When Tracey Emin met Louise Bourgeois

Shortly before her death last year, Louise Bourgeois collaborated with Tracey Emin. The two artists shared a passion for works about sexuality and intimacy – and the results are certainly startling, says Arifa Akbar

Three months before Louise Bourgeois died at the age of 98, the increasingly frail, albeit incorrigible artist is believed to have sat up in bed in keen, childlike excitement, after hearing the news that her 16 gouache canvases had finally returned to her, though not in the half-finished form in which they had left her two years previously.

The canvases had been a long time coming but they had returned, completed. Bourgeois had sent a set of figurative watercolours to the British artist Tracey Emin, after an initial meeting with her more than five years ago which developed first into a friendship, and finally into a rare working relationship – Bourgeois had always shown hesitancy in working with artists during the bulk of her long, illustrious career.

She was, that mild morning, thrilled by what she saw. Emin had agonised over her part in the project, daunted by the images as "precious objects in their own right", and such was her nervousness that she had resisted putting paint to canvas for over a year, taking the half-finished pieces with her on trips as far afield as Australia and France, until finally deciding on how to proceed. The results will be unveiled at Hauser & Wirth Gallery in London this week, in the exhibition Do Not Abandon Me, which has travelled from the Carolina Nitsch Project Room in New York.

For Emin, it was a relief to hear that Bourgeois – a famously outspoken tour de force, who, in 1982, became the first female artist to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art – had been so thrilled by the end result.

The collaboration came after Emin wrote a vivid account of the emotional impact that a first visit to Bourgeois' home had made on her: "I was feeling vulnerable but at the same time excited. I was going to meet Louise Bourgeois. In my mind's eye, I had imagined many conversations. I often do that with artists I respect," she wrote, reflecting on the moments before her arrival at the dark, cavernous New York house, to find Bourgeois, initially spiky (shouting volubly in her native French) and utterly mesmerising to meet.

"The first time I saw her she was screaming, shouting, angry, shaking her fist," she remembered. "The only word I could decipher was a name: 'Sadie, Sadie, Sadie'. I just remember thinking: this woman's free. But the irony was that even though this woman was being emotionally free, she was making references to the emotional entrapment of her life...

"I stared at her hands, and I imagined them chiselling and hammering. I imaged her fighting with lumps of stone, attacking clay, washing and throwing countless objects into vats of plaster. I looked into her eyes and imagined her obsessed, drawing spiral after spiral, the collective mental patterns of our minds."

It was after Emin's evocative piece in Parkett art magazine in 2008 that Bourgeois expressed her interest in a series of joint works. It was clear from Emin's homage that Bourgeois was someone she had enduringly admired – "I looked at Louise Bourgeois's work for years trying to work out what I really thought about it. Why is it so good? Because of the honesty" – and critics have often commented on intersecting themes and obsessions in the two artists' work.

Neil Wenman, the director of Hauser & Wirth Gallery, says Emin and Bourgeois began having "conversations and meetings every six months after their original meeting", until Bourgeois produced her series of gouaches featuring male and female torsos, pregnant women's bellies and erect phalluses.

Emin then added to them with mirror writing across silhouetted forms, as well as foetuses and miniature female figures. The images range from passionate to mournful and vulnerable, with a mischievous play on scale in which tiny female figures are depicted embracing giant, flame-red penises (in Too Much Love and And So I Kissed You) or sitting atop them (in A Million Ways to Cum). A religious theme emerges in Come unto Me, which features two women as worshipping icons, praying beneath a giant phallus that is superimposed with a Crucifix. The completed images were printed with archival dyes on cloth, and will now be sold in an edition of 18 sets with six artist proofs.

Wenman thinks that the artists' collaboration may have been so seamless and successful because they both engage with themes around female subjectivity, motherhood and sexuality.

"Both their underlining preoccupations revolve around sexuality, emotional dependency, the family unit and ideas of intimacy. They are both dealing with confessional and autobiographical subject matter and they both have a history of making art using fabric, blankets, embroidery."

Yet there are differences, and these also resonate in this collaborative work: "They both deal with different aspects of a woman's life – Tracey, with her rape, abortions and realising she can't be a mother and how this affects her as a woman. Louise deals with birth and motherhood in a different way [she had three children]. Tracey's issues are a bit more explicit but the two artists have a very strong crossover.

"You can see the two artists' hands in this series. You look at the watercolour, and it is very Louise Bourgeois, and you look at the texts on them, and it's archetypal Tracey Emin, yet the final work is unified."

What is extraordinary in this collaboration also, is that it was so rare for Bourgeois to work in this way. "The fact that she worked with Tracey so late in her career," thinks Wenman, "was testimony to the friendship that they found with each other."

The collaboration was open-ended, with neither artist defining the terms or themes. In this regard, it was founded on mutual trust, says Wenman. "The idea was that Tracey would add her own interpretation to Louise's outlines and watercolours. They did not need to discuss each image. Rather, [the process] itself became the open conversation."

Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin: Do Not Abandon Me, Hauser & Wirth, London W1 ( www.hauserwirth.com) 18 February to 12 March

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness