Louise Bourgeois



Not on display

Louise Bourgeois 1911–2010
Drypoint on paper
Image: 144 × 91 mm
Purchased 1994


Toilette is one in a portfolio of fourteen drypoint etchings collectively titled Autobiographical Series. It is a version of an image created the previous year titled Spying, an etching which exists in four states, and is related to drawings Bourgeois made in the 1940s. As the earlier title indicates, Toilette illustrates an important theme running through Bourgeois's work - the complicated and ambiguous dynamics of voyeurism. Looking at the third version of Spying, to which Toilette is virtually identical, she has commented:

This is a girlhood memory … but it is only a partial recall … some things are missing. Where is the pail for emptying the water? And where is the table that the bowl could fit down in? … she is more interested in the pleasure element than in the cleaning element … this is about the beautiful hair, of course … The little face looking in … he is not laughing at her … he is looking at her because she is beautiful. But he cannot pull a fast one on anybody … his face is registered there in the mirror!

(Quoted in Wye, p.233.)

Toilette contrasts with another image in the series, Woman in Bathtub (Tate P77691), which depicts the artist in the bath, her body cut in two by the mirror she is looking into. While Toilette subverts the traditionally voyeuristic male gaze by revealing the little spying face in the mirror, Woman in Bathtub portrays the narcissistic internal split experienced by the artist as she looks at herself. Other images in the series, Sleeping Man and Man, Keys, Phone, Clock (P77688-9) recall moments of looking at men who, sleeping, are vulnerable to the artist's female gaze.

Printmaking, like drawing, has been an important element in Bourgeois's artistic production. She first took it up in 1938, the year she moved to New York with her husband, the American 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. Many 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 P77683-95 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
Charlotta Kotick, Terrie Sultan, Christian Leigh, Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory, Works 1982-1993, The Brooklyn Museum, New York 1994
Deborah Wye, Carol Smith, The Prints of Louise Bourgeois, exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1994, p.233

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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