Drawing From the Past

Drawing From the Past …..in which I try to investigate what my current practice is about.

It’s a strange thing to look at my new work closely and realise that it’s not that new at all but another blending of all the trials and experiences of personal history, genetics and learning processes that make one the person one is. And so when looking at my work I constantly find myself looking into my own secret world. Can we step outside those boundaries in our creativity and produce work that shows nothing of who or what we are? I tend to think not for in order for it to be meaningful our creativity must surely come from within ourselves, from deep below the external persona we present as our face to the world. This does not mean of course that the artist will produce literal representations of his personal feelings and experiences but that somehow and in some way each work has been informed by who and what the artist is, has experienced or feels. Even an artist whose work is deliberately trying to tell nothing of himself must surely be telling us a great deal about himself indeed by this very action.

The artist Louise Bourgeois’s family history has provided her with a lifetime of inspiration in her work. As a child her father had openly taken her English governess as a mistress whilst her mother refused to acknowledge the situation. Louise was left deeply confused by the contradictions and relationships within her family circle. For over seventy decades much of Bourgeios’s work has been an exploration of the anger, trauma and anxiety motivated by her personal history and by a constant investigation of female identity and the role of the female and the home. Her work whilst drawn from intensely private sources nonetheless reflects universal concerns and emotions. Like Bourgeois by constantly investigating and reinvestigating that which we do not understand we attempt to gain understanding so that eventually we can create order from confusion. The three pieces help to illustrate the depths of Bourgeoise’s feelings. The Destruction of the Father from 1974 is made of latex, wood, fabric with a red light. The work almost seems to pulsate with aggression and anger. The surface a mass of prickles and pustules holds no fatherly comfort. This work is the Hell to which Bourgeois confines the father

The Destruction of the Father 1974 © Louise Bourgeois

By contrast the soft fabric female figure smiles shyly out at the viewer from under her headdress of kitchen like domestic objects. Like the Venus of Willendorf and other goddess images that symbolise female fertility she has large breasts and rounded hips. This figure may exude fertility and sexuality but she is reduced to an object and importantly lacks arms with which to enfold and comfort a child.

Untitled 2002  ©Louise Bourgeois

The Woven Child 2002 © Louise Bourgeois

Above in ‘The Woven Child’ Bourgeois shows us the child, small vulnerable and naked, trapped and tangled in a womblike net. But this womb is no place of security and safety for here the infant is caught frightened, confused and panicking like a fish pulled from out of it’s environment into the unknown. It is impossible to look at these works and not understand something of the turmoil Bourgeoisemust have felt as a small child and needed to constantly revisit as an adult artist. Maybe by confronting these feelings repeatedly she tries to come to terms with them and dilute their intensity or maybe she is merely trying to make sense of that which was beyond the understanding of a child and remains therefore always in that state of confusion.

I believe that this is something very basic in our psyche as human beings. We have this need to understand who we are and where we belong in the world in order to create some sort of order. We may know where and who we are in a wider sense but it is on investigating and exploring our personal history that we attempt to root ourselves in our individual place and being. This is a universal truth that goes far beyond art. Clarissa Dickson Wright, the cook and author summed it up very well in her autobiography ‘Spilling The Beans’ 2007, when she wrote that ‘All of us are an accumulation of the traits, genetic tendencies, geographicals and peculiarities of our forebears. These are the ingredients that we and the adventures and misfortunes of our lives process into the finished dish that becomes ourselves.’

Like most of us I too am fascinated by my past and its strange secrets. Whispers overheard at family gatherings, bits of family stories never fully understood or explained, strange words and riddles, snippets of half forgotten memories, all parts of an extraordinary jigsaw that has made me who I am. What child wouldn’t be enthralled by objects brought home from around the world by a sailor father who enlisted to escape a cruel childhood. The story that granddad came from a wealthy family but was disowned on marrying my beautiful but poor grandmother. Grandma’s sister Dolly who turned out in later life to be a man having been raised as a girl by parents traumatised at the suicide of their first born soldier son in the First World War and were determined that their second baby son would never go to war. What kind of world was it where a boy could be brought up as a girl without his siblings knowing? Such stories sowed rich seeds in a child’s imagination.

In Art Monthly April 2005 Axel Lapp defines history as ‘the understanding of the past as present’ but notes that it is drawn from objects and written documents which in themselves are of their own time and also from an oral history which will inevitably be lost and so must therefore be open to ‘subjective perception’. Future generations will no doubt strive to interpret and understand what is happening today just as we do when searching our own personal histories. As Axel Lapp describes in his article I also use the objects, documents, memories and fragmented oral accounts of history to try to understand and to communicate my own interpretation of what I find. I seek inspiration in old photographs, some from my own family. I look into the eyes staring out at me and wonder what was going through their minds as the shutter clicked. Behind every one lies the story of a life lived and a fascination that those lives are forever entwined with mine and contribute in some part to my work and who and what I am as a person today.

Susie Liddle     2010


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