Louise Bourgeois

My Inner Life


Not on display
Louise Bourgeois 1911–2010
Etching on paper
Image: 1516 x 904 mm
Lent by the Tate Americas Foundation, courtesy of the Easton Foundation and Osiris 2016
On long term loan


My Inner Life 2008 is a portrait-oriented etching by the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. A quasi-human female form with discernible head, breasts and belly appears in the middle of the print; tube-like organic forms curve and weave around the figure and appear to enter into the figure at the head and naval. The design appears in works that formed part of Bourgeois’s series The Voice Says Yes 2009 and I Give Everything Away 2010.

This is one of a group of 52 large etchings (Tate L03818–66, L03869–71), mostly measuring around one and a half metres on their longest edge, created by Bourgeois between 2005 and 2010, in the final years of her life. The majority of the etchings are typical of Bourgeois’s works on paper, showing both figurative and abstract elements often with some element of three-dimensionality, and featuring motifs that recurred in her work throughout her career: knots and spirals; leaves and natural forms; hanging, bulbous, pendulous shapes; forms reminiscent of genitalia and tangled ‘entrails’. The etchings vary greatly in detail, from intricately interwoven forms modulated through tonal differentiation (see Knots 2006, Tate L03838) to simple, roughly defined shapes (see The Awakening 2007, Tate L03857).

The overall grouping is titled Turning Inwards, after one of the individual works within it (Turning Inwards 2008, Tate L03819), and nine sets were produced, of which Tate’s is the second; each set is unique, including a different number of prints of individual works. The first set, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, is the largest, containing 67 prints; Tate’s set is the second largest, containing 52; the third and fourth contain 38 and 39 prints respectively; and the contents of the other sets are currently unknown. Since Tate’s set is the second, it was agreed that the second impression of each individual work should be included wherever possible. Where the second was not available, other impressions or cancellation proofs were included instead.

The works were executed using the soft ground etching process, in which a metal plate is initially covered with a thin layer of a soft, waxy substance, or ‘ground’. The artist then draws the design onto a sheet of paper laid over the plate, and any pressure from the pencil or other drawing implement removes the ground from the plate, as it sticks to the underside of the paper. The plate is then ‘etched’ by being placed in an acid bath, and the areas where the ground has been removed become indented grooves. During the printing process, these grooves hold ink while the rest of the plate is wiped clean, and so the design is transferred onto the sheet of paper when pressed. Where there are areas of different tone within the finished prints, this has been achieved by wiping the plate selectively, so that ink may remain on areas other than in the etched grooves (see Are You in Orbit #1 2007, Tate L03824).

The etchings that form the Turning Inwards group were produced in collaboration with the publisher Benjamin Shiff, who made the selection for each of the nine sets. The large size of the prints reflects the nature of the collaboration: Shiff supplied Bourgeois with long, narrow plates that fitted on the work table in her home studio, enabling her to work on them easily with drawing tools. Where the finished prints are squarer, this is the result of two of the long plates being placed next to one another to create a broader printing area, and a faint line is sometimes visible down the centre of the resulting print. Shiff worked with Wingate Studio printers on the production of the works, bringing proofs to the artist for her to mark up, add text to, and alter in a number of ways. Some of the soft ground etchings were editioned; others became the basis of unique works with drawing, colour and sometimes collage elements added by hand. Many of the individual compositions were also combined into series, multi-panel works and illustrated books.
Bourgeois began making prints in the late 1930s and, alongside painting, printmaking was the focus of her practice before she abandoned it when she turned to sculpture in the late 1940s. Although she had not produced etchings for decades, Bourgeois was encouraged by Benjamin Shiff to take up the medium again for the purposes of making an illustrated book in 1988. After experimenting with a number of techniques, they published The Puritan in 1990, which included a text written by Bourgeois in 1947. Their collaboration continued through the following two decades of her life, with printmaking again becoming a daily activity for Bourgeois. During this period, she also worked with a number of other publishers and printers including Harlan and Weaver, Judith Solodkin and Peter Blum Editions.

The etchings give an insight into Bourgeois’s working practices in the last years of her life, and illustrate that the artistic preoccupations present throughout her career remained undiminished. Like the unique gouache drawings of families and birthing or feeding mothers she created during the same period (see The Birth 2007, Tate T14856, and The Feeding 2007, Tate T14859), the prints refer to familial relationships through their depictions of organic forms and anatomies relating to one another in space. The use of plant forms communicate ideas of growth or regeneration but are imbued with human symbolism – as Bourgeois herself declared, ‘it seems rather evident to me that our own body is a figuration that appears in Mother Earth.’ (Louise Bourgeois, Marie-Louise Bernadac, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Destruction of the Father/Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews 1923-1997, London 1998, p.126.) Where the forms in the etchings tend towards the abstract, ‘her drawn lines and evocative shapes reflect shifting moods and perceived vulnerabilities’ (Louise Bourgeois, The Complete Prints and Books, http://www.moma.org/explore/collection/lb/index, accessed 12 April 2019).

Further reading
Deborah Wye and Carol Smith, The Prints of Louise Bourgeois, catalogue raisonné, New York 1994.
Louise Bourgeois, The Complete Prints and Books, online catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York, http://www.moma.org/explore/collection/lb/index, accessed 12 April 2019.

Ann Coxon
February 2014
Arthur Goodwin
March 2019

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