As some of you may have noticed, I have been drawing a lot recently. I’m working on some larger works, beautifully satisfying, very time-consuming.
It’s nice to take a break and go back to recounting my US travels, at very least because it takes me, once again, back to studying the work I love and take such inspiration from.
Strand Bookstore. 18 miles of books (it claims, and I can believe it). Not just new books, old ones too. All on the shelves together. I so love that.
On the top floor though, are the rare books. And that was where I was headed.
A lot of Louise Bourgeois’ books were limited editions. Books written for specific exhibitions, or only a thousand or so ever printed.
Have you read any Raymond Carver? A friend recommended him after reading my work and was absolutely right that I would love it. Start with ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, the story at the centre of the film Birdman. You won’t regret it. Along with Paul Auster, he is without a doubt right at the top of my list of favourite authors.
So imagine my reaction when, only last night (as was), I discovered that Louise Bourgeois and Raymond Carver collaborated on a book together. Erm… Dream come true?
They had two copies of it in the Strand Bookstore. One in rare books and one in art books. The one in rare books was less than half the price than the second? As the guy at the till rang it up he even commented on how unusually cheap it was (believe me, we are not talking cheap). I let him take my money before admitting how much the other one was!
The book was clearly destined to be mine. As were, it turned out, two other books.
All meticulously gift wrapped (it took 30 minutes for the girl to wrap all three, inspiring attention to detail), these were the best Christmas presents I have ever bought myself, I left the shop feeling like I had a full treasure trove on my back!
This afternoon I was back at MoMA. Completing the audio guide. MoMA has a brilliant system whereby all their audio guides are on their website. They have great wifi, so you can just listen on your phone. Negating the audioguide machine and the money you pay to hire it. Win.
You know those moments when you read stuff and suddenly things fall into place? Such a good feeling.
Louise Bourgeois made a large set of prints of works she calls Sainte Sébastienne over many years and using various printers.
This image has become iconic.
It is a work that I have been familiar with for a while but really didn’t know where to start with understanding. I have learned to spend more time with fewer works, and hadn’t given this piece much of my attention previously.
So who was Saint Sebastian? (LB feminises the name).
I hadn’t a clue, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I was in the minority here.
This is the type of information that even if I had known at some stage, I wouldn’t have retained.
I’m assured that there are many many paintings of him, and a film, I knew none of this.
Saint Sebastian (died c.288AD) was an early Christian saint and martyr, who, according to traditional belief was killed during Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. He is most commonly depicted in art and literature, tied to a tree and shot with arrows. Other stories tell of him being secretly nursed back to health, and returning to Diocletian, who then ordered him to be clubbed to death.
Saint Sebastian is also famous for being perhaps the earliest gay icon. There are many early paintings of him, like these, by El Greco, Reubens, and Guido Reni.
This knowledge makes much more sense of the set of prints Louise entitled ‘Sainte Sebastienne’.
Here’s Louise Bourgeois’ words: “‘Sainte Sébastienne’ is a self portrait. It’s a state of being under attack, of being anxious and afraid. What does a person do when they are under siege? You better understand why you are being attacked. Is it provoked? Is it revenge? Do you fight back, or do you run for cover and retreat into the protection of your own lair? That is the big question.”
I started my journey working in textiles. My maternal grandmother was an incredible seamstress, as is my equally talented mother. When my grandfather was in hospital for a prolonged period in 1954, my grandmother kept the family afloat by making wedding dresses and taking in alterations. In her later years, she cross-stitched the most beautiful and ornate altar cloths and hangings.
My paternal grandmother was equally talented. More of a writer, but also a brilliant hoarder (my parents might argue the “brilliant” bit). As a result, I inherited some amazing fabrics and the hoarding gene too!
So I was particularly excited to see LB’s fabric work.
Many years ago I wrote a story and found the most perfect title in one of Louise’s fabric books. The book is called Ode Â L’Oubli (Ode to Forgetting, 2004). A beautiful book incorporating fabrics from her life. Her fabric books were cleverly bound using buttonholes, so they could be dismantled to display the pages separately.
Louise Bourgeois was a hoarder too, and even put my grandma to shame. She kept everything. All her clothes, sheets, pillowcases, tea towels, handkerchiefs, and her family’s clothes too. In her later years, she incorporated these things into her work, a vehicle for her belongings to continue on their journey after her death.
It was in 2000 that she first asked Felix Harlan (a printer and friend) to try printing onto fabric, and when this turned out to be a success, she continued to print many of her works onto her old belongings.
She also made collages, and a huge number of fabric heads, that I find fascinating as inspiration for my work.
And then my time in Manhattan was up for now. Time to go travelling.
To be continued.