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The art of survival

The Tate’s Louise Bourgeois retrospective has too much autobiographical sculpture portraying suffering, betrayal and defiance. But she’s still a remarkable talent, says Tom Lubbock

I’ve been looking forward to this exhibition for a long time. Over the past 15 years there have been several small showings of Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture in Britain – each one such a promising glimpse, that it seemed a bigger view must eventually come. Now it has. Louise Bourgeois opens at Tate Modern today. It’s a full retrospective, and it can be, because the artist, though still alive, is now extremely old, and unlikely to add much more. She was born in France in 1911. She’s lived in the US since 1938. The earliest work in this survey is from the mid-1940s. The latest dates from last year.

You’ll know some of it, probably. When Tate Modern opened, it was Bourgeois’ enormous spider that dominated the entrance hall, and something like it is back. But even if you know none of it, this isn’t work that requires long acclimatisation. It is as brazen as a fairground and as familiar as a fairy tale. The first thing it makes you think of, that’s what it’s usually about. If there's a puzzle to it, it’s how it gets away with being so overt. This is art as naked psychodrama, an explicit personal mythology, an unfolding repertoire of motifs whose concerns are plain – victimisation, survival, voluptuousness. Its sculptural language is easy to grasp, sometimes directly figurative, sometimes more indirectly. Bourgeois’ real forte is for anthropomorphising abstract forms and everyday objects, investing inanimate things with raw human feelings.

For example, among the earlier works here are a series of upright pieces, Personnages, columns made from small, assorted, cut wooden elements threaded like vertebrae onto steel poles, becoming a bit top heavy as they go up. In other words, they’re pieces that do the minimum necessary to suggest a standing human figure – a figure that’s made of chopped-up bits, skewered together, and teetering. This is the basic Bourgeois effect: material qualities that are eloquent of a state of mind or body.

The effect is delivered in numerous forms. Style-wise, Bourgeois is eclectic, unpurist, bound by no aesthetiquette. Each new body of work does it a different way. Some are carved in stone. Some are in stitched cloth. Some are large installations assembled from found objects (her studio, a huge old curiosity shop, has an enormous stock of accumulated items). Things are sharp, spindly, dangling, pierced, cut, hooked, sutured, in fluid meltdown. And shape and substance can be made articulate. At various points in her career, she mobilises the stiffness-cumbreakabilty of wood, the viscous drag of clay, the fine skin of polished marble, the numbness of solid rubber, the soft squeeziness of stuffed fabric, the fragility of glass. No doubt she can make so free because her driving force isn’t aesthetic. It is confessedly autobiographical – all, Bourgeois says, all still a working out of her troubled childhood [her father’s mistress lived in the family home]. That’s believable, though I don’t know how interested we should be in the details of this family romance, rich in manipulation, betrayal and long-suffering. Bourgeois’ commentators are sometimes extremely interested.

But the trouble with biographical interpretation is that we can never be as interested as the artist herself is. And while the childhood story doesn’t change, the work does continually, and can be marvellously inventive.

Sometimes Bourgeois coins something absolute – a unique and irrevocable addition to the world’s dictionary. There are those dense clusters of sticking-up blobs, realised in various media, from the late 1960s. Whether in latex (titled Avenza) or marble (titled Cumul), these are very fleshly and rather obscene creations, full of multiple possibilities. They could be eggs materialising from spawn, breasts revealed out of loosened clothing, penises protruding from a kind of collective foreskin. But the image itself is original, precise and elemental: definite forms embedded in, and emerging from, formlessness; the birth of nakedness.

Bearing in mind such a condensed work as that, though, you can’t help seeing a lot of the other work as either too literal or too garrulous. Bourgeois can resort to a vein of transparently symbolic figuration – those spiders are a prominent example, also the multi-breasted doggoddess figures. Or there are the Cells, installations made in the 1990s, a series of contained dream spaces. Some, enclosed by a spiralling wall of wooden doors, suggest secret, guilty bedrooms. Others, enclosed in wire mesh frames, are more like torture chambers. Each is filled with highly charged bits and pieces.

There’s a good idea here. But the stagecraft of these little theatres is so uneconomical that it dissipates. They just pull out all the stops, with piles of atmospheric and allegorical stuff – mirrors, marble eyes, hourglasses, lovely items of old furniture, prosthetic limbs, casts of hands, great glass spheres, torn and moth-eaten tapestries, iron beds, soft toys, formless blobs, like a dream sequence at which Salvador Dali himself might have baulked.

One of them even has a guillotine in it. So the impact of a Bourgeois retrospective wasn’t quite what I had anticipated. I’d been expecting to wallow in its abundance, to enter a world of prodigal and interconnecting creativity. But I found myself picking and choosing rather severely, and not actually being very interested in the “whole thing” at all.

Bourgeois has lived long enough to enjoy what, for most artists, would be a posthumous fame, and the approach here is posthumously embracing. The show’s impulse – well, it’s what we always do with artists – is to try and unify the work, to see it as a matrix of linked themes and forms and images, all emanating ultimately from the artist’s traumatic childhood.

And, of course, Bourgeois’ work is susceptible to this treatment. It does have expressly autobiographical references, as the wall captions never fail to remind us. And it does have a vocabulary of recurring elements, which the last room in the show is devoted systematically to laying out. But, I suppose, with any artist’s output, it’s never – hardly ever – going to be the whole thing that matters to us. It may well be only a handful of pieces that really do the business, while the rest, the great majority, acquire interest by association or bask in reflected glory.

This seems to me especially true of Bourgeois’ work. Though its concern is with suffering, its artistic manner can be surprisingly relaxed. It’s as if it has settled into its established emotional repertoire, become entirely fluent in its language of sex and trauma (and the viewer gets fluent in it, too). A lot of the time, it’s just doing its thing, making work of no particular distinction but which fits in with, adds on to, the oeuvre’s general artistic personality and mythology.

But seen altogether, it also comes over as a highly assimilative art. Bourgeois is a great borrower and synthesiser – sometimes herself a formal innovator, but with a keen eye for what others have done that she can make into her own. Surrealism generally is clearly a big source; when she was a young artist in Paris she was close to it. But specific names chime throughout the show, and Bourgeois keeps up to date: Constantin Brancusi, Alberto Giacometti, Hans Bellmer, Gaston Lachaise, Lucio Fontana, Eva Hesse, Annette Messager, perhaps even the YBAs. There seems to be Sarah Lucas lurking in one of the Cells. And though I would have said beforehand that the autobiographical Bourgeois had more or less “invented”

Tracey Emin, I now wonder how much it goes the other way.

But, actually, authorship isn’t the point. The real achievement in any art is to make something completely anonymous – work that declares no personality, that draws you and holds you without any dependence on the recognised name or the surrounding career. And you do find that quality in Bourgeois’ work. You find it, for example, in those early uprights, or in Cumul, or in Legs, a pair of long, thin and utterly straight lengths of helpless black rubber, dangling from the ceiling, ending in two feet.

In her very recent work, too, there are pieces that can stand on their own – like the fabric towers – stacked columns of small cushions, stuffed cuboids covered in tapestry or ticking – whose meaning is muted and oblique, but whose presence is precise and incontrovertible. In fact, Bourgeois has done this enough times for any artist, however long-lived.

Louise Bourgeois, Tate Modern, London SE1 (020-7887 8888), to 20 January