Composed on an old bedspread embroidered with the initials L.B., the twenty-four individually printed drypoint images of ‘Self Portrait’ are collaged and stitched at each hour, marking various events from Bourgeois’s life and symbolizing distinct psychological states and relationships in chronological order. Three additional images positioned above the clock signify the emotional hierarchy of love and family. The work is a meditation on the passage of time through a unique visual language in which Bourgeois condenses her memories into images so that together they convey her life story. Bourgeois consistently revisited her past as a means of understanding her present. Here, the formal structure of the clock provides a rhythmic and conscious progression, counteracting the instability of the unconscious and its shifting psychic terrain.
As a girl, woman, wife, mother, and artist, the trajectory of Bourgeois’s life can be traced through her physical and emotional transformation as the hours on the clock advance. The first hour shows the artist as a young girl; the following images represent the girl’s rites of passage as she matures and becomes aware of her sexuality. She meets her husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater; their marriage is symbolized by a hand with a wedding ring. As time passes, she adopts a child (her son Michel), gives birth to two more sons, and has a family of her own (as shown in ‘Three Sons’ at hour 14). The relationships she creates – with Robert, with her children – are inflected and shaped by the residual effects of a traumatic childhood, her ingrained fear of abandonment and separation, and ultimately her need for love and personal connection. The importance of family is represented by the center panel above the clock, in which the female figure’s five breasts symbolize the family of five that Bourgeois had, while also mirroring the family of five in which she was raised. In this image, she identified herself as the baby in the womb, simultaneously representing herself and doubling back in time to represent her parents.
Bourgeois’s psychological states evolved as memories and past experiences were manifested in depression, insomnia, an interest in hysteria, and a deep engagement with psychoanalysis. While some images on the clock are evocative of particular art works, all serve to provide a sense of her life through the imagery she created, instigated by personal feelings of anxiety, guilt, fear, atonement, and reparation, and played out in her relationships with others. As the clock’s hands return to the top of the dial, Bourgeois depicts herself at the end of her life. The final hour reveals a blue drypoint print of ‘Maman,’ a monumental spider figure symbolic of both Bourgeois’s mother, a weaver, and of her own artistic practice: just as a spider makes its web from its body, Bourgeois felt she made sculpture through her body. By ending with this image, Bourgeois returns to the beginning – to her mother and, ultimately, to the womb, where she will continue again, cyclically, to the young girl. This vividly autobiographical work catalogs the emotions underlying and guiding the act of artmaking, the impulses that allowed Bourgeois to make sense of both her biography and inner self.
As the artist wrote, ‘My life is a succession of quarters of an hour which are spent in a succession of square meters… I’ve schlepped Louise Bourgeois around with me for more than 40 years. every day brought its wound and I carried my wounds ceaselessly, without remission, like a hide perforated beyond hope of repair. I am a collection of wooden pearls never threaded…’
The digital presentation on Hauser & Wirth’s website will allow visitors to explore ‘Self Portrait’ (2009) in great depth through a series of archival images and films, expanding and deepening our understanding of Bourgeois’s significance in 20th century art.
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About the artist
Born in France in 1911, and working in America from 1938 until her death in 2010, Louise Bourgeois is recognized as one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th Century. For over seven decades, Bourgeois’s creative process was fueled…Learn more