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Catalogue « Suites on Fabric », Marlborough Gallery, London, 2011
The Transformation of Louise Bourgeois
Photographic portraiture has veered between two poles: the idea that the photograph can plumb the soul, and the idea that it can’t. Julia Margaret Cameron said her duty to high accomplishment lay “in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man.” Richard Avedon said, “…you can’t get at … the real nature of the sitter, by stripping away the surface. The surface is all you’ve got.”
Artists posed for Cameron and Avedon without prop or context, but the twentieth century preferred to identify their calling: Steichen’s Rodin-The-Thinker, Cartier-Bresson’s Matisse with model. More recently, a few photographers have taken painters’ privileges with the art world: Lucas Samaras’ recent portraits lit heads ghoulishly from below, with silver skin and red corneas.
Alex Van Gelder photographed Louise Bourgeois from another mind-set entirely. Bourgeois, who died at 98 last May, did not win fame until she was 71 but minutes later was pronounced great. Van Gelder photographed her sculptor-hands – she not only sculpted dismembered hands but also said, “I am not what I am. I am what I do with my hands” He made portraits of her too; they neither sought her soul nor footnoted her achievements but declared the surface open to reinterpretation. He transformed her into different entities without fundamentally altering either her appearance or the reality quotient of photographs, and made of a major artist a mutable work of art.
Van Gelder, born in Belgium and now living in Paris, lived in Africa for years and sold African art in the French capital. He met Bourgeois there in the 1980s and on subsequent trips to New York attended her Sunday salons. He started taking photographs seriously only a few years past, and about three years ago showed his work to Bourgeois and her assistant, Jerry Gorovoy. Van Gelder then became the only person permitted to photograph her in the last two years of her life.
He worked with a primitive light, often just a flashlight, which cast deep shadows, obliterating half a face or garment. He directed her, often only intuitively, and she worked at responding. She was paralyzed from the waist down and some things were difficult, but she was indomitable. Still making her own art a couple of weeks before she died, she also collaborated with Van Gelder on making art from the material of herself. She said his pictures were wonderful. “Do you recognize yourself?” he asked, and she answered, “No.”
She is recognizable but also something more, something other. Once she is a near-perfect Rembrandt: the sad, sympathetic face of an old woman, black background, light that picks out features while shadows swallow part of the head. In several photographs she is the very emblem of old age, a subject that John Coplans, Nicholas Nixon, and Manabu Yamanaka have explored as populations aged. In one image she is an apparition, her face pale and ghost-like, elastically elongated, floating in a black void.
Another time she exclaims angrily, in an astonishing picture with one of her late fabric sculptures on her lap, an enormous, white, patchwork head with eyes closed and mouth open, overpowering her both in size and brilliance – she might be an aged Salome still clutching the severed head of John the Baptist. Elsewhere she is despondent after some calamity, huddled inside a huge, scraggly red rug. Once she becomes a conjurer coaxing mystery from a mirror.
Another time she is an aged fashionista or aristocrat, bundled in a shaggy white coat, her hair doing a couple of dance steps, looking askance, sizing up the photographer. For one picture a pigeon was coaxed to land on her head, its blurred form an exaggeration of feathers and wings on couturier hats. Her expression is pained, as if the bird sang a message she did not want to hear.
Painters long ago limned portrait subjects as figures from myth, and photographers have turned themselves into numerous others: Claude Cahun and Cindy Sherman in various roles, Yasumasa Morimura as famous works of art or movie stars. Bourgeois encouraged someone else to multiply reinvent her, a rare occurrence. Her art, protean, disturbing, and intensely ambiguous, courted metamorphosis to the very end.
Louise Bourgeois, Alex Van Gelder
12 February – 14 May 2011