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Louise Bourgeois, ageing, and maternal bodies

Author(s): Rosemary Betterton


Source: Feminist Review, No. 93, <bold>birth</bold> (2009), pp. 27-45
Published by: Palgrave Macmillan Journals
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93 Louise
Bourgeois! ageing!
and maternal bodies
Rosemary
Betterton
abstract
This article
explores
late works
by contemporary
artist Louise
Bourgeois
that
illuminate current concerns about
ageing
maternal bodies and the ambivalent
responses
of fear and
loathing
that
they provoke.
In
2003,
Louise
Bourgeois
made an
installation for the Freud Museum in Vienna entitled The Reticent
Child,
on the
subject
of her own earlier
pregnancy
and birth of her
son,
one of several works
featuring
maternity
and
fertility
which
Bourgeois
has created in old
age.
In Nature
Study 2007,
made at the
age
of 96
years,
she
depicts
carnal
couples
and
pregnant
and
birthing
figures
embodied in brilliant
pinks
and scarlet reds.
Bourgeois represents
women as
the
powerful agents
of the maternal
function, marking
a return to motherhood as a
central
topic
of her earlier work. Edward Said
posited
sources of cultural
meaning
as
lthe whole notion of
beginning,
the moment of birth and
origin
...
reproductive
generation, maturity',
and 'the last
great problematic
... the last and late
period
of
life,
the
decay
of the
body' (Said,
2006:
4-6).
What does it mean for
Bourgeois
to
return to the theme of birth in her nineties and how does it resonate with
contemporary
anxieties about the
ageing
maternal
body?
If the
space
of the
gallery
is
a safe arena for a woman artist to
present sexuality
and
maternity
in old
age,
how are
older women who break codes of
fertility represented
elsewhere? In a culture which is
hostile to the
conjunction
of
ageing
women with
motherhood,
I shall
argue
that
Bourgeois'
late maternal works can
help
to undo the taboo on older mothers.
keywords
ageing; bodies; maternal; representation;
art
feminist
review 93 2009 27
(27-45)
2009 Feminist Review. 0141-7789/09 www.feminist-review.com
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introduction
I walk into the
gallery
and I am surrounded
by mages
of maternal bodies:
multiple
pregnant, birthing
bodies and
lactating breasts, painted
in brilliant
crimsons, pinks
and
vermilions,
and
startling
in their maternal
presence.
(18 June 2008)
Nature
Study
2007 is a series of
gouaches by
the French-American artist Louise
Bourgeois.
Created when she was a
96-year-old, they represent
women as
powerfully
embodied maternal
agents, marking
a return to motherhood as a
central
topic
of her work.
Self
Portrait
depicts twenty
small
pregnant figures,
each like a child's schematic
drawing
of a woman with
swelling belly,
a mark for
the
pubic cleft,
two stick
legs,
a knob for the head and five bulbous breasts/arms
that radiate like flower
petals
on
top
of a swollen
seedpod (Figure l).1
The
figures pulse
with
energy:
some are defined
by powerful
strokes that are
nevertheless blurred and
smudged
as
though
their
pregnant
bodies tremble with
life,
while others are almost obliterated
by
the crimson wash that has soaked and
stained them. In one of three
paintings
entitled
Pregnant Woman,
an active
infant
appears
to be
diving through
the solid
painted pink
flesh of the
belly.
What
strikes me about these maternal
images
made towards the end of
Bourgeois1 long
working life,
is how much
they open
out towards the future:
pregnancy,
birth
and the nurturance of life
imply
a sense of
prospective
time as well as reference
to the
past.
In this
article,
I
argue
that
Bourgeois'
late works
incorporate
maternal relations
through
a series of
repetitions
and insistent returns to her
past
as a means
of
shaping
maternal bodies in the
present.
I shall
explore
her
complicated
relationship
to the maternal
by focusing
on two artworks The Reticent Child 2003
and Nature
Study 2007,
each of which addresses the theme of birth
directly.
The
question
that motivates
my enquiry
is:
why
does
Bourgeois
return to themes
of birth and
fertility
so
powerfully
in her nineties? If one
deeply
held cultural
myth
is that
creativity
in later life is about la
special maturity,
a new
spirit
of
reconciliation and
serenity'
that comes with
age, Bourgeois
confounds such
expectations (Said,
2006:
6).
Can
Bourgeois'
late maternal works enable us to
think about birth and
ageing
in different
ways?
How do we
approach
the maternal
as it is
thought
and embodied
by
an older self?
And,
in view of the cultural
hostility
to older women who
give birth,
can
representations
of the maternal
body
by Bourgeois help
us to understand what is at stake? These
questions
are the
focus for
my argument,
which moves between
autobiography
and late
style,
the
new
visibility
of the
ageing
maternal
body,
and themes of
creativity
and
reparation
in
Bourgeois'
late works.
28
feminist
review 93 2009 Louise
Bourgeois, ageing,
and maternal bodies
1 Nature
Study
Inverleith
House,
Royal
Botanical
Gardens, Edinburgh,
3
May
-
6
July
2008.
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2 Louise
Bourgeois
Archive
T97, quoted
in Morris
(2007:
180).
3
Artforum
20:
4,
December 1982.
Figure
1 Self
Portrait,
2007
Source: Cheim and
Read,
Hauser and
Wirth,
and Galerie Karsten Greve.
autobiographies
of the future: Nature
Study
and
late
style
I transfer to a scene
today
emotions that I
experienced
40
years ago.
Often it is in a
relation
-
I relive
today
-
but was this
ecstasy present
40
years ago,
I doubt it. It is
my
desire to recreate that contains. I
want,
want to
find, find,
to find
-
I am about to find the
past,
I feel
it,
I have
it,
I
grasp
it. I own it forever and ever.
(Louise Bourgeois, c.1959-1966)2
Critical accounts of
Bourgeois'
art have tended to focus on her
psychobiography,
particularly
on her difficult childhood
relationship
to her
overbearing
father and
his
betrayal
of her in an affair with her
governess,
an
interpretation encouraged
by Bourgeois'
own
poetic
account of her traumatised
response
to these events in
her work Child
Abuse,
1982.
3
Feminist critics have doubted the
prevalence
of this
version of the Freudian
family romance, noting
that it excludes attention to her
Rosemary
Betterton
fe
m n St re vi e W 93 2009 29
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relationship
to her
mother,
a theme that
grew
in
psychic intensity through
Bourgeois'
mature work.4 In her recent
study
of
Bourgeois, Mignon
Nixon
argues
that the maternal is a central theme of her
sculpture,
which turns 'time and time
again
to the
beginning,
to the
dynamics
of the maternal-infantile relation'
(Nixon,
2005:
9). Indeed, Bourgeois'
art is
constantly
informed
by
turns to her
past
in forms of
repetition
-
and contradiction
-
that refute the
concept
of a
whole and unified self bound
by
a
chronological
narrative.
Repetition
characterises her
writing
too: she
dispenses
herself in words
through multiplying
stories about her life and
work,
in
many
interviews over recent decades and in
notebooks,
diaries and short text works. These numerous accounts
layer
each
other so that
they
become a
palimpsest
in which
early
memories are revisited and
constantly reshaped
in the
telling. Bourgeois
seems driven to reconstruct the
images
that haunt
her,
but
deliberately
reworks them in
consciously
chosen
incarnations of different
form,
medium and materials in a
practice
that is 'both a
calculated and
yet unpredictable staging
of
psychic processes' (Pollock,
1999:
88).
Pollock
suggests
the
danger
is that we read the work of the artist who makes
material
signs
to articulate
meaning,
trauma and
memory
as the 'truth' of her
life,
a
reading
that
Bourgeois
herself has to some extent
deliberately encouraged.
While
psychic processes
connect her
present ageing
and earlier maternal self
these are
only
made visible
through
material
transformations,
which are
strikingly
embodied in Nature
Study.
In On Late
Style;
Music and Literature
against
the
Grain,
Edward Said discusses
late
style
as a
particular
kind of
thought
or idiom
belonging
to the last
phase
of
life. Said
suggests
that there are the three
great
human
episodes
that
engage
an
artist: 'The first is the whole notion of
beginning,
the moment of birth and
origin';
'the second
great problematic
is about the
continuity
that occurs after
birth,
the
exfoliation from a
beginning:
in the time from birth to
youth, reproductive
generation, maturity'.
And the third
is,
'the last or late
period
of
life,
the
decay
of the
body,
the onset of ill health'
(Said,
2006:
4-6).
He
rejects
the
consoling
view that old
age brings
wisdom and
maturity,
'a new
spirit
of
reconciliation',
preferring
artists who have a
'special
sense of lateness' and
'quarrel
with time'
(Said,
2006:
xi-xii).
He asks: 'what of artistic lateness not as
harmony
and
resolution,
but
intransigence, difficulty
and unresolved contradiction? What if
age
and ill health don't
produce
the
serenity
of
'ripeness
is all'?
(Said,
2006:
7).
Said's chosen artists are all male and
they
are
distinguished by
their
anachronism, being
out of
step
with their time and at odds with the world.
Bourgeois
too remains
defiant, refusing
to
compromise
with
age
as she continues
to
produce
work that is
intransigent
and unresolved: 'a
way
of
waging
a war
against
time
by recreating
the
past' (Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000:
19). But,
if
Bourgeois
embraces the
juxtapositions
between birth and
death, beginnings
and
endings,
she draws on maternal
experience
and embodiment in Nature
Study
that reveals an
altogether
different affective
economy.
30
feminist
review 93 2009 Louise
Bourgeois, ageing,
and maternal bodies
4 See Robinson
(1996, 2006),
Huhn
(1996),
Bernadac
(1998),
Pollock
(1999),
Bernadac
and Obrist
(2000),
Nixon
(2005)
and
Morris
(2007).
5 See Morris
(2007).
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Figure
2 The
Family,
2007
Source: Cheim and
Read,
Hauser and
Wirth,
and Galerie Karsten Greve.
In The
Family 2007,
twelve
panels
that
complement Self Portrait,
the overall
effect of the
repeated figures
is
cartoon-like, suggested by
the crude
graphic
style
and the visual format of small
panels arranged horizontally
and
vertically
within a
larger
frame
(Figure 2).
In each
panel,
a female
figure
with
blossoming
breasts/arms has a small stick infant
somersaulting
inside her
pregnant belly.
Her male
partner
stands
close, barely touching
the woman's
belly
with his erect
penis,
not so much a form of
penetration
as a
bumping up against
her rounded
form. Her
belly
swells and his
penis pokes
in mutual
embrace,
while the
spinning
and
dancing
stick-child whirls inside her. The
Family
returns to the
subject
of
Bourgeois' major early work,
the
sculptural group Quarantania
I
1947-1953,
in
which she
represented herself,
her husband Robert Goldwater and their three sons
in the form of five totemic
poles.
As she later
explained:
ll had children around
my
waist. This is the
origin
of
Quarantania.
I was
carrying my packages' (quoted
in
Morris,
2007:
234).
This was one of a series of
sculptures
called
Personages,
in
which life-size
human-objects appear
in abstracted and reduced
form,
often
isolated or in small
groups:
'the common characteristic of all these
pieces
is that
they
terminate in a
point
that
expresses
the
fragility
of
verticality,
and that
Rosemary
Betterton
fe
m i n i St fe V ew 93 2009 31
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represents
a
superhuman
effort to hold oneself
up' (Bernadac
and
Obrist, 2000).
Nixon
argues persuasively
that the
Personages
assert a
correspondence
between
materials and the
psychic reality
of the maternal
depressive position
that
characterised
Bourgeois' sculpture
in the
post-war period:
'the work of
mourning
and the work of
mothering converged
and their
conjunction produced
a new
psychic economy
in
sculpture' (Nixon,
2005:
231-232).
The constant
shifting
between
psychic spaces
and
physical objects
is evident in the connection
Bourgeois
herself made between the material
aspects
of these
sculptures
and the 'emotional
geometry'
of her state at the time
(Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000:
352). They were,
in her words: 'Scared stiff. Immobilised with fear. Stuck.
This was an entire
period.
And then
suddenly
there's a kind of
softening
that came from the softness of
my
children and
my husband;
that
changed
me a little'
(Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000:
180).
The
drooping
wooden
'packages'
in
Quarantania
I
suggest
the burden of childcare: the central
figure
is
'encumbered
by
three low
slung sacks, appendages suggestive
of
pregnancy
and
maternal devoir'
(Nixon,
2005:
163).
Nixon notes further that their
shape
inverts the formal and
psychic economy
of the
standing figures by turning
them
upside
down.
In a
striking return,
whether conscious or
unconscious, Bourgeois employs exactly
the same forms in
Self
Portrait and The
Family.
No
longer drooping
or
burdensome,
these
elongated shapes
have become five
expansive
balloon-like
breasts/arms
rising
from each
pregnant figure
in what is a
generative,
even
Utopian, image.
First in
Quarantania
I and then in later works
Bourgeois
re-wrote
her own
oedipal script again
and
again
in material form with a maternal
figure
-
her mother and herself
-
at its centre. In The
Family, Bourgeois
returns to
heterosexual relations in a
way
that
visually
transforms them
through
the fluid
and
open-ended drawing
in
paint.
The translation between
pictorial materiality
and affect
or,
more
precisely,
the
embedding
of affect in the material
properties
of the
painted image
is what
generates
new
meaning.
In one of the scenes each
figure
has two heads that meet and fuse into each
other;
a carnal
coupling
without
power
imbalance in which the masculine
partner
has become
literally
and
figuratively (h)arm-less.
She thus not
only
envisions a new maternal self in
this late
work,
but also
replaces
the
threatening patriarchal
father of her
childhood with a
benign
male
figure
who shares maternal
space
on
equal
terms as
the
phallus re-signified
becomes
merely
a
penis
that nuzzles the woman's
pregnant belly.
In contrast to these
affirming images
of
pregnancy,
the moment of birth is shown
in intense close
up,
the crimson
paint
saturated with both desire and
anxiety.
In
The
Birth,
a
baby emerges
head down and
open-mouthed, squeezed
between two
huge thighs
that in some versions are as
sumptuous
as
strawberry puree
and in
others
appear
to crush the infant with the
power
of an Aztec birth
goddess.
A similar ambivalence between
pleasure
and
pain
is evident in The
Feeding;
32
feminist
review 93 20 0 9 Louise
Bourgeois, ageing,
and maternal bodies
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a suite of ten
magenta
red
images
where the
figure
of a
baby
is shown below an
outline of a
suspended
breast whose
poised nipple
is withheld from infant's
screaming
mouth drawn like an 0 of raw
pain
and need. The little
homunculus,
un-gendered
and of indeterminate
age,
evokes sound and
fury
in the
gaping
hole
of its mouth and
eyes.
Two other versions of The
Feeding
show a breast
suspended
over the
prone figure
of an
infant,
and both breast and
baby
are suffused with a
wash of dark
pink
that
engulfs
them in one tide of colour. In
one,
the
baby
is
suckling
and the
separate
contours of the mother's
body
have
disappeared,
the
child's
eyes
and mouth
barely distinguishable
from the
nipples
which leak milk-
paint
whereas in the
other,
it turns
away
its face and cries with a distorted
open
mouth as in Munch's Scream. In another
mage,
five
pointed purplish
breasts
project comically yet aggressively
like
inquisitive
and
threatening objects
into
the
space surrounding
the
tiny tadpole-like
infant. The Good Mother and The
Bad Mother
suggest
a
frightening interdependency
in which the mother holds the
power
to threaten the child's
very being,
while
leechlike,
it swells to mirror
her breast as it sucks life from her. What astounds me about these
images
made
in late life
by
an
ageing
artist is their visceral
intensity, split
between
birthing
and
being birthed,
the raw desire for love and comfort as well as the threat
of its loss. We seem to inhabit the
psychic
world as Melanie Klein described
it,
in which the intense
relationship
of the infant to the breast and
body
of the
mother continues to stir 'both love and hatred and
powerful curiosity' (Klein,
1988:
ix-x).
For
Bourgeois,
as for
Klein,
inner
psychic reality
takes the material
form of
objects,
but before
exploring
this idea
further,
I want to take a
sideways
step
to look at how
perceptions
of the
ageing
female
body
are
shaped
in visual
culture and what
implications
this has for
thinking
about maternal
creativity
in older
age.
ageing
and the sexual -maternal
body
The
aging body
as
imagined
and
experienced
and the
aging body
as
represented
structure
each other in endless and
reciprocal
reverberation.
(Woodward,
1991:
5)
In her
study
of
ageing
and
gender
in twentieth
century
literature and
psychoanalysis, Ageing
and Its Discontents: Freud and Other
Fictions,
Kathleen
Woodward
argues
that the
prevailing paradigm
of
ageing
in western culture is
profoundly negative.
She notes the obsession with
appearance
as the dominant
signifier
of old
age and,
more
specifically,
the absence in
psychoanalytic
and
literary
discourse of
representations
of old
age
in terms of
creativity
in later life.
Woodward
suggests
that the obsession with
age
in western consumer culture
produces
a
binary psychic economy
which values
youth,
seen in terms of
fluidity
and
movement,
at the
expense
of old
age. Against this,
she
proposes
the
'psychic
imagination
of
prospective time',
a different
psychic economy
in which 'we
bring
our identifications from the
past
with us into ...
imagined
futures'
(Woodward,
Rosemary
Betterton
feminist
review 93 2009 33
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1991:
12-13).
This conscious act of
imaginary
identification with a still-
becoming-self,
rather than
nostalgia
for what we have once been resonates
very
precisely
with
Bourgeois'
late maternal
works,
which also bear 'inflections
towards the
future,
as
autobiography
in the
prospective,
not
retrospective
mood'
(Woodward,
1999:
160).
Woodward contrasts this
'psychic body'
with the
'specular body',
in which
'performing age
is
principally
a
bodily
effect anchored
in
visuality' (Woodward,
2006:
167).
She
suggests
that 'the
youthful
structure
of the
look,
one that is further inflected
by gender',
is the default
position
of the
spectator
within a
contemporary ideology
of
youth
culture.
But,
if the
body
in old
age
is
socially
constructed in terms of
visibility,
it is at the same time
stigmatised,
both
signified
as the
body
in decline and
subjectively absent,
a condition which renders 'the older female
body paradoxically
both
hypervisible
and invisible'
(Woodward,
2006:
163).
Simone de Beauvoir was the first to
recognise
the ambivalent
experience
of
the
ageing process
for
women, suggesting
that we can not
fully accept
our own
ageing,
but can
only 'picture
what we are
through
the vision that others have of
us'
(Beauvoir,
1972:
291).
In Old
Age,
she noted the
deep
cultural ambivalence towards the
elderly whereby
they
are either viewed as serene and wise or as
abject
and
'sexually repulsive'
(Beauvoir,
1972:
13).
Beauvoir saw
acutely
that we are
frightened by
old
age,
of
losing
or
changing identity
and
becoming
'as another to
myself (Beauvoir,
1972:
5, original emphasis).
This
experience
of an alienation
displaced
onto the other's
gaze
is echoed in Woodward's
'specular',
but Beauvoir's
objective
view of old
age
is more
deeply pessimistic coupled
with her
subjective disgust
at her own
ageing
body,
which she
explored
in her fiction
(Beauvoir,
1972:
378).
6
She had little to
say
about older women's sexual
lives, except
where she relates the mediaeval
Spanish story
of Celestina
(1492),
as the first
literary example
of an old woman
as
protagonist,
albeit a
'self-seeking, lewd,
and
intriguing
old
woman,
and
something
of a witch as well'
(Beauvoir,
1972:
148).
This
might
well describe Robert
Mapplethorpe's
Portrait
of
Louise
Bourgeois 1982,
where she
appears
at the
age
of 71
years
with a crinkled face and
hands,
dressed
in a
monkey
fur coat and
cradling
under her arm her earlier
sculpture
Fillette
1968,
in the form of a
giant
latex
phallus (Figure 3). Bourgeois
chose to be
represented by Mapplethorpe
with an
uncompromising directness,
wrinkles
and
all,
and like Beauvoir she
despises growing
old
serenely.
She uses humour and
irony
as forms of resistance to
stereotypes
of
ageing, sending up
her older self
by
sporting
her
potent sculpture
as well as a wicked
grin.
The
image challenges
binary
codes that
rigidly
demarcate old
age
and
sexuality, impotence
and
potency,
sex and
gender. By donning
her
elderly monkey
fur coat for the
portrait,
Bourgeois
also
collapses
boundaries between flesh and
fur,
human and
animal,
in
a manner that is
deeply
eroticised. In this
respect, Mapplethorpe's photograph
is
more than a
portrait
of the artist as an old
woman;
it is a record of a
particular
34
feminist
review 93 20 09 Louise
Bourgeois, ageing,
and maternal bodies
6 See Beauvoir
(1969).
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Figure
3 Robert
Mapplethorpe
Louise
Bourgeois
in 1982 with 'Fillette'
(1968).
Photo
copyright
1982 the Estate of Robert
Mapplethrope.
7
Bourgeois gives
the circumstances of
the
photograph,
describing
how her
own fear led her to
performance
of
age
and
gender
enacted
by Bourgeois
herself. Her
burlesque
upsetting
of
categories
confronts our cultural horror of older women's
sexuality
and, moreover, through
the
typology
of the
Madonna,
she connects this
specifically
with the
power
of the mother. In her
reading
of the
photograph,
Nixon
suggests
that Fillette is an
object being
mothered in a
parody
of this maternal
ideal.
Bourgeois strips away sentimentality, Maying
bare a
repressed
maternal
aggression
...
Bourgeois's performance
shows a
powerfully desiring
kind of
mother,
while at the same time
underlining
the
pathology
of
mothering
conceived
as the
projection
of all desire onto the infant
body' (Nixon,
2005:
78).
In
Bourgeois'
own account of the
photograph,
she
explains
that Fillette
represents
a masculine
object
that she holds
tenderly
as a
comfort;
she is
literally
in
possession
of the
phallus:
lThe word
'fillette'
is an
extremely
delicate
thing
that
needs to be
protected' (Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000:
183).
This
gender ambiguity
is
compounded
when
Bourgeois suggests
that
'you
can also
carry
it around like a
baby,
have it as a doll'
(quoted
in
Lippard
1976:
243).
The multivalence of
Bourgeois' sculptural
referents in the context of the
photograph
makes Fillette
simultaneously
her husband's
penis,
a
doll,
a
baby,
a little
girl
and 'a little
Louise'
(Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000:
202).
7
Here,
old
age
is no barrier to sexual
and maternal desire
and, indeed,
reveals what the cultural conventions of
motherhood can
not, feelings
of desire and
aggression
of the mother towards her
infant.
Rosemary
Betterton
feminist
review 93 2009 35
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Portrait
of
Louise
Bourgeois
1982 can be contrasted with Woodward's account
of
post-menopausal pregnancy represented
in the cartoon of a
pregnant
grandmother
featured on the cover of The New
Yorker
in 1997:
Here,
the
figure
of the
pregnant
woman
beyond menopause
is
represented
in terms of comic
derision,
one that both
responds
to and
promotes
moral
panic.
As the cartoon
suggests,
the
very
association of
fertility
with an older
body
is
absurd,
a cultural contradiction in
terms,
one that in the
register
of humour elicits a dismissive smile of
superiority. Thus,
here the
conflation of the
reproductive body
and the
post-reproductive body
is
presented
as
ridiculous, unnatural, perhaps
even
perverse. (Woodward,
2006:
168)
In the cartoon the
pregnant
old woman is the butt of
ridicule,
but in
Mapplethorpe's photograph Bourgeois
turns the
joke
onto the viewer: wrinkled
and
grinning
she holds on to her
potency
and desire as
contradictory signifiers.
What
emerges
from Woodward's
critique
of
gender
and
ageing,
read in
conjunction
with
Bourgeois' portrait,
is the
rejection
of
simplistic
and
negative
stereotypes
associated with older women's
sexuality
and a more
complex
account
of their
capacity
for maternal and sexual desire. Woodward also reads the
caricature as a condensation of attitudes to new
reproductive technologies
that
enable older women to
give
birth. If women's
post-menopausal sexuality
and
fertility
is still
conventionally represented
as either the
subject
of
derision,
or
else
entirely absent,
what
happens
when older women do become
pregnant
and
give
birth? If the
space
of a
gallery
has become one arena where women can
transgress
sexual and maternal norms in relative
safety,
how are older women
who break the codes of
age
and
fertility currently being represented?
Recent debates about older women who
give
birth as a result of new
reproductive
technologies
are witness to current confusions in what
Imogen Tyler
terms the
new
visibility
of the maternal
(Tyler, 2008).
In
July
2006 'Britain's oldest
mother',
Dr Patricia
Rashbrook,
'a 63
year
old child
psychiatrist' gave
birth to a
baby boy
by
Caesarean section after
receiving fertility
treatment from the 'maverick
scientist' Severino Antinori
(Boseley, 2006).
She was outed
by
The Sun
newspaper
in her seventh month of
pregnancy,
which
prompted widespread
discussion of her
age (although
not that of her
61-year-old husband),
and the fact that the
couple
had travelled to the former Soviet Union for IVF
treatment,
to which she
was not
legally
entitled in Britain. Such news
reports
of births to older mothers
are
invariably accompanied by
debates about the
appropriate upper age
limit for
IVF
treatment,
the
perils
of
pregnancy
in later
life, unregulated reproductive
tourism,
and the health and welfare of children born to older mothers. These
debates
pose
medical and ethical
questions,
but
clearly
reveal the
assumptions
about what constitutes 'normal'
pregnancy
and birth. The
couple's
choice of
doctor was also controversial: Italian
fertility specialist
Severino Antinori had
already helped
several women to become
pregnant
after
menopause using
donor
eggs,
and declared that he was
prepared
to clone a human
embryo.
His
36
feminist
review 93 2009 Louise
Bourgeois, ageing,
and maternal bodies
bring
Fillette las a
precaution against
catastrophe
... a
little Louise ... . It
gave
me
security'
(Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000: 202).
8 For
examples,
see
http://www
.guardian.co.uk/
lifeandstyle/2008/
jul/30/health
.genderissues;
http:
//www
.guardian.co.uk/
2006/may/04/
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familyand
relationships
.health/print.
justification
for Rashbrook's IVF treatment was
revealing:
'The
couple
love each
other,
she is
slim,
blonde and in
perfect condition,
she fits all the criteria for
maternity.
She should live for at least another 20-25
years
-
we are not
giving
birth to an
orphan1 (Boseley, 2006).
His
breathtaking description
of her fitness for
maternity
reinforces the
prevailing
stereotype
of a
pregnant
woman as
young (or
at least in this case
looking so),
white and in a heterosexual
relationship.
As well as her
age
and fitness for
birth,
Dr Rashbrook's
professional
status as a consultant
psychiatrist
in the adolescent
mental health service in East Sussex was a feature of the
reports.
The inference
was that as a career woman she had deferred
childbearing
until too late
(although
she
already
had two children in their
twenties),
and that as a child
psychologist
she should have known better about the
negative
effects of
ageing
parents
on a child. The
couple
themselves stated rather
defensively
that
they
did
not think it was
appropriate
to discuss their circumstances: lWe wish to
emphasise
however that this has not been an endeavour undertaken
lightly
or
without
courage,
that a
great
deal of
thought
has been
given
to ...
providing
for the child's
present
and future
wellbeing, medically, socially
and
materially'.
Or,
as Antinori
put
it more
baldly (and
with
outrageous parental presumption):
lShe should live for at least another 20 to 25
years
-
we are not
giving
birth to an
orphan' (Boseley, 2006).
In the context of this media
onslaught,
Rashbrook's
courage
was undoubted and her treatment
by
the
press
reveals the extent to
which
public perception
of older women
giving
birth is still
shaped
in
negative
ways. Although
Rashbrook's
story
could have been written as an individual's
triumph-over-tragedy,
her
subjective
maternal
experience
was
largely
absent
from the
controversy surrounding
the birth of her child. Her treatment
by
the
news media indicates the moral
panic
evoked
by
older maternal bodies: a woman
who desires to
prolong
her
reproductive (and by implication, sexual)
life
beyond
menopause
is still
stereotyped
as abnormal. If
psychic
violence is the
response
to
women's
ageing
sexual and maternal
bodies,
we need
representations
of old
age
that offer us
imaginative projections
that we can
potentially
inhabit.
creating
maternal bodies:
performance
to
prosthetics
Bourgeois performs age differently, modelling
the
polarities
that inform our cultural
expectations
of women in terms of
youth
and
age
and
transmuting
them in the
process,
presenting
a creative female
body
that is not
post-reproductive
but
productive,
a new kind
of female
body
in older
age,
one that is in fact
appearing
on the world
stage. (Woodward,
2006:
170)
In
'Performing Age, Performing Gender',
Woodward identifies
questions
that
she
proposes
are absent from both feminism and the arts: lHow is the older
Rosemary
Betterton
fern
i n i st review 93 2009 37
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female
body represented
and ...
performed
in visual mass culture? How have
older women artists
performed age?1 (Woodward,
2006:
162, original emphasis).9
Looking
to creative and
performing
women as cultural
models,
she is interested
in how older women are
represented
and
represent
themselves. She cites the
performance
of
gender by
three artists
including Bourgeois,
who 'seek to
expose,
critique, subvert,
and exceed the conventions of
aging
for older women'
by
'publicly, playfully, theatrically, flamboyantly, sardonically, ironically,
and
pensively, self-consciously performing age' (Woodward,
2006:
167).
Woodward
discusses a 1975
photograph
of
Bourgeois wearing
a moulded latex
sculpture
that encases the artist's
body
from her chin to below her knees. She reads this
image
as
suggesting
breasts and
genitals; body parts
that endow the artist with
'the
shape
of
pregnancy
... it recalls an outsized
ovary,
one that has released
many eggs' (Woodward,
2006:
170).
I
agree,
and would
argue
further that
Bourgeois
also
deliberately
subverts
gender
and sexual codes in her
performance
of a
prosthetic pregnancy.
At the
opening
of a
performance
entitled A
Banquet/
A Fashion Show
of Body
Parts in New
York
in
1978,
similar costumes made of latex moulds were worn in a
comedie show of
cross-dressing by
well-known male
figures
from the art
world,
although
not
by Bourgeois
herself. In this
context,
the
body
suits were
sexually
ambiguous:
a male
parody
of the maternal-feminine
body
or the feminine
engulfing
the male
body
-
either
reading
is
possible.
In another
photograph
taken on the
steps
of her brownstone house in New
York,
both
Bourgeois
and
the costume
appear
even more
decrepit,
her head inclined downwards and the
sculpture
battered and dented. The same
iconography
of
bulging
and
sagging
latex forms
appeared
in her first
major
installation in
1974,
then called Le
Repas
du Soir
(The Evening Meal)
and later re-titled The Destruction
of
the Father.
Bourgeois
has described this work as a
fantasy
of the children's
revenge
on the
father in which
they
'dismembered him' and 'ate him
up'
at the dinner table
(Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000:
102).
The murderous
rage
of the
betrayed daughter
is
played
out in a monstrous
parody
of
consumption
that
anticipates
her more
sexually
ambivalent
Banquet/A
Fashion Show
of Body
Parts. In later
reconstructions,
the womb-like interior of The Destruction
of
the Father is
theatrically staged
with dramatic red
spotlighting,
which
points
to
performance
as a means of
acting
out the
psychic
self.
By 'destroying'
her father and re-
framing
her
relationship
with her
mother,
she
replaces
the
Oedipal triangle
with a
different
one, mother-mother-child,
in which female
generational relationships
and the active role of the mother is central. As Nixon
argues,
this
aggressive
oral
fantasy
should be understood as 'an assault on
patriarchy
... from within the
body
of the mother'
(Nixon,
2005:
260).
In a series of installations entitled
Cells,
made in her seventies and
early eighties, Bourgeois
extends the
processes
of
mapping
and
embodying
the
matriarch-spider
that 'delineate a
self-determined,
architectural and material
description
of the artist's own
psychic space'
38
feminist
review 93 2009 Louise
Bourgeois, ageing,
and maternal bodies
9 See Foundation
for Women's Art
(2002)
and Arbeloff
(2008).
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10 See Bernadac
(1998),
Pollock
(1999)
and Robinson
(2006).
11 See Klein
(1988).
(Robinson,
2006:
138).
The Cells articulate
Bourgeois1
relation to her
past
but
with a sense of
bracketing
childhood
experience
-
literally
barred
by cages,
doors
and
windows; they
invoke a sense of
claustrophobic intimacy
and
insecurity.
The
objects
encased within are
literal,
for
example,
her worn
garments
and also
function
metaphorically
to
stage subjectivity
and
self-knowledge through
what
Pollock calls 'the relief of
signification' (Pollock,
1999:
82).
10
I
propose
the idea of the
prosthetic
as a useful means of
marking
the distance
between
Bourgeois1
maternal
experience (which
we cannot
know)
and the
material fabrications that she
creates,
while still
holding
on to the embodied
qualities
of her work. What is at issue is not the
symbolisation
of emotion in the
form of identifiable
figures
or
signs,
but
mistaking
these 'bodies' for
Bourgeois'
own. The
prosthetic
describes more
precisely
how maternal desire and loss are
lodged
as
contrary
affects in
Bourgeois'
work
through
the
embedding
of
psychic
textures in the material form of
objects.
One
early example
is
Pregnant
Woman
1947-1949,
where the
figure
of her sister Henriette is
represented
as 'an
enormous
pregnant
woman with a wooden
leg',
as both a
metaphor
for her sister's
unachieved desire to have a child and
literally
as a
prosthesis
for her
crippled
knee, signified by
the cane she used to
support
it
(Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000:
126-127).
The
'wooden-leg-pregnant-woman'
is
prosthetic
in the sense of
being
a material
object
that stands in for her sister's
body
and a
synecdoche
for
Henriette's
psychic
and
physical pain. Bourgeois' repeated
returns to
prosthetic
figures
like Femme Couteau
1969-1970,
and Arch
of Hysteria 1992-1993,
can be
seen as deliberate
attempts
to
repair disabling
and traumatic
experiences
through
the
alterity
of
representation.
In the final section of this
article,
I want
to
explore
this
prosthetic practice
further as it
operates
in
Bourgeois'
installation
The Reticent Child.
Move, guilt
and
reparation111:
The Reticent
Child
My
mother would sit out in the sun and
repair
a
tapestry
or a
petit point.
She
really
loved it.
This sense of
reparation
is
very deep
within me.
I break
everything
I touch because I am violent. I
destroy my friendships, my love, my
children.
People
would not
generally suspect it,
but the
cruelty
is there in the work...
I break
things
because I am afraid.
(Morris
2007:
242)
Bourgeois
returned to the theme of
pregnancy
and birth in The Reticent
Child,
an installation made for the Freud Museum in Vienna in 2003. It
comprises
six
small
figurative sculptures
on small
plinths against
a
long
concave mirror set on
a steel
table,
so that each
figure
is reflected and
appears
doubled front
and back. From left to
right they
are: a
standing pregnant woman;
a red sac
Rosemary
Betterton
fern
i n ist review 93 2009 39
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womb
placed
on a marble
slab,
a
winged standing figure
with a net
belly
enclosing
a
foetus;
a
prone
woman in the act of
giving birth;
a small child
lying
on its side on a
bed,
and a
standing
male
figure
with his head in his hands.
Read
sequentially,
these are six
stages surrounding
the birth of her third
son Alain in
1941,
who she described in the text
accompanying
the installation
as 'a child who
simply
refused to be born ... He is the reticent child. // tait
reticent. Mais
j'ai
l'ai rvl
[He
was reticent. But I found him
out]' (Morris,
2007:
38).
In a suite of
engravings
and texts made in
1947,
He
Disappeared
Into
Complete Silence, Bourgeois
had described her descent into
depression
in the
years
after his birth:
Once there was a mother of a son. She loved him with a
complete
devotion. And she
protected
him because she knew how sad and wicked this world is. He was of a
quiet
nature
and rather
intelligent
but he was not interested in
being
loved or
protected
because he was
interested in
something
else.
Consequently
at an
early age
he slammed the door and never
came back. Later on she died but he did not know it.
(Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000:
48)
In The Reticent
Child,
the
figures
are made from
pink fabric,
all
except
for the
marble child on its cushioned metal bed. In their
fragility
and
isolation,
the
tiny
fabric
figures
evade neat
encapsulation: they appear
to oscillate somewhere
between fear of abandonment and
self-reflection,
between
vulnerability
and
reparation. Bourgeois
had
begun
to make
sculptures
from cloth in the 1990s
and
they range
in size from
tiny
dolls to life-size
figures,
often
crudely
stitched
and stuffed in cotton or
terrycloth.
These fabric works are sewn
by
hand and
recall the
repair
of Aubusson
tapestries
in the
family
business where
Bourgeois
grew up, learning
the skills of needlework from her mother and
grandmother.
The
act of
sewing
therefore
suggests
the
reparative power
of the needle in relation
to
Bourgeois' mother,
who died when she was a
20-year-old
and whom she
identified with the
figure
of the
spider
as
spinner
and weaver:
lmy
best friend was
my
mother and she was
deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty,
subtle, indispensable, neat,
and as useful as an
araigne' (Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000:
321).
Like worn
clothes,
fabric carries
personal
affects and
repairing
is
the
way
of
keeping things together
when
they
start to fall
apart.
But
stitching
can also be an act of
cruelty,
both
literally
and
metaphorically
-
/ stitched him
up
-
and,
as Linda Nochlin
acutely
remarks of
Bourgeois'
late fabric
sculpture,
'its
power
lies in the deliberate
ferocity
of its bad
sewing', noting
that
'old-age
style presents outrages wrought
on the
vulnerable,
cloth embodied female
subject
itself
(Nochlin,
2007:
191-192).
Writers on
Bourgeois
have
frequently
turned to
psychoanalytic theory
in their
readings
of her work and
Bourgeois'
own relation to
psychoanalysis
is a close and
complex
one.1 After an
early engagement
with Freudian
theory
via
Surrealism,
Bourgeois expressed
her
disappointment
in Freud and Lacan:
'They promised
the
truth and
just
came
up
with
theory. They
were like
my
father:
promise
so much
40
feminist
review 93 2009 Louise
Bourgeois, ageing,
and maternal bodies
12 See Huhn
(1996),
Robinson
(1996,
2006),
Pollock
(1999),
Nicoletta
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All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
(2005),
Nixon
(2005),
and Larratt
Smith
(2008).
and deliver so little'
(Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000:
229).
Nixon
argues
that Klein
provided Bourgeois
with an alternative
psychoanalytic
model in which the
figure
of the
mother,
not the
father,
is central to the
psychic
life of a child.
By laying
claim to maternal
subjectivity, Bourgeois' work, 'exposes
the cultural taboos on
the
representation
of the maternal
subject (especially
the maternal
subject
of
desire and
death)
that
persist
in art and
psychoanalysis
alike'
(Nixon,
2005:
12).
While there is
nothing
to indicate when
Bourgeois
read Klein's
writings, by
the
1960s she was
evidently
interested
enough
to consider
training
in the
psychology
of art and
childhood,
and the
titling
of
subsequent
works like The Bad Mother
1997 and The Good Breast
2007, suggest
she became well aware of Kleinian
readings
of her own work. What
Bourgeois
takes
directly
from Klein is her interest
in
'making reparation',
both as a
psychic process through
which the child
(and
adult)
can make
good feelings
of
aggression, guilt
and
anxiety experienced
in
infancy and,
more
specifically,
in relation to art as a means of
restoring
and
recreating
lost
psychic objects (Klein,
1988:
313).
In an
essay
written in
1929,
'Infantile
Anxiety
Situations Reflected in a Work of Art and in the Creative
Impulse',
Klein
gives
an account of a woman
painter
who was
subject
to
deep
depression
and whose
painting
she
analyses
as a form of restoration for loss: 'It
is obvious that the desire to make
reparation,
to make
good
the
injury
psychologically
done to the mother and also to restore herself was at the bottom
of the
compelling urge
to
paint' (Klein,
1929:
93).
While
Bourgeois'
work resists
such 'obvious'
interpretations,
I see the installation of The Reticent Child in the
Freud Museum in Vienna as a direct
riposte
to Freudian
psychoanalysis
on behalf
of Klein. But in Kleinian
analysis,
the mother
figure
remains a
projection
of the
child's
phantasy
and a
psychic object
rather than
being
a
subject
in her own
right.
While
Bourgeois adopts
a Kleinian
approach
in The Reticent
Child,
her
central interest in the
mother-as-subject
in relation to the child also extends its
theoretical
parameters.
This can be seen more
clearly
in a related
work,
The Woven Child 2002
(Figure 4),
in which a
figure
of a
tiny baby
made of
pink terrycloth
is
suspended
in a
pink
gauze
net from a
large
sieve set
vertically
on a metal base. The sieve functions as
a
prosthetic
mother
figure,
her 'face' tilted downwards
supporting
the
baby,
which in turn reaches its arms and
legs up
towards her. The fabric infant is
suspended
like a little fish in the
net;
he is
fragile
and
precarious,
but
protected
by
the
enfolding
mother-sieve. Both infant and mother are
caught
within a
mutual
gaze;
their
relationship
is a
reciprocal
one in which the mother is also
enmeshed;
her look holds the infant. The Woven Child thus enacts the
primary
maternal
subject-object
relation before the
point
of
separation.
This is closer to
the
psychic
model that
Jessica Benjamin develops
centred on the
concept
of an
'intersubjective space',
in which it is
possible
to
identify
with the other's
position
without
losing
one's own'
(quoted
in
Baraitser,
2009:
30). Benjamin argues
that the infant's
capacity
for
intersubjective space
is made
possible through
the
Rosemary
Betterton
feminist
review 93 2009 41
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Figure
4 The Woven
Child,
2002
Source: Cheim and
Read,
Hauser and
Wirth,
and Galerie Karsten Greve.
mother
figure
in a mutual
recognition
of otherness that ensures its
separation
of self. In
Benjamin's model,
as Lisa Baraitser
explains,
there is a constant
tension and
play
between
subject positions
and
object
relations: 'When
intersubjective space
breaks
down, (when
destruction is
truly destructive,
if
you like,
when the other does not
'survive',
but instead retaliates or
abandons)
there is a return to the
complementary positioning
of internal
objects' (Baraitser,
2009:
30).
In Destruction
of
the
Father, Bourgeois
had enacted the oral
phantasy
of the
daughter
who retaliates
by eating up
her father. The Reticent Child acts as
Bourgeois' riposte
to her own installation made 30
years previously,
in which the
42
feminist
review 93 2009 Louise
Bourgeois, ageing,
and maternal bodies
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terrifying
red interior is
replaced by
a
mirror,
and destruction
by reparation:
'In
intersubjective space
both reflection and also
analysis
become
possible
on the
mother/analyst's
side because the
infant/patient experiences
the other as
truly
external
through
the survival of its own destructive
impulses' (Baraitser,
2009:
30).
In
Bourgeois' personal iconography:
'Mirror means the
acceptance
of the
self
(Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000:
260),
a state in which reflection and
analysis
become
possible
after
surviving
her own destructive
impulses. Bourgeois
makes a
distinction between two different
approaches
to her
sculpture:
'the
spontaneous
kind' as an
expression
of
'immediate, all-consuming importance
to
me',
and 'a
work of
assemblage;
a
synthesis,
a
putting together
of
elements,
which is
peaceful
as
opposed
to the outburst of the
previous type
of work'
(Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000:
84-85).
The Reticent Child
belongs
to the latter
type
as an
attempt
to reflect and to
repair
the
damage
done to her son. The movement from
pregnant
to
birthing woman,
and from the child's isolation to the man's
grief
reflects on the difficult
process
of
separation:
'He abandoned
everything
because
he had been abandoned. I will never make him understand. I make work with
my
concerns. I make work with all
my
failures. When I
say
the trauma of
abandonment,
I
really
mean what I
say' (Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000:
246).
But
in the mirror's curved reflection the
sequence
can also be read in reverse from
right
to left: the
grieving son,
now
grown,
turns back towards the
birthing
and
pregnant body
of his
mother, tracing
a
potential path
of return if he can but
understand. The
prosthetic figures
of The Reticent Child make
reparation
after
injury; they
both witness to trauma and
place
it at one remove
through
a 'work of
assemblage'.
It would be too neat
-
and too
implausible
-
to reach the final
stages
of
Bourgeois'
maternal work without a further return to its fundamental
ambivalence. The Reticent Child shows the work of maternal
reparation,
but
also that the
pain
of loss is never
given up
nor
mourning entirely
resolved in
older
age.
In The Arrival
2007,
the maternal
figure
takes the form of a small cloth
torso of a
pregnant
woman with
huge
breasts and without arms or
legs, lying
on her back as a
baby's
head
emerges
from her
vagina, appearing
like a reverse
image
of her own head. It is seamed around the breasts and
through
the
navel,
the natural coloured cloth of the head and torso
contrasting
with the custard
yellow
of the breasts and the
bright pink
used for
nipples,
vulva and both
figures'
open
mouths. There is
something extremely painful
and
poignant
about the
helplessness
of this
carefully
stitched and stuffed duo: like a reversible
doll,
the two headed
figure
can be viewed both
ways up
to
imply
an
interdependent
corporeality
in which both mother and infant seem
equally trapped.
In this
antithesis of maternal
comfort,
we are confronted
again
with Klein's
good
and
bad
object,
the
subject
of infantile love and
hate,
bliss and violence.
However,
I think
Bourgeois'
late maternal works can also move us forward to the
possibility
of a
'non-retaliatory
maternal
figure
who bears destruction so that the infant
Rosemary
Betterton
feminist
review 93 2009 43
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can
develop
the
capacity
for
intersubjective space1 (Baraitser,
2009:
39).
In
The
Arrival,
the fabric
figure
'bears the destruction' of
birth, just
as in The
Reticent Child
Bourgeois explores
lthe self
returning
from an encounter with
the
other, changed, thereby opening
the
possibility
of a maternal
subjectivity
arising
out of an encounter with
alterity
rather than
through
the
processes
of
surviving
destruction'
(Baraitser,
2009:
39).
Baraitser's account of maternal
subjectivity
as an
ongoing
and relational
process
resonates with
Bourgeois'
late
style
and
practice
as an older artist: she remains
a maternal
subject
who is still 'unaccommodated' in old
age (Baraitser,
2009:
11). Bourgeois' reworking
of
family relationships
has
implications
for
thinking
about the relation between time and
memory
as
generative
rather than traumatic
or
merely nostalgic;
it is an artistic
practice
of
re-making
the
past
that is also
about
imagined
futures. In these late
works, Bourgeois employs
a
range
of
prosthetic
bodies to connect
past
maternal
experience
with
prospective
time.
They represent
la
refiguration
of our relation to new and
necessary
fictions of who
we once
were,
are and would like to be'
(Baraitser,
2009:
52).
This is the tense of
the future
anterior,
of what could have been and
may
still
be,
as a
generative
moment of birth from which
something
new
may re-emerge
after loss.
Bourgeois'
maternal time is a
psychic projection
forward and backward in
multiple
movements that are
cyclical
and
spiral,
la
tangible way
of
recreating
a missed
past' (Bernadac
and
Obrist,
2000:
106).
In this late maternal
time,
the
past
is
not
fully present
and the future is
yet
to be determined. In this
sense, Bourgeois
remains a maternal
subject
in old
age,
still
bearing
witness to the desires and
losses, pleasures
and
pains
of the older maternal
body.
author
biography
Rosemary
Betterton is Emeritus Reader in Women's Studies at Lancaster
University
and has
published widely
on women's historical and
contemporary
art
practices,
feminist cultural
theory
and
practice, gender,
embodiment and
representation, including
An Intimate Distance:
Women,
Artists and the
Body,
Routledge, 1996,
and
Unframed:
Practices and Politics
of
Women's
Contemporary
Painting, (editor)
I.B.Tauris Ltd. 2004. She is
currently completing
a book entitled
Maternal Bodies in Visual Culture for Manchester
University
Press.
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M.-L
(1998)
Louise
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44
feminist
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Bourgeois, ageing,
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All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
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