From the illustrated bookView All
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.