Louise Bourgeois

Woman in Bathtub


Not on display

Louise Bourgeois 1911–2010
Drypoint and aquatint on paper
Image: 275 × 214 mm
Purchased 1994


Woman in Bathtub is one in a portfolio of fourteen drypoint etchings collectively titled Autobiographical Series. Like another image in the series, Toilette (Tate P77682), it portrays the artist in the bathroom in front of a mirror. Toilette offers a voyeur's view of a young woman standing, naked, washing her hair while a male figure spies on her (his face framed in the window is also reflected in the mirror above the young woman's head). In contrast, Woman in Bathtub is a view taken from the eyes of its subject. Instead of being presented with the spectacle of a woman at her toilette, the eyes of the viewer are directed through the viewpoint of the woman who is looking at herself in the mirror while sitting in the bath. The image represents the potential scism in identity on seeing oneself reflected in a mirror. This involves two simultaneous, contradictory positions: that of an invisible but seeing consciousness and that of a physical object in space. In psychoanalytic terms, the mirror functions as an important symbolic means of recognising the double condition of self and other inherent to every individual. Failure to recognise the 'otherness' of the self is dangerous, leading to death in the classical myth of Narcissus. In Bourgeois's image the woman's (or artist's) narcissistic internal split is portrayed metaphorically by a body cut in half. Looking and mirrors are important themes for Bourgeois. She has referred to the mirror's 'power to reflect and deform you', saying 'mirror means the acceptance of the self … the mirror cannot be your enemy, the mirror has to be your friend' (Bourgeois, pp.264 and 260). Woman in Bathtub portrays this dangerous aspect of the mirror with which the artist seems to be at peace: she smiles as she floats calmly in the water above her disembodied legs.

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. 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 P77682-90 and P77892-5 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
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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