Review: Traumata: Bourgeois/Kusama, Sothebys S2 ‘Two Greats Together’


It’s as if my own personal art fairy has waved her magic wand and created a show I’d been wanting for a while.

Building on the current interest in re-examining feminist art, and art from female artists in the latter half of the twentieth century, Sotheby’s has brought together a small, focused but powerful collection of works from two of the biggest names: Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama.

Featuring sculpture, paintings and works on paper, Traumata examines how both these artists challenged patriarchal conventions of art making during the later 20th century. Through a variety of media, these artists have extensively explored ideas of motherhood, memory and the body — as well as writing poetry around these themes.

Spanning a period from 1942 until 2015 (Kusama is still prolific in her production), these works represent not only their shared compulsion to produce affecting imagery, but a cathartic method of navigating the human psyche.

There are some very familiar pieces – one of Bourgeois’s spiders makes an appearance, and there’s a few of Kusama’s beautiful patterns, which have no beginning, middle or end, but instead charm and enchant with their beauty – but there is also the more unexpected, too.

The most eye-catching work from Bourgeois is her Hearts, 1989, where two hearts dangle rather precariously from a wire, as if some kid’s mobile has been commandeered and the ornamental hangings have been replaced with something far more visceral and raw. Duality is a common theme in Louise’s work and it’s hard not be affected by the vulnerability here.

From Kusama, her Captive Doll, 1988, caught my eye. A doll saturated in baby pink trapped, inert, within a bird cage. It’s not subtle but it is mightily effective. The caged bird wanting to sing is a recurring theme not just in visual arts but across all the creative arts. This is such a beautiful and painful explicit examination of the subject.

And whilst the female form may dominate that, Kusama is also known for her recurring use of phalluses. Much like Bourgois and her spiders. In Golden Shoe, 1966, Kusama has painted a heeled shoe a glittering gold, and thrusting up from its sole is a thick phallus. There’s also a couple of her boxes in the show – Winter (1986) and Increment in the Spring (1986) – and both these dioramas see the phalluses return, but more in clusters. As one of the symbols of fertility, part of the circle of life.

Kusama has said before that she returned to these phalluses again and again in her work as a way of nullifying her fears: “I began making penises in order to heal my feelings of disgust towards sex. Reproducing the objects, again and again, was my way of conquering the fear.”

Repetition is familiar for many artists, and same for Bourgeois. She never threw anything away (a compulsion she senses is rooted in her fear of abandonment caused by her absent father) and her use of clothes and materials that she clung on to throughout her life is seen here, particularly in the beautiful Untitled, 1998, where a cream satin opera glove hangs, somewhat seductively between two large glass blue balls. Its’ both sexual and ambiguous, alarming and romantic. Feminine and masculine.

It’s a small collection of works, true – forty pieces in total – but there is such pain and such healing in these works… Well, it makes you wish for more from both.

Sotheby’s S2 Gallery, London, to April 13, 2017

PLEASE NOTE: Opening hours: Monday – Friday | 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM

Admission free

All installation photographs by me.

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