In this creative ‘Christmas’ essay, Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou reflects on the power and therapeutic potential of drawing in her own life, the artistic practise of Louise Bourgeois, and Jean Frémon’s new text Nativity (Les Fugitives).
I’m following a blue line, chasing it, charting its every twist, swerve and turn, looking – not hoping – for its termination, for its fixed point of arrival, its destined stillness, its cauterized flow, its hushed, last lilting song. This thin blue line, which arcs and twirls and dances shapes synonymous, to stars, to flowers, to the curvilinear round of your own eye; a seeing, fleeting, flying, repeating line, looping from page to page, spooling off edges, inverting margins, converting corners and opening them out, out, out into boundless paper planes. Am I chasing it, or is it chasing me? We are delirious in its blueness; indigo flashes to lapis flares to cerulean: a globe of colour discovered in one shade.
What will become of these blue threads veining through arm and hand and pen and paper? Where will these living breathing lines go? What of the idea now its drawn into being? What will this blue birth in you, now it’s left my care?
Christmas is fast approaching and, among the deadlines, endless errands, and rush to post parcels, I want stillness. I want the peace and goodwill wished to me in greeting cards; I want the overfed rest round the tele sold to us in commercials months before advent. Crushed paper hats, washing-up in soak, red wine staining the rims of too many glasses. That this pause eludes me – like it does for most of us – has not silenced my longing for it. And, though the calendar mocks my expectations, my body is in sympathy with my mind: conspiring against schedules, lists, alarm clocks and advice ‘to think more, do more, be more, finish more, walk more – even if it’s on a treadmill with a mask on’, my body folds in, in, in on itself under the duvet, like an unborn thing never wanting to see the light. Curled into its own soft warmth, my body claims its Christmas rest – and weight – before the last candle of the wreath is lit.
But there is one motion, one sure and deliberate act that has given me stillness: drawing. Over the last few months I have achieved what felt like a near-miraculous feat, considering the time-pressed life we’ve all been forced to live. For once I have allowed not just my needs, but my wants to be realised. I have unwrapped the presents early; I have consumed the treats with glee. In drawing I have gifted back to myself ideas, feelings, abilities long neglected or hidden. I have recovered a self that is mine alone: once familiar, she is re-appearing to me, new.
This slow, literally drawn out, rebirth, if you like, takes place mid-morning Saturday (my time, the right-time, the kind of time where the light gently brings back to me the recurring blue line flowing loosely, profusely, across a brown paper page). Blue ink – well, turquoise according to the pen brand itself – has the tone and register of another language, an oceanic expanse that transcends linguistic bounds. A bathing blue that, as I draw into the hours, envelopes and surrounds, bringing a calmed concentration like no other. Drawing in this deeper state – a state of ‘becoming’, rather than ‘being,’ according to John Berger – the blue line moves and dances, an electric eel writhing and flashing within a dark pulpy depth. I am stilled by this motion, by the rapid rush of imaginings, wordless understandings translating into a new lexis.
Swimming in all this blue comes naturally, though the initial push for fluent, forward movement is laboured. I’m too aware of the tension between nib and surface, mind and hand, the pen and the ink emerging from it. Momentarily aware, that is, until the rhythm sets in; the concentric circuit of thought to fingers to stylus to ink to page to eye again is complete. So that, pen strokes are like brush strokes are like arm strokes in water. Immersed in a sea of visions and envisioning, a reciprocity develops, a fluid communication between inner and outer centred in this vivid blue. See how we unfold limitless in water; lost bodies resurface, buried beings float, in the wake of this pen.
Berger talks of ‘drawings as eddies on the surface of the stream of time’. I like to think so too. A counter – though no less intuitive – flow belongs to drawing, an alternative current that carries with it the debris of the past. Louise Bourgeois, a fellow drawer and a prolific one at that, echoes Berger, literalising his words in her drawings of circles and spirals. Encircling lines, vortexes of red interlaced with blue, are metaphors for her sense of absorption in the work at hand. To look at Bourgeois’ drawings is to be absorbed in them with her, to be carried back to the process, to the meditative, almost sedative-like action of circling the ink, merging with the materials. Mesmerising, this action induces sleep – or at least, that was the intention for Bourgeois, a known insomniac. Her later spirals (2000s), which held the definition and furious fixity that only comes from a woodcut print, have a whirlpool horror to them, sucking you in or entrancing you with their strangulating serpentine folds; you fall, you drown, you’re seized by them. To look at the prints is to encounter her notion of vertigo, her fear of falling, her attempt at freeing herself from the failure of the fall and reversing it into an ‘art’, as she saw it. The drawings of spirals cope with this fall differently. They are an invitation, a subtle return to a cycle most familiar to us: birth, life, death, and the axis that define the condition of drawing; ‘control and freedom’. Her drawings of circles, waves, phallic (or clitoral) protuberances, as well as the more figurative sketches, are a recovery from such fear, such failure, such faltering. Drawing mitigates the anxiety of falling/failing; it holds the unresolved stresses of life and eases them out – eases us out of them. Drawing contains the freedom of the fall, controls the possibility of failure by, as Bourgeois knows, turning it into an art. Drawing returns us to the possibility of life, buoying upwards, out of the waters of the unconscious, giving us something new again, line by line.
Bourgeois’ drawings are ‘eddies on the surface of the stream of time’, motions against the common current, pockets of moments that only the art of creating can create.
Step away from the drawing. What do you see? I see myself, half-emerging, half-submerged in blue ink. I see an outline of a woman, once dead, coming to life. I see the ripples she made, reverberating again around her. I see her shudder and the whole blue world shudders too; I see lines corresponding to her movements, movements corresponding to her lineaments. She is breathing in all that blue; she’s taking it in and pouring it out, amphibious. What seeps out, water from water, line from line, is another being after her, another girl, rising like a wave, though she was once but foam.
Unlike me, Bourgeois prefers to draw in red – watery red gouache to be precise. In Self-Portrait (2007), 20 red gouache women bloom out from the page. Their faces are featureless, their arms indistinguishable from the multiple breasts blossoming out from upper torsos. Some of the gouache lines have bled, leaving the bodies to burn like effigies, sketches ignited by their own repetitive force. This is a red that is synonymous with Bourgeois and her linear drawings. A red that gestures to paint in its thickness, its tendency to bleed and travel along the paper. It’s an insistent red, a rites-of-passage red (yes, like menstrual blood); a loud, determined to be seen and felt, red. To draw, in this painterly red, the looming bodies of women is to assert their abundance – or Bourgeois’ abundance (it is a self-portrait after all). Placed in a grid, 4 rows of five, the figures have a generational power, a red line breeding a new red line, one red woman begetting another, Matryoshka-style. Except, they’re not nestled inside each other – there is no baby hidden in a wooden womb. Though they be an army, these many breasted figures are isolated, each to their own white page: the abundance of woman, of drawing, of creativity, of Bourgeois, is contained.
Seeing them sequentially, drawing to drawing, exposes the obsessive drive from which Bourgeois drew – a drive I readily identify with. That this figure was drawn here 20 times and resurfaces in other self-reflective and self-referential work, conveys the totemic power invested in this form. While I see its plenitude, scholars like Ann Coxon have seen an earth goddess, Lucy Lippard the Venus of Willendorf. Read like this, the abundance of Bourgeois’ burgeoning red women does not remain with them: her childlike scrawls, though childless, point to children, to the responsibility, desires and needs of others, which are always found, carried, buried in the mother.
To see, therefore, the red female form in the opening pages of Jean Frémon’s Nativity (translated beautifully by Cole Swensen, published by Les Fugitives) comes as no surprise. Frémon’s little gem of a read is inspired by the first painter (late medieval /early Renaissance) to represent the Christ child naked – and smiling. Frémon’s title, Nativity, is at once fruitfully apt and playfully misleading – this is not a linear recount of angelic visitations on hill sides, lowing oxen in stables and the ubiquitous adoration tableaux around a manger. Rather, the nativity that Frémon’s work is deeply indebted to and preoccupied with is that of artistic ideas – the naissance of a way of thinking, of seeing, of representing – and the cultural precedent they subsequently set in motion. That Bourgeois was immediately struck by Frémon’s manuscript after one of their meetings in 2007 simply reinforces this. In fact, the unpublished version of Nativity resonated to such an extent that she drew 5 gouache drawings for the book, overnight, with the same gusto and conviction, and in the same characteristic ‘red’ idiom found in all her drawings from that time. Thus the drawing of the many breasted woman, her potency, potentiality and futurity are all part of this cultural birthing and nurturing of ideas, visions and attitudes.
There is, nevertheless, one fundamental difference between this red woman and those anarchically drawn for Bourgeois’ Self Portrait. The potentiality of those women, sprung virulently and volatilely from her pen, merely hint at the others who would reap that potential. There, these red apparitions of Self-Portrait are still for themselves. In Frémon’s Nativity, however, this fecundity is literalised and umbilically linked to other bodies: the child growing inside her; the reader who now sees her as prospective maman; the artist who labels her, rather burdensomely, ‘The good mother’ (p.7). This multi-breasted form is suddenly freighted with new associations, ideals and expectations. That Frémon’s work ends with a drawing titled ‘The bad mother’ (p.41), where a tiny distressed infant struggles to latch onto an imperious-looking nipple (a Kleinian trauma if there ever was one – mother is tantalisingly close, but oh-so-far), again complicates this reading of embodiment, disembodiment, maternity, collective and individual creative potential. But, most importantly, Frémon’s careful interpolation of Bourgeois’ drawings in his text not only reiterates the centrality of maternity and the messiness of the pregnant body to the nativity, but also the creativity, power and potential of the (woman) artist. Frémon’s nativity is as much a flowering of the artistic spirit, as it is the holy ghost’s.
That the artist in his narrative is male and has been given a commission for an altarpiece by a church canon sums up the entire artistic history of nativity scenes until the late twentieth century. Painted by men, commissioned by men, inspired by the teachings of men, but supposedly painted for the uneducated laity (of more men and women), depictions of the nativity have betrayed the woman crucial to its very existence by only having men represent her. Frémon’s inclusion of Bourgeois’ drawings not only speaks directly into art history’s marked exclusion and omission of women from this tradition, but also rights it by having Bourgeois have her say on birth and motherhood. Bourgeois’ drawings, their visceral red glow, interact with the artist’s deliberations on Christ’s body (there’s a very interesting section about the erect penis of the crucified Christ being the tipping point, excuse the pun, of the holy son’s humanity into divinity, and vice versa, which is surpassed by Bourgeois’ drawing of a new born pushing outwards into the world away from the cervix and through the vulva) as represented in sculpture, and how and where to locate Mary in his own work so that she does not appear, wait for it, a ‘bad mother’ (p.26). Bourgeois’ drawings do not so much critique Frémon’s artist’s sketches of the nativity, as metaphorically elaborate on them. Like Frémon’s artist, Bourgeois uses the imaginative power of drawing to lay bare reality, to change the angle of the (his)story, to accentuate a previously unseen or unwanted aspect of it. Bourgeois’ drawings say what Frémon’s artist’s work could only gesture to: the real divinity, the real magic of nativity scenes of old lay in the artist’s power to make invisible visions visible through pen and paper, paint and canvas.
In the pale hours of the morning, no longer creased with tiredness, her walnut face looks up from the white paper. No longer drowning in distant memories, webs of recollection, unborn dreams, she has caught them, laughing inside; at first, just a small laugh, a very small feathery laugh, not knowing why, at what or whom she laughs. Then a sharp laugh, a crow’s laugh, a cackle, a wicked sound that shoots up from the feet, through her stomach, gathering gut and sinew and punch, forcing itself out through her nose, ears and eyes, a great guttural shrieking, heaving, roar of a laugh leaves her mouth, a shaken canister splitting its sides. Shaking, almost collapsing on the floor, like she did when she smashed – oh! – smashed, kicked and relished the shattering of an old cast – that’s how the laugh comes, breaking waves of tension, breaking over her like waves. She does this knowing it’s at someone else’s expense, this laugh, an inchoate hex. She laughs, when she dips the pen in the water; she laughs, when she draws up the red; she laughs again, when she marks the page’s whiteness with it, until the laugh and the cry trapped beneath it have escaped, have flown out, scorched the page with her fear and tranquillised her soul red. Taking the pen in her hand, she draws another red line, another daub, forcing the paper down, making it bear the weight of a woman, not failing, not falling, but standing, anchored in all her thereness – there and there and there she is, Louise mutters to herself, calmer, clearer than before she sat at the table to draw.
Only a few days left until Christmas – only a few sleeps, a few more dawns until I’m able to draw again. Those mid-morning Saturdays will become Thursday and Friday, my times, the right times, to pick up my pen, follow the blue line, allow it to birth a world at once still and in motion. Fear of failing, fear of falling, fear of being a bad, a good, a nobody’s mother, caught as a many breasted thing on paper. A woman, a baby, a bird, falling, flailing, flying out, out, out onto the page, where it all begins, again. A nativity of my own making, drawn into being.
Feature image: detail from Arthur Mones (American, 1919-1998). Louise Bourgeois, 1988. Gelatin silver photograph, sheet: 10 3/4 x 14 in. (27.2 x 35.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the artist, 1997.162.11. © artist or artist’s estate (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 1997.162.11_PS4.jpg)