How Louise Bourgeois Used Her ‘Self Portrait’ to Find Beauty Amidst Pessimism

‘Self Portrait’ (2009). Drypoint, dyes, ink and embroidery on cloth. Courtesy The Easton Foundation Hauser & Wirth

If there’s ever been an artist who fully understood how time both warps us and leaves us fundamentally unchanged, it would be Louise Bourgeois, a monumentally creative interdisciplinary artist who spent her life searching for new meaning in anxiety, trauma and temporality. Hauser & Wirth gallery launched an online exhibition on Friday, June 26, with Self Portrait (2009) by Bourgeois as the centerpiece, and it’s a work that the artist used to take stock of her entire life—she was born in 1911 and passed away in 2010. If you, like many others, are struggling to reorient your experience of time during quarantine, Bourgeois might help you to rediscover your center.

Self Portrait is a breathtaking summary that functions almost like a document: composed on a bedspread, the work consists of a huge clock surrounded by 24 different panels. Each of these panels is filled with a miniature image that represents a stage in the artists’s psychological and physical development. These images, which show disembodied hands, a pregnant silhouette and one of Bourgeois’ signature spiders, telegraph the reality that the artist’s childhood trauma seized her forever and didn’t let her go. She could alter or rearrange the trauma, but it was always fundamentally there, despite the fact that she eventually married, had children and spent her life staying true to her explosive creativity.

“My life is a succession of quarters of an hour which are spent in a succession of square meters,” the artist once wrote. “I’ve schlepped Louise Bourgeois around with me for more than 40 years. Every day brought its wound and I carried my wounds ceaselessly, without remission, like a hide perforated beyond hope of repair. I am a collection of wooden pearls never threaded.”

Via Hauser & Wirth’s online exhibition space, you can also peruse films and archival images that will unlock deeper details associated with the work. Ultimately, Bourgeois’ understanding of both life and art as cyclical is an essential lesson to learn.

How Louise Bourgeois Used Her ‘Self Portrait’ to Find Beauty Amidst Pessimism