Be Your Own Spider

You’ve already noticed that I read ecclectically ;-). How do I choose, you may wonder. Well, sometimes a book is recommended, by a friend, a reviewer I trust, a bookseller. Other times, I simply go into the bookstore and I let myself ‘get caught’ – by a cover for instance. Or by the back cover, a much underrated part of a book! Take this example:

blauw7Years ago I saw this picture in a bookshop in Amsterdam and I was intrigued. I bought the book ūüėČ

In this volume of a series on important late 20th-century artists, Louise Bourgeois, a French-born American (1911-2010), takes centre stage. She is a complex artist.¬†She seems to explore any¬†medium at hand to develop her artistic vision:lb-boek1 the richly illustrated monograph shows sculptures, paintings, prints, installations … and fabric works!¬†The blue figure, which turns out to be called Endless Pursuit¬†(2000), is only one of many examples of the sampling tendency in Bourgeois’ work: the taking apart of existing materials in order to invent new possibilities. The same applies to the¬†fabric works below, all Untitled¬†(2000/ 2001/ 2000). How delightful for instance to turn old tapestries into a modern totem. But I knew nothing of the background of the artist or what she tried to convey. I also had a sense her work was ‘difficult’.

totem2
Remember the pastel colours, they return later ūüėČ

totem1Or perhaps it simply wasn’t for me at the time.

 

I forgot about the book and about Louise Bourgeois.

 

lullaby-boek
The original ‘Lullaby’ is a series of 25 silkscreens Bourgeois made in 2006.

Until this Spring at the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna: imagine my surprise that the artist whom I had considered difficult, had become the subject of a children’s book! Amy Novesky’s book is attractively¬†illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault – but I didn’t recognise the images: there are much more colours √†nd textile references than I remembered.

I did get a summary of Bourgeois’ life story, with a prominent role for her mother’s tapestry workshop. There is also¬†some reference to¬†the dysfunctional family in which she grew up, with Bourgeois’ father rarely at home (his philandering remains unmentioned in this book) and her mother dying when she was still a student.

I was intrigued again. And discovered yet another book, entirely devoted to her ‘Fabric Works’. ¬†There I readlb-boek2¬†that in a virtually artless period (1955-66) Bourgeois returned from New York to Paris and opened an antique shop specialising in children’s literature and illustrated books. The children’s book with her story is not so strange after all!¬†Alas¬†I must omit a lot of Bourgeois’ multifaceted work: my focus here as in Cloth Lullaby will be textile. ¬†¬†

Louise Bourgeois has had a long artistic life. But recognition only arrived in the late seventies, with her definite breakthrough on the international stage with a retrospective in MoMu in 1982. It seems that recognition also ‘liberated’ her in the sense that she could finally comment on the artistic translation of the psychic wounds of her childhood. Yet many commentators insist that her work is not so much autobiographical as it is archetypical: it refers to universal themes as fear and hurt – and the need for recognition. As Bourgeois put it herself:¬†“All art comes from terrific failures and terrific needs we have. It’s about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected. Everywhere in the modern world there is neglect, the need to be recognised, which is not satisfied. Art is a way of recognising oneself.” (LB 1988)

What is fascinating is that it’s through fabrics that Bourgeois attempts to recognise herself: she ‘sculpts’ with her own old clothes and turns them into records of her emotional life, into self-portraits in fact.

clothes1
Blue Days (1996)
clothes2
Detail of Cell Clothes (1996): “The cold of anxiety is very real.”
Femme-Maison 2001
Femme-Maison (2001)

 

 

 

 

 

The body is also omnipresent in Bourgeois’ work. She strongly believes that emotions live in the body – strong, intense, past and present.

rood-hoofd
Untitled (2002)
Arched Figure 2004
Arched Figure (2004)
The Child 2003
The Child (2003)

 

 

 

 

 

And her representation of memory and emotion is very much determined by her use of colour. She herself says: “Color is stronger than language. It’s subliminal communication. Blue represents peace, medition, and escape.”¬†Note how much this runs parallell with the analysis of Michel¬†Pastoureau¬†which I mentioned earlier! “Red is an affirmation at all cost – regardless of the dangers in fighting – of contraction, of aggression. It’s symbolic of the intensity of the emotions involved.” (LB 1992)

The Waiting Hours 2007
The delightful textile book, The Waiting Hours (2007)
red-cell 1994
One of the so-called Cells: Red Cell (Child) (1994)

Would it be disrespectful to call Bourgeois a colour funda-mentalist? ūüėČ

 

 

Red is omnipresent in Cloth Lullaby, presumably to indicate the intensity of Bourgeois’ artistic endeavour. This is no art pour l’art, the¬†artist is deeply and personally engaged with the universal themes she explores. lullaby-clothesIn fact, the particular, such as¬†the usage of her own clothes, gives¬†body¬†to the universal. As Novesky puts it:¬†“Louise gathered all the fabric of her life […] and she cut it all up. And then she spent the rest of her life putting it back together again.” That seems like a fair synthesis.¬†In the family business 17th- and 18th-century tapestries were repaired and resold: rentrayage,¬†to make things whole again, is a dominant theme in Bourgeois’ work. The technique of assemblage that is so present conveys a deep urge for ‘wholeness’ that appears forever elusive and invariably infused by anguish. Her personal unhappiness is never very far way, yet she keeps exploring the hope that the damage can be undone or patched up. This is the driving force, the ‘endless pursuit’ illustrated earlier, behind everything she made: can one recover from the past? Is it possible to put back together the fragments that loneliness and neglect have scattered? In other words, taking clothes apart refers to Bourgeois’ fears of abandonment and disintegration. And sewing them back together is a form of reparation.

geel-web-moeder

geel-web-2005
Untitled (2005)

Cloth Lullaby rightly gives Bourgeois’ mother a very prominent role. In her pursuit of reparation the artist herself shifted her emphasis from the theme of the neglectful Father, to the capable Good Mother – patient spinner, weaver and sewer. It is not difficult to see how the background in Arsenault’s drawing¬†(left) refers to a spider web (right) such as Bourgeois produced time and again.¬†The reference is very much deliberate:¬†“I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of the spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs.” (LB 2007)¬†Clearly this is what Bourgeois strives for: to let go of the anger and start again. It may be an endless pursuit¬†but with every work the artist attempts to capture the past and thus allow a new present, to be her own repairer.¬†

The spider features largely in the artist’s work since first drawn in 1947. Seen over time, the changing forms of the creature reflect the development in Bourgeois’ oeuvre itself. The ‘Spider Works’ – and they are many – are both about fragility and about self-protection.¬†

The spider enters Bs work 1947)
The first appearance (1947)
spin-london 2007
Spider, sixty years later (2007)

The spider is a symbol of learning:¬†one can capture one’s psychological condition and repair emotional wounds so as to rebuild the web of one’s life. Is it surprising then that the spiders turn (in)to tapestry?

spin-tapiss5-2003
in 2003 its body has become tapestry.
Spider 1997
In 1997 the spider protects the tapestry in a cell-structure,

 

 

As a patient spider Louise Bourgeois relentlessly re-created the past: her entire oeuvre can thus be interpreted as work-in-hopeful-progress. And the great news is: she did recover from her childhood traumas and her artistic intensity grew more gentle. This is illustrated by the change in the colours she used: pastels enter the scene and mark the transition from an aggressive fury to softer, more accepting emotions. As Bourgeois explained herself:¬†“Pink is feminine. It represents a liking and acceptance of the self.” (LB 1992)

pink-days
An early occurance in: Pink Days and Blue Days (1997),
pastel4 2002
pink weaving in: Untitled (2002),
pastel2
completed with ‘pods’ in: Untitled (2007).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spider 2007
Now pastel & soft (2007)

The best illustration of Bourgeois’ growth and achievement is the conversion of ‘her’ spider. This is why the pastel¬†spider adorns the cover of The Fabric Works: it illustrates almost intuitively the path that Bourgeois has travelled personally and artistically – and both very much linked.¬†Spider¬†(2007) is widely understood as an ode to her mother.¬†The drama of the separation,¬†from her father as well as from her own self, is resolved. She can allow softness¬†both in material and in colours because she has allowed it into her own life. From 2005 onwards, the long journey of suffering thus has reached a ‘wholesome’ conclusion: “To create is an act of liberation.”

Liberation is also letting go. Once more Louise Bourgeois:¬†“Fear is a passive state. The goal is to be active and take control … If the past is not negated in the present, you do not live. You go through the emotions like a zombie, and life passes you by.” (LB 1998)

The historian in me is not sure that the past must be negated: to explore it may of itself enable an active life. But I was (and am) inspired by Bourgeois’ emphasis on taking control over one’s emotions, on awareness and self-care.¬†This is the essence of mindfulness.¬†And I let myself further be inspired when in a box installation I explored the concept of letting go and its promise of repair.

loslaten-geheel2

 

The central image is based on a nightmare that kept repeating itself years ago: I’m a child standing in a room full of grown ups and I’m being attacked by a crow. The adults ignore my anguish. I can’t understand why I’m being abandoned and neglected. Feeling utterly lonely I fear disintegration when the crow would get to me. And “the cold of anxiety” is “very real” indeed. Until I discovered in yet another repetition of the dream that there was a door behind me – and I myself could open it and let in the light, which scared off the crow. I never dreamt the dream again.

 

img_6160
The fun of assemblage: actually Icelandic fish skins to be recycled into fish ‘leather’,
loslaten-rechts
a holder to fix rainpipes,
loslaten-hand2
and a crystal ball that was the centre piece of a discarded chandelier.

 

 

 

 

 

Any box installation uses assemblage, here of photos taken long ago and of objects mostly found at car boot sales. Together they create a new ‘whole’ – and express the hope of wholesome integration. In reality I was being torn by conflicting loyalties – and feeling utterly alone, surrounded by non-understanding and disdain for at times clumsily expressed sensibilities. Conceptually this installation is about the function of¬†agency in the integrating process: if we actively acknowledge our fears and emotions, they loose their at times disabling power over us and we can let go of them. The past need not control us, we can learn from it. We can¬†be our own spider¬†and through¬†the process of reparation,¬†weave a ‘new’ life. Or to confuse the metaphors, the installation suggests snakeskins, symbol of renewal. In that new life, we can practice self-protection better: the pin of the ‘neck collar’ indicates where one’s boundaries lay – don’t come closer. And good self-care further promotes growth and enrichment which will strengthen the light and colour in our lives. “Being a self” is difficult. It’s a mission the ‘endless pursuit’ of which may at times be intense, painful, angst ridden, complicated, unrecognised, discouraged. But it’s also the herald of purpose and meaning. And I believe it to be worthwhile.¬†

I found the accompanying quote on the blog of Bart Moeyaert, writer and artistic leader of Flanders & the Netherlands being Guest of Honour at the Frankfurter Buchmesse in about a month’s time. The quote needs a little explanation: in Dutch the word for ‘glove’ is composed of two words, being ‘hand’ and ‘shoe’, hence¬†handschoen.

loslaten-hand

bart6

loslaten-tekst2

You think of letting go, and you draw a glove.

In the installation I visually separate the two again – and concentrate the notion of self-protection in the needle felted hand. It’s obvious that Bourgeois’ spiders served as inspiration. I very much intended to associate the spider-hand with Bourgeois’ emphasis on the possibility of¬†reparation and thus integration and wholeness. Whatever caused the ‘darkness’, the hand¬†can let in the light. It’s also the tool par excellence to repair and make things. And being ‘assembled’ from wool, the self-care it administers is naturally gentle and accepting. Agency is very much part of life-in-hopeful-progress.

The Promise of the Unicorn

I love specialists who make the effort to tell a good story, to translate their specialist knowledge into something which can move us all. Michel Pastoureau is such a person.

Pastoureau started as a medieval historian of heraldry: he studied coats of arms and their iconography, in particular the symbolic meaning of their featured animals, symbols and colours. Having written a great many specialist books, he moved on to delightfully insightful ànd greatly legible books on the colours blue, green and black. 

bleu

vert

noir

 

IMG_0439
My very personal version of worrisome Northern blue ūüėČ

To give just one example: did you know that the¬†classic Greeks and Romans disliked blue? They associated it with the eye colour of the worrisome barbarians from the North – which made it totally obnoxious. Much has changed since: it’s very likely that blue is your favourite colour, as it is for over half of the Western population!

Pastoureau’s explanation is that blue has become¬†symbolically less ‘marked’ than other colours. Because of the¬†association with security, calm and peace, the symbolism is almost neutral – which also explains why large international organizations such as UNESCO or the European Union choose the colour for their flags.

The author remains of course a specialist: almost imperceptibly he smuggles in an amazing amount of history which serves to demonstrate the social practices of the colour at hand: daily life, art, sartorial codes and, of course, the crafts involved to dye fabrics ūüėȬ†

And Pastoureau regularly returns with great panache to his old love of animals, as in the book in which he applies himself to uncover¬†The Secrets of the Unicorn. LicorneIt was the Greek medic Ctesias who first described this intriguing creature¬†at the end of the 5th century BC.¬†This, incidentally, is an illustration of the cross-fertilization of the Silk Roads as the medic situates the unicorn in the East – which he never visited. And although “very few had the privilege of perceiving it”, it was only during the Enlightenment that it was decided the animal really didn’t exist. Amazingly Ctesias’ description survived all that time – and continued beyond, into romanticism, symbolism and further.

The unicorn is ‘known’ to be fast, therefore hard to catch. But because it is itself immaculate, it’s attracted by purity: a unicorn will lay its horn into a virgin’s lap – and thus risk death at the hands of hitherto hidden hunters, who are interested in the healing qualities of the horn. At the end of the Middle Ages, there was a considerable commerce in all products unicorn: powders, ointments, purgative waters, etc. And every important family, abbey and monastery had its own unicorn relic.¬†

What did change over time, was the gender¬†of the unicorn. In Latin and the earliest vernacular languages the term was masculine, the later French word ‘licorne’ is female. The gender shift illustrates the feminization of the whole concept. As the unicorn was mentioned in the Bible, there was little reason to doubt its existence. Its purity and healing qualities were furthermore understood to symbolize the Christ, with the horn seen as a spiritual arrow or referring to the cross. At the end of the Middle Ages, the time of courtoisie, the unicorn came to be associated with profane love and the amourous chase; yet the feminization also allowed for an interpretation that celebrated the purity and spirituality of the Virgin Mary. Quite a layer of symbolic meanings!

In an extensive interview¬†Pastoureau emphasizes how the imaginary is very much part of reality and that the unicorn is bien vivante today: from¬†the moment the creature is definitively declared non-existant by science, it’s enthusiastically adopted by the arts, especially by the symbolist movement at the end of the 19th century. Even now the unicorn is¬†“la vedette du bestiaire fantastique”. Think little girls’ toys, T-shirts and shoes, comic books,¬†Harry Potter …, the list is endless.

schoenen eenhoorn
How exciting can shoes get?

tintin

And Herg√©’s Tintin album¬†Le secret de la licorne is the explicit reason for the title of Pastoureau’s book – plural, because there are so many secrets.¬†

 

The most celebrated unicorn in Western art features in a series of late 15th-century Flemish tapestries called La Dame √† la licorne. It is the director of the Cluny Museum in Paris which now houses them, who in Pastoureau’s book summarises the situation of the research. Yet despite her own very specialist expertise Elisabeth¬†Delahaye stresses what is perhaps the most often mentioned characteristic of the unicorn tapestries: very little is known of their origin.¬†

And it’s precisely the mystery surrounding the tapestries that opens creative perspectives – to which call the American-British author Tracy Chevalier has answered with the delightful novel The Lady and the Unicorn.¬†Chevalier3Chevalier¬†¬†is clearly a lover of fabrics: in another book, The Last Runaway, it’s quilting that takes centre stage. Here she operates within Pastoureau’s universe: she declares herself very much intrigued by the several layers of symbolic meaning in the tapestries. All its ingredients are present: the lady‚Äôs seduction of the unicorn, spiritual and corporal desires, the latter represented in the visual rendering of the five senses. And the question of how the people designing and making the tapestries wove together such different interpretations is very much at the heart of the author’s endeavour.¬†

Chevalier does a great job. I have to admit that the first time I read the book, I was so keen to know what would happen to the main characters that I almost missed the textile focus. I reread the novel this Summer and was delighted – again.

The story starts in Paris, 1490. An ambitious French nobleman commissions six luxurious tapestries to flaunt his rising status at Court and hires the arrogant but superbly talented Nicolas des Innocents to design them. The lady and the unicorn dominate the iconography, the explicit reference is that of the senses. Nicolas is, however, not as innocent as his name suggests: he creates havoc among the women in the house Рmother and daughter, servant, and lady-in-waiting Рbefore taking his designs north to the Brussels workshop where the tapestries are to be woven. There, master weaver Georges de la Chapelle risks everything he has to finish the commission Рhis finest, most intricate work. The tapestries change the lives of all that are involved. And the result is simply magnificent.

touch
Touch,
sound
Sound,
smell
Smell,
sight
Sight,
taste
Taste, and:
desirsm
‘Mon seul d√©sir’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chevalier’s story concentrates on the inner life: what is the d√©sir¬†of the different personages? But the craft of tapestry making itself features largely and adds to the novel’s riches. The reader learns about the particular challenge of weaving back to front, hence the need for ‘cartoons’ that are the mirror images of the original designs as well as of the final tapestries. Also, the weavers cannot see their work as each finished strip gets wound onto the loom – until the ‘cutting-off’ reveals whether the design has accurately been translated into wool. Throughout the story telling details sketch the times, such as the mentioning of little work in Winter as the roads are far too hazardous for commissioners to travel from Paris and elsewhere, or that the Guild would punish with closure any workshop that allowed women to weave. And as Chevalier realises very well, most readers are not familiar with the technical vocabulary of tapestry making (such as a heddle or a warp). So she lets the members of the workshop explain the terms to the Paris painter, who gradually becomes impressed with the quality of the Brussels craftsmanship.

I was very much charmed by the eminent role for the master weaver’s blind daughter. Ali√©nor maintains an exquisite garden which serves to provide the cartoonists and weavers with real examples of the flora that enlivens the so-called millefleurs¬†background of the tapestries. The young woman¬†knows the symbolic meaning of all those flowers, fruits and plants and it’s her expertise that allows the workshop to build its outstanding reputation on the realistic rendering of the millefleurs.¬†¬†

Realistic flora was indeed a crucial component of Flemish art at the time. Recent research has demonstrated that at least 423 different types of flowers and plants feature in thé masterpiece of the Flemish Primitives, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432). The project Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece allows you to zoom into any part of the triptych of Jan and Hubert Van Eyck and discover for yourself the elaborate details of flora ànd textile. 

Lam GodsIn addition the Provincial Cultural Centre Caermersklooster in Ghent (which incidentally is just around the corner from where I live!), holds until September a small but illuminating exhibition on the multitudinous flowers in the triptych and their symbolism. 

lam gods bloemen bis
Details of a Madonna lily,
plooien
a pilgrim’s
plooien2
cloak,
lam gods bloemen3
and male peonies.

 

 

 

 

 

The conclusion then is that medieval craftspeople – of both sexes! – owned a knowledge that is completely lost to us. This, according to Chevalier’s story, also goes for the symbolism of the unicorn: all the personages know the Biblical references to purity and healing, whereas it’s the Paris painter Nicolas who explains to any woman who happens to to come near him, the later interpretation of profane seduction. But he also saves Ali√©nor – I can’t elaborate without spoiling the plot, let it suffice to say that even he succumbs to the ‘charms’ of the unicorn.¬†

In short, the unicorn is rich in meaning. And its mysteries are full of promise.¬†Perhaps that’s why little girls like them so much – and I propose that all non-little-girls equally be encouraged to be inspired by the wondrous creature.

IMG_8742
In its felted form it’s seductively soft. And great Christmas decoration ūüėČ
IMG_6143
A while back I decided I wanted my own unicorn.

Purity may sound like a quality that doesn’t correspond well with our times. But do we really want to maintain that there is no past knowledge that might come in useful? In addition, would it be no improvement if we found a good way to allow different inter-pretations to co-exist without conflict? And perhaps most importantly, are many people not longingly in search of ‘healing’? Is the current interest in mindfulness not an indication that we want to be more aware, more connected with our senses – both corporal and spiritual? And do we not also hope for more appreciation for our inner life and its quality?¬†

Understand the unicorn to stand for authenticity, for a strong désir to reconnect with our own true selves and grow as a result of it, and it becomes very contemporary indeed.

Hold Your Horses

I’ve always enjoyed putting things together. And create extra meaning that way.

I also read a lot. I’m usually reading four or five books at any one time. The great thing about such binge reading is that the books ‘feed’ each other, or rather that they feed me with connective thoughts, including intriguing questions on what life is all about. So I collect triggering quotes, which is just one illustration of me being a collector. But at a certain point in time, the question became: what to do with all those collections? Rather than letting them be, separately, as a fragmented illustration of some part of me, could I bring them together somehow? Or the other way round: could I engage those collections to imagine a more integrated version of myself?

I came up with what I call box installations. They are three dimensional visions of identification, a materialisation of what’s important and valuable to me, what I aspire to or what preoccupies my mind. The initial¬†concept for a box installation, I’ve noticed now that this is turning into a series (I’ll show more in future posts), arrives ‘naturally’: gradually I become aware of its prominence in my thoughts and feelings. The making of is much more time consuming. It starts with moving objects about a lot: trying combinations of old boxes taken apart, brocante trinkets, finds from anywhere, quotes, photographs (preferably my own) and fabrics. And once I’m satisfied with the harmony between the concept and its material form, there remains the crucial challenge of making the entire construction stable. This involves not-to-be-seen constructions with anchoring stones, cardboard rears with folds in the right places, different types of glue to serve the variety of used materials, etc.¬†

horses
Horse box installation,

 

Making these box installations has become a great source of inspiration & joy. Not in the least because it’s also a great way to exercise my colour fundamentalism ūüėČ

 

horses text2
quote by James L. Harter,
with blue felted horses to be held.
with blue needlefelted horses to be held.
hold your horses, keep your senses keen, seek your answers, ¬† ¬†know your sources, remember all you’ve seen

I believe it’s important to honour the importance of (your) history and to remain curious about any questions that may dwell in your head. If you’ve kept your senses keen, you’ve seen a lot. And all that can inspire. But also remember to defer your judgment. The world will be so much warmer & more merciful for it. And don’t we all need that?