Cloth Lullaby, The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

This charming and stunningly illustrated book is rather curiously aimed at children. I feel a bit ambivalent about this and when I picked it up from the books on my grandson’s shelves to read to him, my daughter did say that she thought I would enjoy it more than the little one.

Cloth Lullaby, The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Visually it is very appealing with images spread over the double pages (and even right off them) in a lively exuberance. There are flowers everywhere – stylised garden and meadow flowers fill space with their profusion, while more formal woven flowers on the enormous tapestries the family mended for a living form a backdrop to the restorers’ lives. Elsewhere random flowers and leaves trip across the page like the musical notation they occasionally accompany. Water ripples through the story – sometimes with open eyes swimming like fish between the waves – and threads, trailing off fabric as it is being worked on the sewer’s knee, run over the preceding page massing into  a woven border. On one page the child Louise sits at her mother’s knee learning about fabric dyes while the yarn on her mother’s lap becomes a mass of tangles from which little balls escape and dot themselves around them – winding or unwound?  The spider image, then suggested, emerges in its fullness a few pages later as the giant black creature we know from her scuplture stands dominant and uncompromisingly spider-like on the page.

illustration from Cloth Lullaby, The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

With such images, text feels unnecessary and even superfluous (even with Louise’s complex emotional issues hinted at rather than stated clearly) and I would be tempted to just turn the pages with a child rather than actually read it – except of course that would never do as books with writing are to be read and if I weren’t to read it, someone else would be pestered to instead. Hmm, magic and imagination pouff, blown away by the certainty of moveable type. What a shame!

illustration from Cloth Lullaby, The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault in my next post.

For adults Louise’s emotional life is fascinating. Her family’s business on her mother’s side had been tapestry restoration for generations. Her mother embraced the business of mending wholeheartedly but whenever possible she would leave the atelier and take her work into the garden, down by the river – sewing en plein air, just as the painters of the time took their easels outside. In Louise’s mind her mother was a deft, patient spider, forever mending broken threads. Early on Louise joined in on the mending and being an able draftswoman, she often drew in missing bits of the damaged tapestries – usually feet and flowers at the bottom where the tapestries were most worn. Her father was frequently away which depressed the girl and even led to thoughts of throwing herself into the river. (At the time I don’t think she knew about her father’s infidelity with her governess, feeling neglected rather than abandoned by him.)

Louise Bourgeois: string patchwork

While at the Sorbonne her mother died and Louise abandoned her studies of Maths and Cosmology to throw her energies into art, sculpting giant spiders she named Maman, eternalising and reconnecting with the image of her mother from her childhood. Fabric began to occupy her thinking and from 1995 she would obsessively collect together all the clothes she had worn, tear them up, literally deconstruct them, then reassemble them in different forms. Personal textiles from towels to tights were transformed into spiders, crude human figures (often without heads but with genitals); clothes from her past were reconstructed into things to be exhibited which she did often hanging them on metal poles. Her patchwork – using the string patchwork technique – echoes the spider’s web and in the last decade of her life evolved into her woven drawings and cloth books (which include an Ode to the Riverside) which I mentioned a couple of posts back. In therapy for more than 30 years, she was never really a quiet soul. There is a school of thought which suggests we should take artists at face value and seek to know nothing of the background to that production. In Louise’s case, I feel which should miss a lot if we followed this precept and I for one would not have appreciated the giant spiders, the stuffed figures or the cloth diaries without a bit of help from the artist’s biography – even if the only thing I ‘read’ of it were the thought provoking illustrations of this lovely book.

(Sorry about the poor image of the book cover. The book has disappeared – no doubt into another half emptied packing box. I will take a better photograph when it re-emerges.)


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Serendipity connections : Vietnamese reverse appliqué and Louise Bourgeois

Vietnamese reverse appliqué

The present unexpected continuation of that rare climatic creature – an English heatwave – makes it just too too unpleasant to lug boxes about or to worry about working our way through the heaps of things for the time being out of sight in the garage. Unpacking has stalled. So, hooray for Wimbledon fortnight, the perfect excuse for two weeks of almost complete indolence and indulgence. To justify a long afternoon sofa bound, cool drink to one side, knitting and notebook to the other, during the morning I distract myself  with small, easily ticked off but somewhat unimportant tasks, like sorting the pillowcases, tidying the tool box or attempting to label random unattached electricity cables (not to mention signing on with doctors and dentist). Small successes achieved on this front, I give the kitchen surfaces a quick wipe over, plump the sofa cushions, generally whizz away any untidiness visible from my chosen seat, then on with  the television and relax. Luxury! The vicar joins me from time to time but his chosen place of indolence – er, I mean research – is as usual at the table in the garden under a large umbrella,  Ipad to the fore and pipe on the go (or from my observation not quite on the go as it seems in constant need of relighting!). The cat is somewhere hidden in the bushes but undoubtedly with a direct view of him who feeds her as she rarely lets him go far out of her sight. All quite perfect.

Vietnamese reverse appliqué: detail

We have still to find the box of kitchen implements or the clothes from the hook on the back of our previous bedroom door but happily some lovely unexpected things have appeared, including a few more Vietnamese purses (whose hand sewing is far too good for harbouring heavy coins) and one of my grandson’s picture books, which somewhat surprisingly is devoted to the artist Louise Bourgeois. Such different treasures but suddenly it came to me not so different. The Vietnamese reverse appliqué first blogged about here  falls in with one of my own favourite design themes – maze-like lines where, so to speak, you don’t take your pen off the page until there’s no where else for it to go (like this and this). All who visited the Tate Modern Gallery when it opened in 1987 will remember Louise Bourgeois’  giant spiders in the huge open spaces of the former turbine hall and they were giant works in more sense than one for they quite overshadowed her smaller, quieter textile works where you can see her love of these sort of graphics too, curls and spirals  to the point of obsession – whether roughly sewn, embroidered, patchworked, printed or painted. Strong colours, especially red, predominate.

Vietnamese reverse appliqué (sadly stained during recent house moving)

For me discovering these little works came much later and though I was sometimes a bit uncomfortable with her often rough sewing, I found the exuberance and use of colour exhilarating. But it was her fabric scrap books that really won me over – the Ode à l’oubli  (ode to forgetting) made in her nineties from fabrics, large and small from her previous living. Couldn’t we, shouldn’t we all be doing this? Each of my girls would love to have a tangible record or reminder of the fabrics that accompanied them in their lives. We may not all be Louise Bourgeois but we each have our own story to tell  – why should it not be in fabric, instead of, or as well as words. To see more than I can show you, try Louise Bourgeois fabric scrap books  and read this from the Moma website on Ode à l’oubli. Then start making your own unique fabric memory.

Vietnamese reverse appliqué (stained during recent house moving)

Vietnamese reverse appliqué

More about Cloth Lullaby, The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault  in my next post. Meanwhile I hope you will enjoy looking at the fine stitching in these photographs (about 75% of the original size.)

Cloth Lullaby, The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault


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