Embracing tightly and peacefully suspended in mid-air, Couple from 2004 belongs to the eponymous series of fabric sculptures initiated by Louise Bourgeois in the late 1990s. A series that started disquietingly in 1996 with the over-life size headless and hermaphroditic copulating Couple I, from 2001 through to 2004, Bourgeois concentrated on smaller scaled, fully individuated couples sewn in tender embrace. The present work is one of three variants created in the same scale, fabric and colour combination, but is the only example not contained within a protective glass vitrine; a trait that intensifies the exposed and tender fragility that characterises these works. Hand-sewn and stuffed, these gendered blue and pink terry-towelling figures are at once poignant and eerie; stuffed dolls that have been de-contextualised and displaced from the arena of childhood play. Moulded into varying positions of coital embrace, Bourgeois invokes the central narrative threads running through the entirety of her practice: childhood trauma and universal psychoanalytic paradigms.
“The couple copulating is seen through the eyes of a young girl. Are they fighting? Are they enjoying themselves? Is one killing the other? It refers to the age when I could not understand what they were doing, what they saw in each other, and what they were pursuing in each other. It is the question of an arrested traumatic experience” (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Tate Modern, London, Louise Bourgeois, 2007, p. 90). Bourgeois speaks here in response to the earlier more violent works from the series; nonetheless, the notion of childhood repression lies at the heart of Bourgeois’ Couples in their palliative repetition of the Freudian primal scene. Entrenched in the mythology surrounding her upbringing, Bourgeois retrospectively replays, reprises and replicates her unabated memory of the psychological distress that devastated her youth. Born into an affluent family in the provincial outskirts of Paris, she was daughter to Josephine and Louis Bourgeois, proprietors of the restoration and tapestry repair business that first fostered the young artist’s nascent creativity. Nonetheless, family life was fractured and unsettled. Her father was authoritarian, philandering, belittling and often cruel, while his infidelity with Louise’s live-in English tutor Sadie (of which her mother was fully aware) incited an enduring sense of betrayal and abandonment. Linked to her mother’s craft of tapestry yet undoubtedly reliving the traumata of her father’s affair, these unsettling and hand-crafted human dolls evoke a nostalgic and bittersweet sense of child-like fragility. The perverse triangle of familial relations and suffering of her youth found its most searing expression in the highly celebrated corpus of ‘old-age’ work to which the present work belongs. Initiated when she was well into her seventh decade, these works mark a return of the repressed, recalling the materials, spaces and forms inextricably bound to her nascent childhood experiences. As outlined by the artist: “My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama. All my work of the last fifty years, all my subjects, have found their inspiration in my childhood” (Louise Bourgeois, Louise Bourgeois: Album, New York 1994, n.p.). Fragility, fear, seduction, copulation, abandonment, jealously and violence announce the inchoate psychological world externalised and violently exorcised by Louise Bourgeois. Nonetheless, executed during the very last decade of her life as one of the very final works in this series, Couple bespeaks a calmness tied to the catharsis of repetition. Vulnerably hanging yet protectively interlocked these precisely sewn and delicately moulded figures radiate a sense of balance and tranquillity: “The polarity I experience is a drive toward extreme violence and revolt… and a retiring. I wouldn’t say passivity… but a need for peace, a complete peace with the self, with others, and with the environment” (the artist cited in: Christiane Meyer-Thoss, Louise Bourgeois: Designing for Free Fall, Zurich 1992, p. 182).
Entirely original in scope and expression, Louise Bourgeois’ astounding depth of creative self-reflectivity has engendered a rich and protean body of work that viscerally bespeaks overwrought unconscious drives. Unlike any artist before or since, Bourgeois’ poetic and often-painful response to her own psychobiography takes on a powerfully universal aesthetic agenda: sexual-political power dynamics, gendered embodiment and identity are enmeshed and woven into the fabric of her powerful and searing artistic confessionals. Vacillating between abstraction and figuration, and traversing a truly monumental period in world history, the epic course of Bourgeois’ production has imparted an innovatively multivalent and truly revolutionary artistic legacy.