And about time, too

Louise Bourgeois was a late starter. Her great work didn't appear until 30 years ago, when she was in her fifties. But we've had to hang around until now to get a retrospective. By Tom Lubbock

Louise Bourgeois is very old, which is just as well. At the time another artist's career might have been over, hers began. She was born in France in 1911. She's lived in the US since 1938. She didn't start making the work for which she's famous until the late Sixties. She's now the leading woman sculptor of the century. She's needed her long life, and we're lucky to have had it too.

We're not so lucky, in this country, never to have seen a full Bourgeois retrospective here. What we've had, through the Nineties, is a series of small showings, and the latest of these, Louise Bourgeois Recent Work, is now at the Serpentine Gallery. This bitterness is a pity because Bourgeois' work does make up a world, a personal mythology, in which every piece can relate to every other. On the other hand, you couldn't really call a show, whose centre-piece is a colossal iron spider filling a whole room, particularly obscure.

Quite the opposite. Bourgeois' art is about as obscure as fairground. The puzzle is how it gets away with being so obvious, so vulgar. Its subjects are straightforward: sex, power, suffering, the home. Its language is easy, para-figurative. Grasp the idea that almost anything can stand for the human and for human relations, and you're there. Stylewise, it's prodigal, eclectic, unfussy. It's bound by no aesthetiquette about materials or skills or look.

Bourgeois does it every way (though now, at 87, she mainly directs assistants). She does ancient and modern, exquisite and rough. She carves in marble and casts in bronze. She assembles and constructs from found stuff - and she has an enormous stock of properties to pick from, accumulated over the years, in what must be the largest old curiosity shop in the world. And she sews - the skill most relevant to the present show, which dwells on motifs are stitching, weaving, spinning; hence spider.

And she can make so free because her work's driving force isn't aesthetic. It is confessedly autobiographical - all, Bourgeois says, all still a working through of her troublesome childhood home. One can well believe this, but I don't know how interested we should be in the details. After all, we can never be so interested as the artist herself. The story of the philandering dad, the long-suffering mum, the little girl they competitively wooed and spoiled, the whole keyed-up family romance: it can't do much more than set a tone. But no doubt this avowed self-centring is what releases Bourgeois from artistic niceties, from labels (surrealist, feminist), from formal purism, from set topics and issues. Indeed, oddly enough, it's probably what gives her art its admirable breadth of sympathy.

Bourgeois is a dramatist. She dramatises, first, at the level of the medium. She sees how the human body can identify with many different materials, with stuffed fabric, with solid rubber, with wood. And these varying embodiments aren't in themselves jarring or disturbing; rather, a generous recognition of the human range. They make you feel that marble and bronze are a limited menu for what bodies may be made from. True, Bernini could hardly have fashioned Apollo and Daphne in stuffed stretch-jersey - but then he could hardly have carved in marble such a lovably lumpish and intimate image of love-making as Bourgeois' Couple.

Often it's an empty garment that does for a person. In Spindle a pair of combinations are suspended, ankles just off the ground, from the end of a great curved metal rod, arcing over from a flat base on the floor - an off-balance construction, steadied by a heavy cluster of metal tubes (quasi-genitalia?) dangling on the opposite side. As usual in Bourgeois, the specific story may be obscure, but the essential drama couldn't be clearer: mutual support, mutual dependency.

The show is full of hanging and the metaphors of hanging. Spindle is a variant of a series of pieces called The Poles, upright metal stands with arms sticking out and things hanging from them - hanging like dresses on a hanger, or a weights on a balance, or meat on a hook, or decorations on tree, or bodies on a pillory or gibbet. Bourgeois can fall into melodrama. An untitled pole has six withered slips and nighties suspended from it, but instead of a coat-hanger, the shoulder straps of each frail garment are hooked around a great chunky bone.

But what's impressive is how much she isn't a sentimentalist. She generally doesn't deal in oppressive monster-objects, and poor little (or plucky little) victim-objects, and their confrontations. There's plenty of pain and pathos in her work, but the staging of it is objective.

In Respite for instance, a pole supports an array of large spindles of black cotton. From each a one a length of thread, needled, is drawn out, and ends up stuck into a long, pink, lump of solid rubber, also dangling from the stand. It might be an enormous tongue, or elongated scrotum, but it's too abstract to be more than just non-specific fleshy.

And rubber: how well Bourgeois understands it, a stuff we immediately sense as being like our bungy selves, and then startlingly unlike, so dumb and dead. Is the pink thing in pain or not? If not, is that because it's gone numb with so much needling? And the spindles and threads make up a kind of nervous system, don't they? In these pieces, every opposition is a reciprocity, with no plain goodies and baddies. Each part has a life of its own.

It's a life rooted in the tensions and ambiguities of Bourgeois' anthropomorphism, the way that her things always survive as things, as well as being bodily and psychic metaphors. The giant Spider though startling, doesn't really work. It's too much a literal spider and too much an allegory of weaving. In fact, this failure is a good clue to Bourgeois' essential genius. What's lacking here is the very graceful relationship between object and meaning.

This is what saves their obviousness. This is what makes it sensible to praise Bourgeois' late art so highly. It's not only that her sculptures are free of flesh-creeping and tear-jerking, and that they don't feel like specimens in a pre-programmed argument - salutary those these qualities are, given the work of many of her contemporaries, young and old. It's not only their breadth and balance of sympathies. It's that they're made with love. The things are respected for themselves, and for the metaphorical tasks they're got to perform. It's continuous with child's play, with a child's handling of (and talking to) its improvised toys. It's the best reason to be grateful the old lady never grew up.

Louise Bourgeois - Recent Work: Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2; daily, until 10 January; admission free

Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey