 2004

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