Can a writer put visual art on the page? Or render a visual artist's creative impulses into words?
Now, Now, Louison is Jean Frémon's freewheeling effort to do so. Frémon — lawyer, writer and gallery owner — inhabits artist Louise Bourgeois as if she herself were writing this novel-cum-memoir. Elegantly translated by Cole Swensen, Now, Now, Louison portrays a woman whose mind never rests, whose capacious memory serves as a bottomless source of artistic inspiration.
Louise Bourgeois was born in 1911 in Paris and grew up primarily in Choisy-Le-Roi, outside Paris, where her parents had a tapestry restoration business. Her beloved mother encouraged her to study math at the Sorbonne. Her father hunted women. He had an affair with the family "maid" and made no effort to hide the fact. Mother died while Louise was at the Sorbonne. That loss, and the discomfort and misery Louise experienced around her father, informed everything after. Louise switched her studies to art, and made a permanent move to New York in 1938.
In Now, Now, Louison, Louise describes the artifacts she brings to New York that become material for her art — old family photos, 78s of Tino Rossi and Jean Sablon, Father's pebble collection, dresses Mother made, account books, dish cloths, lace camisoles, half-empty perfume bottles, scraps of tapestries devoured by moths. She creates a wooden family with "the fragile feet of the uprooted," like herself. She explores all manner of human figures and body parts; she creates spiders, whom she associates with Mother. In fact, Louise keeps a "catalogue of spiders, a catalogue of mothers." Copying out descriptions of spiders from an encyclopedia becomes "a kind of ritual," a little like tending "mother's grave." Louise takes in many influences, from Balzac to Charcot to Christian iconography to fellow artists. The "Andres Serrano photo exhibition—what a beauty! ... color photographs taken in a morgue in New York City."
Author Frémon gave Bourgeois her first show in Paris in 1985, and knew her over a period of 30 years. In an afterword, Frémon says he wants this book to be a kind of portrait, "In motion. At several stages of life." He strives toward "the illusion of speech." His afterword would work better as a foreword, as it gives valuable advice on how to read the book.
Approach this slim volume of vignettes as Louise Bourgeois' thoughts and impressions, delivered in the second person as if speaking to herself, and in the first person as if speaking directly to the reader.
On her mother's death:
"Father ... regarded me as a wild animal that it was probably better not to tame. For those couple of weeks, he stopped going out in the evenings; he put playing cards, drinking with friends, and flirting with the maid all on hold."
On Bourgeois' sculpture:
"You've done informel sculptures, lairs, nests. The form is within. Interiority is their essence. The form is the content."
On the obsession that drives her art:
"You, you fell on the obsessional side. You obsessively collected the myriad facets of hysteria; hysteria fascinated you. You couldn't get enough literature on the subject; you loved observing its effects ... In yourself as well as in others."
Louise Bourgeois worked in multiple media — often simultaneously. Her artistic output cannot be categorized. She was an intimate part of the contemporary art scene in New York, but did not receive international acclaim until in her 70s. In Now, Now, Louison, Frémon brings Bourgeois' art to light through her keen observations on life. Frémon's portrait is convincing; artists of Bourgeois' intensity do not separate life from art.
Louise marries and has three sons who bear her last name, not their father's, "While you — who knows why — have kept the name of the father you hated and refused the name of the husband you adored."
She ages and her art matures. She becomes increasingly sensitive. We meet Jerry; presumably Jerry Gorovoy, 40 years Bourgeois' junior, who was Bourgeois' assistant and companion until her death at age 98. He comforts her after she breaks down, imagining her family in an apple she has just sliced to pieces:
"You have cut no one into pieces ... A few minutes later, you were naked in a hot bath; with one hand, Jerry sponged down your body, he was kneeling, radiant, his Christ's face under all that hair."
Bourgeois looks in the mirror and finds herself faded. "You recognize it — your belly is just like Mother's.... You feel so small.... This smallness will always be an integral part of us." The woman whose output is prodigious and for a long time, unrecognized, feels the end coming. You "dream of nothing but abandoning yourself to a sea strong enough to carry you away."
"With one of Jerry's old sweaters soaked in plaster, you made ... Life sized figures fashioned of nothing but intimate folds.... An entire tribe emerged from Jerry's old sweater. They looked like you."
The best way to read Now, Now, Louison is to surrender to it, to observe in tandem with Louise, to feel alongside her. Individually, the vignettes may not always be decipherable, but collectively they portray a woman of great complexity and imagination. Her life is her art, and vice versa.
"Mother's fruits are attached to her body along their entire surfaces, constituting the body itself. You recently made a series of drawings of bodies composed entirely of breasts pressed up against each other."
Mixing media is a challenge; translating visual art into words impossible by definition. But with Now, Now, Louison, Jean Frémon delivers a special pleasure — he invites us into Louise Bourgeois' head as she creates. In so doing, Frémon opens up our understanding of both the artist and her art.