“louise Bourgeois” lower center colophon, black ink; “Marius Bewley” lower center colophon, black ink. “L. Bourgeois” or “Bourgeois” lower right margin each plate, pencil. (See Edition Information-SIGNATURES AND PLATE NUMBERS)
54 announced (44 numbered: 1-15 with color additions; 10 H.C. lettered A-J) (See Edition Information)
“24” lower center colophon, black ink, artist’s hand. (See Edition Information-IMPRESSION NUMBERS)
(SCROLL DOWN to sub-topic “KNOWN EXAMPLES” for a succinct listing of each example of “He Disappeared into Complete Silence,” noting special characteristics of each.)
The edition was not completed as announced on the colophon in 1947; it seems that few volumes were issued at that time. In research for this catalogue raisonné, 20 examples were identified either in person or by photographic images. One of these examples was purchased by the artist and later dismantled, leaving 19 existing examples.
Examples include those that are known to be, or are thought to be, issued in 1947 or thereabouts; these have been designated as “vintage” for cataloguing purposes. As of 2018, there are 10 known “vintage” examples. Others were put together by the artist in later years from texts and plates still in her possession; those are designated as “assembled.” As of 2018, there are 9 “assembled” examples; the artist put them together at various times (1 in 1972, 5 in the 1980s, 2 in the 1990s, 1 date unknown).
All examples of the book have been numbered for cataloguing purposes. Example 1 is in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and was acquired in 1947, the year of publication. It is therefore designated as “vintage.” In addition, for documentation, it is considered the standard book against which other examples are compared. There are many variations in the known examples of the first edition, particularly for those designated as “assembled.” For details, see each example of the first edition.
PLATES: In “vintage” examples, the plates are in the same order as those in MoMA’s Example 1, but are of slightly varying versions and states. In “assembled” examples, the plates can differ from those in MoMA’s Example 1 in respect to those included, their sequence, their states or versions, and the use of colored paper. A further notable difference in some “assembled” examples is the inclusion of a plate designated as “Alternative Plate” and constituting a 10th plate. (See Example 12 [New York Public Library], Example 13 [National Gallery of Australia], Example 15 [Private Collection, Brooklyn], Example 16 [Bibliothéque nationale de France]). Bourgeois included the “Alternative Plate” in the entire second edition of “He Disappeared into Complete Silence,” published in 2005. (See Background.)
The cream paper color of the plates varies from example to example and within examples, ranging from a lighter to a darker cream. In one “vintage” example (Example 5 [Sotheby's, NY, 2009]), Plate 4 is printed on gray paper. In “assembled” examples, there are additional instances of plates occasionally printed on colored papers. Impressions of the plates also exist outside examples of the book; they include other versions, states, variants and, occasionally, colored papers.
The inking, wiping, and tone of the plates vary within examples, and from example to example. Although sets with color additions were announced on the colophon in 1947, apparently none were completed. Some impressions existing outside the book are hand-colored.
Individual impressions of various states of the plates are inscribed “1944,” “1946,” and “1947,” but cataloguers have determined that the group should be dated to 1946-47.
Later photogravure plates appear in two “assembled” examples: Example 16 (Bibliothéque nacionale de France) includes 1984 photogravures after 1947 engravings of Plate 3 and the “Alternative Plate.” Example 18 (Private Collection, Brooklyn) includes 1984 photogravures after 1947 engravings of Plates 1 and 3. (See Background.)
SIGNATURES AND PLATE NUMBERS: Bourgeois completed the signing of individual plates, and the inscribing of plate numbers, at different times, as evidenced by softer and harder pencils sometimes used from plate to plate, or to mark the “L” in “L. Bourgeois,” or the number after the word “Plate.” In “assembled” examples she sometimes wrote in ink or ballpoint.
There are often unsigned plates in “assembled” examples. The colophon can be signed by the artist and the author of the introduction, in ink, or by the artist alone, in pencil; there are “vintage” and “assembled” examples of both. Also, colophons in some “assembled” examples are unsigned.
PARABLE TEXT PAGES: In four “vintage” examples, there are extra parable text pages. In Example 1 (MoMA Collection), the extra pages were supplied by the artist to allow for the framing of all parables and plates together. The same was the case for Example 7 (Louise Bourgeois Trust). (Without extra texts, the printing on rectos and versos of various pages makes the framing of parables and plates together, impossible.) Example 5 (Sotheby’s, NY, 2009) and Example 9 (Beinecke Library, Yale University) also have extra parable text pages but it is not known why.
TEXT CHANGES: The printed text on the title page varies from that on the standard Example 1 (MoMA Collection) in one “vintage” example: Example 7 (Louise Bourgeois Trust). The name “MARIUS BEWLEY’ is in a different font; it is thinner and the letters are placed closed together. For “assembled” examples, there are presently no images available for the title pages of Example 11 (British Museum), Example 13 (National Gallery of Australia) or Example 16 (Bibliothéque nationale de France); Example 17 (Sotheby’s, New York. April 29, 2011 Sale) includes no text pages. The remaining “assembled” examples have standard title pages except for Example 14 (Toledo Museum of Art). In that example, the font for “MARIUS BEWLEY” differs from that on Example 1’s title page and matches the differing font in Example 7 (Louise Bourgeois Trust) described above. Also in Example 14, ‘’GEMOR PRESS” is in all caps and is in a thinner font than that on the standard title page. Finally, Example 14 has an extra title page, which appears to be a test sheet for different fonts and placements of elements.
The printed text on the dedication page is: “for/JEAN LOUIS”. “Jean-Louis” is the name of Bourgeois’s first biological son. Available photographic documentation of the known examples showed seven where Bourgeois has added a hyphen in black ink or in pencil between “JEAN” and “LOUIS”. They are: Example 3 (National Gallery, Washington), Example 5 (Sotheby’s, NY, 2009), Example 7 (Louise Bourgeois Trust), Example 8 (Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Florence), Example 9 (Beinecke Library, Yale University), Example 10 (Christie’s, NY, 2018), and Example 18 (Private Collection, Brooklyn).
In some “vintage” examples, Plate 7 has a hand-written correction to the accompanying parable. The word “Then” in the seventh line is changed to the word “They,” with a “y” superimposed on the “n.” (See Example 3 [National Gallery, Washington], Example 5 [Sotheby’s, NY, 2009], Example 8 [Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Florence] and Example 14 [Toledo Museum of Art].) For “assembled” examples, not all parables could be examined so additional instances of this text correction may exist.
IMPRESSION NUMBERS: Some “vintage” examples are numbered on the colophon, some are not; the same is the case for “assembled” examples. Two examples, one “vintage” (Example 4 [ Private Collection, Colorado]), and one “assembled” (now dismantled by the artist) were both numbered “23”. It is likely that the colophon from the dismantled example was later incorporated into the second edition of “He Disappeared into Complete Silence” (cat.no. 1229), in A.P. 4/12, where the original colophon is numbered “23.” Only one known example (Example 3 [National Gallery, Washington]) is lettered, referencing the colophon, which says: “…10 copies lettered A to J are not for sale.”
KNOWN EXAMPLES: If current (2018) ownership of an example is unknown, the entry begins with the auction and date when it was last sold.
In the following list, “BOUR” numbers are given. They are assigned to works by the Louise Bourgeois Studio and are usually not cited in this catalogue raisonné. The exception here is to provide a further level of identification for known example of this important volume.
1. THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK. (BOUR-0122). Vintage. 24/44. -Colophon signed by artist and author of introduction. -Has extra text pages. -Includes pink paper wrap-around band.
2. LOUISE BOURGEOIS TRUST, NEW YORK. (BOUR-4021). Christie’s, New York. November 2, 1999 Sale. Vintage. 20/44. -Colophon signed by artist alone.
3. NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON. (BOUR- 13290). Vintage. “D”. -Colophon signed by artist and author of introduction. -Plate 7 parable has hand-written correction.
4. PRIVATE COLLECTION, COLORADO. (BOUR-13554). Christie’s, New York. May 17, 1990 Sale. Vintage. 23/44. -Colophon signed by artist and author of introduction.
5. SOTHEBY’S, NEW YORK. OCTOBER 29, 2009 SALE. (BOUR-13701). Vintage. Not numbered. -Colophon signed by artist and author of introduction. -Plate 4 printed on gray paper. -Plate 7 parable has hand-written correction. -Has extra text pages.
6. PRIVATE COLLECTION, NEW YORK. (BOUR-16169). Vintage. Not numbered. -Colophon signed by artist and author of introduction. -Includes pink paper wrap-around band.
7. LOUISE BOURGEOIS TRUST, NEW YORK. (BOUR-2232). Sotheby’s, New York. November 12, 1994 Sale. Vintage. 18/44. -Colophon signed by artist alone. -Some differences in title page fonts. -Has extra text pages. -Used as basis for trade edition. (See Bibliography.)
8. BIBLIOTECA NAZIONALE CENTRALE DI FIRENZE, FLORENCE. (BOUR-13288). Vintage. 26/44. -Colophon signed by artist and author of introduction. -Plate 7 parable has hand-written correction.
9. BEINECKE RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, YALE UNIVERSITY. (BOUR-13283). Vintage.19/44. -Colophon signed by artist alone. -Has extra text pages.
10. CHRISTIE’S, NEW YORK. APRIL 20, 2018 SALE. (BOUR-13254). Vintage. Not numbered. -Colophon signed by artist and author of introduction.
11. BRITISH MUSEUM. (BOUR-0141). Assembled. 28/44. -Colophon signed by artist and author of introduction. -Plates 2 and 7 not signed; Plate 6 not signed and not inscribed with plate number. -Plate 4 printed on brown/orange paper. -Housing has vivid red marbleized lining.
12. NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY. (BOUR-6258). Assembled. Not numbered. -Colophon not signed. -Plates 8 and 9 not signed or inscribed with plate numbers. -Includes “Alternative Plate.” -Plates were basis for photogravures made for the Second Edition.
13. NATIONAL GALLERY OF AUSTRALIA. (BOUR-6260). Assembled. Not numbered. Colophon signed by artist and author of introduction. -Several plates numbered differently from those in Example 1; several not signed and several not inscribed with plate numbers. -Includes “Alternative Plate.”
14. TOLEDO MUSEUM OF ART. (BOUR-6262). Assembled. Not numbered. -Colophon signed by artist and author of introduction. -Some differences in title page fonts. -Has extra title page, with font and element differences. -Has extra Plate 5, not signed or inscribed with plate number. -Plate 7 parable has hand-written correction. -Includes very faded pink paper wrap-around band.
15. PRIVATE COLLECTION, BROOKLYN. (BOUR-15451). Assembled. Not numbered. -Colophon not signed. -Plate 1 is photocopy. -Plate 7 on larger-than-standard sheet and outside the book. -Plates 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 not signed; Plate 9 plate number inscribed on verso. -Includes photocopy “Alternative Plate.”
16. BIBLIOTHÉQUE NATIONALE DE FRANCE. (BOUR-16407). Assembled. Not numbered. -Colophon not signed. -Plate 1 not inscribed with plate number. -Plate 3 is photogravure (See Background.); not signed or inscribed with plate number. -Plate 4 printed on orange/brown paper. -Includes photogravure “Alternative Plate.” (See Background.) -Includes very faded pink paper wrap-around band.
17. SOTHEBY’S, NEW YORK. April 29, 2011 Sale. (BOUR-15407). Plates only; no text. Assembled. Not numbered. -No colophon. -Several plates numbered differently from those in Example 1. -Plate 2 (on brown paper) is composition for Plate 5 in Example 1. -Plate 6 (on brown paper) is composition for Plate 4 in Example 1. -No housing.
18. PRIVATE COLLECTION, BROOKLYN. (BOUR-16178). Assembled.16/44. -Colophon signed by artist alone. -Plates 1 and 3 are photogravures. (See Background.) -Plate 2 not signed. -Plate 4 on brownish paper and not numbered. -Housing has no labels.
19. SWANN AUCTION GALLERIES, NEW YORK. Novemer 15, 2018 Sale. (BOUR-16494). Assembled. Not numbered. -Colophon signed by artist alone. -Plate 1 printed off-center, to right. -Plate 3 signed and inscribed with plate number; Plate 7 signed; others not signed or numbered. -Plate 4 printed on orange/brown paper. -Housing has no labels; has gray strip of paint at left front, near spine.
• SOTHEBY’S, NEW YORK. November 9, 1984 Sale. (BOUR-4390). Assembled. 23/44. -Acquired by the artist and dismantled; not illustrated here.
COMPARISON BETWEEN EXAMPLE 1, MoMA COLLECTION AND OTHER EXAMPLES: As stated, MoMA’s example was acquired in 1947, the year of publication, and is considered the standard book against which others are measured. That said, MoMA’s example has an extra set of text pages for three of Bourgeois’s parables that allow for the plates and parables to be framed together for exhibition. MoMA received its extra text pages from the artist in preparation for framing for the 1994 exhibition, “The Prints of Louise Bourgeois.”
PROVENANCE FOR EXAMPLE 1: Example 1 was purchased by The Museum of Modern Art from book dealer, Wittenborn & Co., New York, in 1947. Although the George Wittenborn Papers in the MoMA Archives indicate that Wittenborn’s company was known as Wittenborn & Schultz until 1956 (when it became Wittenborn & Co.), MoMA curatorial records say the book was purchased in 1947 by Wittenborn & Co. No explanation for this name discrepancy could be found.
12 unnumbered pp (including title, dedication, and introduction); 24 unnumbered pp (including “Nine Engravings” title, text pages, colophon, and back cover), with 9 plates interspersed.
Printer of Text:
Gemor Press, New York
Unbound. Beige linen cover (overall: 11 x 7 5/8 x 3/4” [28 x 19.4 x 1.9 cm]), with brown, very slightly textured paper lining and flaps to hold book in place. On the cover: off-white label, 2 5/8 x 2 ¾” (6.7 x 6.9 cm), printed in black: “LOUISE / BOURGEOIS.” On the spine: off-white label, 1/2” x 2 5/8” (1.3 x 6.8 cm), printed in black: “BOURGEOIS;” off-white label, ½ x 5/8” (1.2 x 6.8 cm), printed in black: “GEMOR.” (For any variations in housing see individual examples.)
This example includes a pink paper wrap-around band, 4” (10.2 cm) high, intended to encircle the cover, printed in black: “9 original line engravings by LOUISE BOURGEOIS / with an introduction by MARIUS BEWLEY / edition limited to 44 signed copies.”
Bourgeois’s diaries indicate that early in 1947, with the hope of making her work more widely known, she decided to assemble an illustrated book with prints she had made at the Atelier 17 workshop. Her first concept was a seven-print portfolio titled "Les Sept Jours de Ia Semaine" (The Seven Days of the Week). She writes that her ideal publisher would have been Caresse Crosby's Black Sun Press. Remembering that in the 1990s, she laughed and said, "that was a fantasy,'' since Crosby was so well known and Bourgeois was at an early stage of her career.
In her diary, Bourgeois also recounts meetings with poet and literary scholar, Marius Bewley, who wrote the introduction to “He Disappeared into Complete Silence.” They discussed titles of prints and parables to accompany them. Finally, plate numbers were used for the individual prints rather than titles. Two phrases incorporated in the book in lieu of full parables are mentioned in the back-and-forth with Bewley. They are: "The Solitary Death of the Woolworth Building” (accompanying Plate 2) and "Leprosarium Louisiana" (accompanying Plate 6). Titles mentioned but not ultimately used were "Visitors,'' "Maison sans Yeux" (House without Eyes), and "Manhattan Island."
It seems that the book’s overall title, “He Disappeared into Complete Silence,” was first considered as the title for an individual print. Notes also suggest that more than the final nine prints were contemplated; Bourgeois mentions at least twelve additional titles and seven additional brief parables. Some of those titles are "Slow Pulse,'' "The Field Has Been Plowed,'' "Oily Body,'' "X Rays,'' and "Insomnia." In the 1990s, she confirmed that she had originally considered several other compositions for inclusion, remembering, in particular, “L'Allée Montante” (The Uphill Path) (cat. no. 558), “Pont Transbordeur” (Drawbridge) (cat. no. 523), “Le Phare” (The Lighthouse) (cat. no. 644), and “Sacs Ouvert” (Open Sacks) (cat. no. 675). (Related inscriptions appear on these prints.)
In addition to her discussions with poet and scholar, Bewley, Bourgeois sought advice from Alfred H. Barr, Jr., founding director of The Museum of Modern Art, and a friendly acquaintance in this period. In a letter, Barr suggested a revision of the parable accompanying Plate 8, but Bourgeois did not incorporate it. Barr was an early supporter of Bourgeois's work, acquiring an example of “He Disappeared into Complete Silence” for MoMA’s Collection in 1947, as well as a 1950 sculpture “Sleeping Figure,” in 1951. In the illustrated book “the puritan”, of 1990 (cat. no. 1072-1079), Bourgeois’s text is a 1947 story she had written about Barr, but she does not name him.
It is clear that “He Disappeared into Complete Silence” was an enormous effort for Bourgeois, preoccupying her throughout 1947. There are diary notes about visits to the Print Room of the Brooklyn Museum to study the construction of portfolios; she describes the important features of flaps, covers, and so on, also noting that, "The text should go along with the pictures." She later remembered that with all the organizational aspects of the project, and with the effort needed to finish a relatively large quantity of prints, her final decisions regarding the sequence of plates, and the pairings of images and particular texts, were made in great haste.
In her 1948 diary, there are references to Bourgeois’s attempts, after the project was completed, to bring it to the attention of critics, among them art critic, Clement Greenberg, and literary critic, Philip Rahv, as well as to a broader art public. Some books were left with book dealers Georges Wittenborn and Harold E. Briggs; others were given away. An off-pink postcard order form exists in two versions: in one, the printed address of Wittenborn is on one side and that of Briggs on the other, along with ordering instructions and pricing at $20. The other version has a separate card for each dealer, with an image of Plate 6 on the verso. Finally, Bourgeois took out ads in “Partisan Review,” vol. 16: No. 3 (March 1949), No. 8 (August 1949), and No. 9 (Sept. 1949). The ad includes a detail of Plate 6 and the information that the volume (limited and signed) was for sale for $20 at Betty Parsons Gallery, 15 E. 57 St, NYC.
The announced edition of the book was not completed in 1947. This frustrated Bourgeois and, much later, in the early 1980s, she began efforts to reissue this work, hoping to complete the edition she had begun so many years earlier. The printing plates no long existed, so she set about producing new ones. She worked first, in 1984, with printer Deli Sacilotto, director of Iris Editions, New York, to create photogravures of 1947 engravings of Plate 1, Plate 3, and the “Alternative Plate.” Then, in 1990, she created engraved versions of Plates 2 and 6 with the assistance of Christian Guérin of Gravure, New York. First, though, in order to determine whether Guérin’s engraving was suitable, she asked him to engrave two similar compositions. (See “Atlantic Avenue: Transparent Houses” [cat. nos. 1054.1, .2, .3].) In 1993, she finally turned the project over to printer Felix Harlan of Harlan & Weaver, New York. He made reprints of some 1984 photogravures and 1990 engravings. In addition, since by then Bourgeois had located three of the original printing plates from the 1940s (two versions of Plate 3 and one version of Plate 4), Harlan made reprints from those, but they were too distressed for use in a future edition. Ultimately, over many years, he coordinated and printed the second edition of “He Disappeared into Complete Silence.” It was finally published in 2005 to benefit the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (cat. no. 1229).
This is “a drama of the self.... It is about the fear of going overboard and hurting others. Controlling oneself is always the goal… so one will not project one's own violence on others."
Bourgeois felt that ''the whole trend of this book is about the lowering of self-esteem. It is a descent… a descent into depression. But I believe in resurrection in the morning. This is a withdrawal, but it is temporary. You lose your self esteem, but you pull yourself up again. This is about survival… about the will to survive."
In discussing the parables that accompany the plates, Bourgeois remembered that she was not very careful about matching them with particular prints. “It was a real exorcism just to get all the prints out." She didn’t feel that the prints should be too closely interpreted by the texts. She might have even arranged them differently at different times. But the parables in themselves were very important to her. "I love language. I have fun with the English language because of the loving permissiveness of my family." Even though Bourgeois remembered ''massacring the language," she added, ''no one ever criticized my English." Her father believed learning English was very important. About these parables, she said: "When inspiration would come I would write one. I didn't do them all at once."
For Bourgeois, the act of writing was a strategy in itself. "You can stand anything if you write it down. You must do it to get hold of yourself. When space is limited, or when you have to stay with a child, you always have recourse to writing. All you need is a pen and paper. But you must redirect your concentration." Even though writing was ''not completely satisfying," she was happy to have it available when she wanted to be ''sarcastic or self-defeating toward the self.... Words put in connection can open up new relations… a new view of things." (Quotes cited in Wye, Deborah and Carol Smith. "The Prints of Louise Bourgeois." New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1994, p. 72.)
This example is accompanied by two off-pink order form postcards. One is printed with the address of book dealer Harold E. Briggs and ordering and price ($20) information on one side, and an image of Plate 6 on the other side. The other is printed with the address of book dealer George Wittenborn on one side and the printed address of book dealer Harold E. Briggs on the other; each side also has ordering and price ($20) information.
Marius Bewley (American, 1918-1973), author of the Introduction, was a poet and literary scholar, who also served for a year (1944-45) as Peggy Guggenheim’s assistant at her New York gallery, Art of This Century. (A slightly altered version of his text appears in “Tiger’s Eye” I, no. 7 [March 15, 1949], 89-92.)
Most books and catalogues surveying Bourgeois’s work include a discussion of “He Disappeared into Complete Silence,” as well as illustrations of some, if not all, plates and parables.
Other references of note: Bourgeois, Louise. “He Disappeared into Complete Silence.” Paris: Éditions Dilecta, 2008. Trade edition. Edition: 2000. (This edition was made from Example 7 [Louise Bourgeois Trust], but it includes French translations.)
Cluitmans, Laurie, and Arnisa Zeqo, eds. “He Disappeared into Complete Silence: Rereading a Single Artwork by Louise Bourgeois.” With texts by Mieke Bal, Maria Barnas, Lytle Shaw, Robert Storr, Steven ten Thije, and Arnisa Zeqo. Haarlem, Netherlands: De Hallen Haarlem, 2011.
Nixon, Mignon. “He Disappeared into Complete Silence: Phantastic Reality.” In “Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art.” Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2005, pp. 83-117.
Former Cat. No.:
W & S 29-38
MoMA Credit Line:
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund
MoMA Accession Number:
This Work in Other Collections:
Louise Bourgeois Trust, New York (Example 2) National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (Example 3) Louise Bourgeois Trust, New York (Example 7) Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Florence (Example 8) Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven (Example 9) British Museum, London (Example 11) New York Public Library (Example 12) National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (Example 13) Toledo Museum of Art (Example 14) Bibliothéque nationale de France, Paris (Example 16)
Marius Bewley's introduction to this volume is below:
There are several evocative levels in the nine engravings by Louise Bourgeois which comprise the present series. Since she has indicated one level herself by the titles and parables which accompany the plates, presumably this was the one at which her conscious awareness was most active during the creative process. In relating the parables to the engravings (and it had better be done in a very general way), it will be better to avoid any psycho-inquisitorial session, and confine one’s self to the obvious pattern and tone of the stories. Now these fables are just barely big enough to carry the plot, and it is always the same plot, repeated in a different way each time. They are all tiny tragedies of human frustration: at the outset someone is happy in the anticipation of an event or in the possession of something pleasing. In the end, his own happiness is destroyed either when he seeks to communicate it, or, perversely, seeks to deny the necessity for communication. The protagonists are miserable because they can neither escape the isolation which has become a condition of their own identities, nor yet accept it as wholly natural. Their attempts to free themselves, or accept their situation invariably end in disaster, for the first is impossible, and the second is abnormal. One man becomes a tragic figure when he discovers he cannot tell other people why he is happy. He tries, but nobody can understand his speech. Another man in his anxiety to maintain a human relationship waves desperately from an elevator to his friend below, and is beheaded for his pains. A girl who is in love with a man puts on her best dress to meet him, but he fails to keep the appointment, and the happiness she had to share remains locked and wasted in herself. An ex-soldier, because of partial deafness, believes that a barrier has grown up between himself and the world. But after an operation has restored his hearing, he finds the kind of communication he hoped to insure [sic] is not simply a matter of physical integrity, but of something more difficult to achieve. The world of spiritual values withdraws from him farther because he has mistaken the means of approaching it. The two last stories describe the defeat of those who do not struggle against their isolation, but seek their happiness in private possession only. There is the little girl who loves sugar so much she would willingly not share it with anyone else; so she buries it in the ground, forgetting that the dampness will certainly destroy it. And like the possessive little girl, there is the mother who seeks to imprison her son in her selfish affection for him, only to have him break resentfully away.
This difficulty of communication that springs from the individual’s isolation in himself has always been present in society in some degree, but it remained for this century to confront its special fury. For a good many years it has been the esthetic concern with which artists have been most occupied, but to let it rest on a plane of verbal or visual strategy is both to underestimate and misunderstand it. It is really a problem of cultural and spiritual desiccation which has occurred because of the progressive failure of asumptions [sic] on which men have been evaluating themselves and their prospects since the Renaissance began. Their insistence on individuality, for example, has been so conspicuous, at least in those countries which were most thoroughly worked over under the direction of Renaissance attitudes, that everyone became so individual that now only the most flagrant politics, and the most arbitrary ideas of collective association can bind them into anything like homogeneity. The heart of culture is lost, and unity is superimposed, an embellishment from the outside. As an integrating substitute for culture, politics cannot ease loneliness, or return us to our common species from which we have wrenched ourselves by the violence of ambition and uncentred curiosity. Under such circumstances it is not remarkable that the difficulty of communication between men has become intensified. If they share a language together, the other points of reference which a culture should offer them they hold so little in common that their meaning must usually remain, to a degree perhaps unprecedented, a private one—that is, if they really have anything to say at all. It is inevitable that our art should offer, either directly or indirectly, a comment on this cultural exhaustion, and on the human situation which arises from it, for it is the business of art to present an experience in its organic totality.
All this is well enough known, even if not believed in, and perhaps an apology might seem in order for beginning a brief introduction of this nature with observations which, to those who are disinclined to accept their validity, may seem pretentious. But the recognitions and the feelings which attend such a conviction seem to me to be operative in these engravings, and to constitute the foundation of their effectiveness. I do not know if Louise Bourgeois explicitly thought like this when she executed the plates, nor is it important to know. The parables may be taken as marking her point of departure, and it is indicative enough. The engravings begin with a problem in human relations, with something that resolves itself to a basic frustration, but leaving that at once, they undertake a visual exploration of the context which frames the individual defeat. In the nature of the case, the context must be a cultural one. And I had better say right now that the success of these etchings seems to me to lie in the way Louise Bourgeois unfolds the personal mood which adheres to the particular episode behind each title into the impersonal and wider implication in which it always ends. The people n [sic] the parables do not actually show up in the engravings. Since they have lost the power of communication, the most essential of their human characteristics, they are not really persons any longer, and that is their tragedy. It is an invisible tragedy, a classic act of violence performed behind the scenes, but we know about it because the buildings which conceal the action are themselves the symbols of what they hide. They symbolize both the particular tragedy and its farthest meaning. Human events and experiences, even architecture, are never merely things-in-themselves. They are counterpointed with a cultural movement which accompanies and surrounds them, and transforms their private meanings into something else. To some extent the buildings in these engravings describe this complex pattern, but in such a way that it is the individual rather than the historical value that counts for most. The more one looks at these engravings the more one realizes how closely, even how poignantly connected, the buildings and the parables really are.
The buildings are probably skyscrapers in Manhattan, and yet they somehow implant an uncertainty in one’s mind. One remembers those square defensive towers which the nobles of Florence erected during their first period of civil war at the close of the twelfth century. For a time Florence was bristling with towers, and from their tops neighbours shot crossbows at each other all morning, or speared their friends in the streets below as if they were boars. One thinks particularly of the towers when the fighting ended, deserted and half in ruins. But they are equally suggestive of the American scene itself, considered from a special point of view. These ambiguous structures remind one of the cranes on loading docks, the elevators in building yards, all the endless industrial activity which, in the end, adds up to nothing. The loneliness is as smothering as in a western ghost town, and carries its peculiar charge of poetry. In America, conditions conspired to accelerate the process by which the assumptions of the Renaissance brilliantly began to burn out everywhere else almost from the very beginning. In America the destructive, beautiful fire was later, and by contrast, brighter. It also consumed itself at a greater rate of speed. It may be objected that there is still much optimism, much hope left. But it is hope of something else, and something much less, whether the difference be admitted or not. The lonely towers in these engravings, if thought of as American, betray that difference, in emotional terms. They are rather like the souvenirs of a receding greatness cherished by some exhausted, aging child prodigy. But whether pre-Renaissance towers or post-Renaissance skyscrapers are intended does not matter, for the emotional condition in which they are perceived is a solvent that destroys the difference between them. They are still the buildings where the elevator shafts and the assignations in the parables occur. And they speak of a frustration, fear, and loneliness that grew up through a wide curve of time that has not come full circle yet. When we look at Plate I we know that the four spoked wheel at the top of the tower will never turn, because it is crossed by three vertical lines that hold it stationary, and we look with amazement at the bonfire in Plate IV which is burning without fuel. Saddest of all is the slack rope that hangs from the artist’s scaffold or the movable crane—one is not sure what it is—in Plate V, for one feels that no hand will ever grasp it, or make it taut again. These symbols represent the solitude that presses in on the human consciousness when human energy is at its lowest ebb.
Such en [sic] emotion as these engravings represent is neither direct nor simple. Obviously it has nothing to do with those basic human drives which a certain type of critic today predicates of what he calls “primary art.” Just as obviously, it has little to do with the senses. I do not know if it begins or ends in the intellect, but however that may be, it is an emotion which approximates a peculiar kind of intellection. It expresses itself by a sensitive visual logic, and it is perfectly at home within the rules of that logic. There is, for example, an expository quality in the straight incisiveness of the lines which dovetail into each other at their intersections like the points of a discursive argument, and one remarks how the tower structures tend to be divided into three parts, almost like the terms of a syllogism. But most of all, one notes that although a horizon line is usually given, it is always lowly placed. It might almost be the floor line of a room great enough to enclose the smaller structures. This sense of enclosure is enforced by the regular texture of the background, which suggests a wall rather than aerial atmosphere. Even the introduction of a star in one of the plates fails to despel [sic] the illusion entirely. Now the effect of this is to represent an unromantic universe, logically confined within the limits of a rational definition. The eye does not race to the horizon, and so on outward to infinity. It remains to face the problem, which is clearly stated in what might be described as a primarily cognitative way of seeing and drawing. The problem, it has already been said, is simply that of loneliness and isolation presented in terms of a cultural failure as it impinges on the individual. And as the problem arises within a cultural frame, the scrutiny is conducted, one might almost say the answer is sought, within the limits of that frame. And perhaps there may be some kind of personal answer possible. The engravings are nostalgic and lonely, but the note is not that of oppresive [sic] despair. One looks at the submerged skyscrapers in the final plate, so effectively rich in conflicting associations. One does not know whether these are merely destructive waters over them (that does not seem quite the emotional significance intended), or waters of faith, healing, and fertility. One reads the accompanying parable, and finds the same ambiguity there, for if the mother is destroyed, the son is saved.
This problem of isolation and cultural failure is one which every modern artist has had to deal with after his own fashion. If a special point is made of it here it is because these engravings are so simple and direct that their plaintive insistences on the theme, like the melody of a recorder, offers something rather out of the ordinary. It is as if the artist had viewed the problem through one of those reducing glasses that seventeenth century Dutch artists sometimes used to study an interior before painting it to a sharper focus than they could have achieved with the unaided eye. Beginning with the situations of the parables, the emotion is abstracted, and then intensified by seeng [sic] it through the diminishing glass of our cultural crisis. The personal tragedy is by no means disqualified in this process. It remains the prime motive in the final product, while the theme of isolation, performs on the most intimate, most civilized of stages with a modesty that is in itself engaging.
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