Last Night's TV: The indiscreet charm of the Bourgeois
Imagine, BBC1; The 800 Million Pound Railway Station
Wednesday 14 November 2007
Louise Bourgeois is pretty small for a "giant of modern art", a tiny sparrow of a woman who appears at the salons she convenes in her Manhattan house like some ashram guru being presented to the faithful. Acolytes guide her steps and the artists and hangers-on lucky enough to have been invited to look on in reverence as she shuffles to her throne. "Lucky" may come to strike some guests as the wrong word , incidentally, because Ms Bourgeois doesn't exactly temper her blows to the softness of the metal receiving them. Imagine... attended one of Bourgeois' regal levees for Louise Bourgeois: Spiderwoman and captured her robust mentoring style in action. "What is it you want to express?" she asked one young woman after casting her eyes over a sample of her work. "It is about the torment of being an artist," replied the hapless devotee uncertainly. "The torment! But it is absurd. It is not a torment to be an artist... the premise is idiotic... it is not a torment to be an artist, it's a privilege!" Exit crushed young woman, probably to take up a career in cosmetics sales at Macy's.
The fierceness of Bourgeois' response was presumably to do with the fact that she thinks of art not just as a privilege, but a remedy for torment. "Art is the guaranty of sanity" reads the lettering on one of her sculptures, and she has never hidden the fact that her work has been a long exploration of her own psycho-biography. "All my work of the last 50 years, all my subjects, have found their inspiration in my childhood," she said once. Fortunately, in artistic terms at least, she had the kind of upbringing that Freud and Jung might have dreamed up if they'd been mucking about after a long afternoon session in a bierstube. Brought up in the family tapestry business, she was treated coldly by her father, who always made it plain that he would have preferred a son, and who then proceeded to set up an uncomfortable menage à trois with Louise's governess. His wife set a stack of plates by his side so that he could displace his rage by shattering them when he lost his temper with Louise's brother. And when her father discovered that his more explicit tapestry designs didn't sell well with conservative buyers, Louise was given the task of unpicking the genitals and replacing them with floral bouquets. At which point you can imagine Freud beating on the table and begging for Jung to stop because he couldn't breathe anymore.
It wasn't quirky or amusing for Bourgeois, of course, and the power of her work, only intermittently visible here because of the difficulty of filming sculpture, lies in how intensely it confronts entirely private agonies, converting them into public meaning. The power of Bourgeois herself was more effectively conveyed, though, radiating out from that wizened face as she held court for her adoring disciples. I confess that I found myself thinking that even the greatest and most venerable artists can sometimes be over-indulged, but I wouldn't have dared say anything if I'd actually been there.
I'm not sure I'd cross Claire in a hurry either, one of the site managers who has spent the last few years reconstructing St Pancras station and one of the more colourful characters in The 800 Million Pound Railway Station. "That man's a twat! A patronising little squirt," she said furiously, about a sub-contractor who stood head and shoulders above her, and scarily you sensed that she might be moderating her language for the cameras. Her colleague, Alastair Lansley, the project's chief architect, wasn't having a very happy time either, discovering, six months and a million pounds too late that a botch in the construction work was not going to be put right by the builders. He would certainly have understood about the "torment of being an artist", I think, taking the unsightly gap between Platonic ideal and compromised reality so hard that he had to walk into a nearby park and have a quiet weep, attended only by a cameraman peering through a nearby bush. As it happens, I was shown round St Pancras recently by Mr Lansley and I'm glad to say that he's cheered up considerably. I don't know whether he was putting a brave face on things or if he has just managed to get things into proportion (always a crucial ability for an architect), but he now seems positively ebullient about the finished product.
The 800 Million Pound Railway Station began with a flurry of dazzling statistics intended to make your head spin and then didn't do a huge amount to resolve your confusions so that you could tell which way was up. Most of the time, I couldn't get any clear sense of who was in charge of whom and how one bit of building site connected to another. Then again, given a project of this complexity, it could be said that they were merely doing justice to their subject matter.
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