Exorcizing traumas

The Maison de Balzac is a modest house surrounded by a small garden in the 16th arrondissement. It is, like other writers’ homes in cities (I’m thinking of both Dickens’s and Keats’s houses in London), a surprise to find intact, among the low-rise Deco blocks of Passy. The guide describes it as an ‘intimate setting’ for the exhibition we are about to see; not so much “intimate” I think as dark and relentlessly gloomy, an appropriate atmosphere for Balzac’s emotional tragedies.

Louise Bourgeois chose the house not just as a location but as an active element, a corresponding narrative, for her current installation (her last major work before her death) based on Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet. Bourgeois says of the novel, ‘I love that story. It could be the story of my life.’ In Eugénie’s life, Bourgeois sees ‘the prototype of the unfulfilled woman. There can be no blossoming for her.’

In her etching ‘The Smell of Eucalyptus (Ode to Eugénie Grandet)’, Bourgeois has written phrases in pencil (in a small shaky hand; the hand of the elderly artist, but also the voice of the oppressed woman hardly able to speak her suffering) which emanate from tendrils, like random thoughts. The text reads as an accompaniment to Balzac’s; a poem chronicling lost opportunities:

I have never grown up
I am standing near the window
I have spent my life making curtains
to hide the dirty glass
I have spent my life making curtains
while watching the building across the way
I have spent my life waiting …

The litany of misery continues, the phrase ‘I have spent my life’ repeated again and again, a chant of regret; “spent” suggesting occupation (the making of curtains, the washing of dishes, the shortening of dresses) but also a price paid, something used up. Bourgeois writes ‘I have spent my life making a trousseau / I who have never been trussed up’.

In the next room are small needlepoint works, some which hold plastic flowers in their stitching, one which arranges a into a circular pattern simple dressmakers’ hooks, like dangerous barbs. These are domestic objects stranded in this strangely empty and cold domestic space, the last sad statement of an artist who achieved greatness in her work, but whose final piece relates a story of unfulfilled hopes.

Balzac had an unhappy childhood, and attempted suicide as a young man. He suffered from chronic health problems for most of his life, struggled through periods of debt and personal trauma. There is a darkness that hangs over his house and that permeates his novels, his view of humanity. In the same room as the desk where he created stories that would ‘arrive at the truth’, Bourgeois has written:

My work is a succession of exorcisms. There you have the real motivation of what I do. Every morning when I start work I exorcize a trauma – it’s not too strong a word. But this isn’t something you talk about, it’s something you do …

This is the first of two posts about current exhibitions in Paris. My companion was Vici MacDonald, former editor of Art World magazine, aka ‘Art Anorak’: http://twitter.com/artanorak

‘I, Eugénie Grandet’ is on at the Maison de Balzac until 6th February 2011. Here’s a piece by Phillipe Dagen which appeared in the Guardian earlier this month: