Inspiration and Obsession

In general, drawing is regarded as a medium of artistic spontaneity and directness. It is the art form that most clearly reflects the immediacy of psychic expression. The drawings of Louise Bourgeois possess these qualities to an unusual extent, but there is far more to them than that. It seems to me that her drawings are marked by an intense interaction—or symbolic agreement—between form and content: the roughness of their execution, their quality of primariness, combines with an extraordinary power of emotional expression. At times, the line and some of the forms evoke the crudity of children’s drawings. And yet the starkness of the drawing and the often sculptural clarity of the forms reveal the hand of a sculptor. They find a linguistic equivalent in the affecting clarity of Louise Bourgeois’s short stories.

Louise Bourgeois, Hours of the Day / Creative Energie, 1990, ink, crayon and pencil on paper, 12 1/2 × 9 1/2 inches, & The Easton Foundation/VAGA, NY, Photo: Zindman/Fremont, private collection.

The drawing Hours of the Day / Creative Energie was done in 1990, on the back of a used envelope. It shows an array of circles, spreading out from the bottom to the top and overlapping each other in different ways. Above right, and interlocking with the circles, are the only rectangular forms, one small and one large. The areas of overlap between the circles are colored variously in pencil hatching, red ballpoint, and blue crayon. The small, red, nearly circular form in the center of the lower edge looks like a starting point, a moment of fertilization, for the upward movement of the circles. It seems natural to see this form as the germ of the creative process, the source of the inspiration.

The notes at bottom left and the string of numbers that run up the left-hand side make it clear that the drawing is a representation, however rough and schematic, of the process of creative development as applied to the course of one day. It is an attempt to represent that inner process to which Louise Bourgeois as an artist is subject, or which she can voluntarily set in motion: the mechanism of inspiration. The idea of a “mechanism of inspiration”, which goes back to the Surrealists, seems entirely appropriate to this drawing, which represents the process with the cool objectivity of a diagram.

Artistic inspiration is well known to be one of the most powerful myths in the history of Western art. Within art it has mostly been presented in an idealized form (“Artist and Muse”). In modified forms, this tradition has been maintained in the twentieth century: Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst, but also James Joyce, Louis Aragon, and André Breton more or less concur in describing artistic inspiration as an instant of revelation, a sudden epiphany. Not without a touch of deliberate mystification, Paul Klee depicted himself in 1919 in a pose of otherworldly contemplation, with eyes closed. Louise Bourgeois, by contrast, does not show the artist: she represents creative energy in the form of an abstract, stereotyped, even everyday process. It is here, for all her stark objectivity, that she betrays a touch of self-dramatization: the hourly timetable on the left stresses the stubborn regularity, even the obsessiveness, of her manner of working—a well-known characteristic of this particular artist.

The artist’s work is presented in terms of a recurrent, Sisyphean rhythm; inspiration is rooted in compulsive obsession. This impression of compulsive rhythm is reinforced, in a way, by the two eyes at top right, which do not seem to belong to a face. The circles themselves can be interpreted as a symbol of seeing. At least in formal terms, Hours of the Day / Creative Energie reveals an affinity with other works from the early 1990s such as the installation Precious Liquids (1992). These connections illustrate the many-layered and simultaneously precise nature of this unassertive drawing. Its precision declares itself not least in the degree of reflection that it contains: reflection on the conditions that govern art itself.


Josef Helfenstein

JOSEF HELFENSTEIN, Director of the Kunstmuseum Basel, authored the Paul Klee: Catalogue Raisonée and has written extensively on the work of Louise Bourgeois, among other modern and contemporary subjects. (This is a slightly revised version of an entry first published in Louise Bourgeois, The Locus of Memory, Works 1982 ? 1993, Brooklyn Museum, New York 1994).