Unconscious Landscape – female artists at Hauser & Wirth

THE new exhibition at Hauser &Wirth Somerset at Durslade Farm, Bruton, from 25th May to 8th September, is Unconscious Landscape: Works from the Ursula Hauser Collection, focused entirely on female artists.

The exhibition has been curated by Ursula Hauser’s daughter Manuela Wirth, with Laura Bechter, curator of the Ursula Hauser Collection. It will span all five galleries at the Somerset arts centre, presenting 65 works by female artists and artists’ estates including Louise Bourgeois, Heidi Bucher, Sonia Gomes, Eva Hesse, Sheila Hicks, Maria Lassnig, Lee Lozano, Meret Oppenheim, Carol Rama, Sylvia Sleigh and Alina Szapocznikow.

Ursula Hauser has collected the work of female artists for the past 40 years, long before equality in the visual arts became a talking point. She has always been drawn to work by visionary women, with many of whom she has built long-standing relationships. Unconscious Landscape takes its title from Louise Bourgeois’ eponymous bronze sculpture (1967- 68), which is included in the exhibition.

Bourgeois features prominently in the exhibition, which opens with three Portrait Cells, a subset of her famous Cell series. The Cells are stand-alone spatial installations, each containing sculptural forms arranged within the confines of a cell-like structure. Louise Bourgeois made over 60 Cells in her lifetime and through them examined themes of loss, abandonment, memory and fear, using them as a tool to investigate her own subconscious.

For many people, Bourgeois is best known for spiders, particularly the large 1996 sculpture, Spider, which confronts the viewer in the Rhoades gallery, as one is forced to walk underneath its towering legs to continue into the room. A smaller scale spider occupies an alcove of the Threshing Barn, only becoming apparent as you pass through the space. Spiders held great symbolism for Bourgeois, representing a protective, maternal figure and often more specifically her own mother who was a weaver, and oversaw the family’s tapestry restoration business.

Ursula Hauser first met Bourgeois in the 1990s and found they had much in common, remaining friends until Bourgeois’ death in 2010. The Bourgeois works in her collection deal with existential questions of birth, death, motherhood, sexuality and vulnerability, from which an essential thread runs through the exhibition.

Another artist with whom Ursula Hauser had a close friendship was Maria Lassnig, visiting her studio and acquiring many of her vivid and often discomforting portrayals of human figures. There are four paintings in the Threshing Barn gallery including Die Rasende Grossmutter (The Racing Grandmother) (1963).

The focus of the second room in the exhibition is surrealism, with works by Meret Oppenheim, Alina Szapocnikow, Louise Bourgeois and Heidi Bucher. While surrealism was dominated early on by men who fetishised the female form in its entirety, artists such as Szapocnikow used fragmented body parts to investigate complex emotions. Women who were exploring surrealism have often been overlooked, with the exception of Swiss painter and sculptor Meret Oppenheim. who enjoyed early recognition. Her career and genre defining Object’(1936), a cup and saucer covered in fur, was bought by the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in 1937. A companion piece Fur Gloves with Wooden Fingers (1939) is included in the exhibition. Both works take motifs associated with “the lady” – gloves, tea cups and fur, combining them into confounding objects that subvert our understanding of femininity.

An entire room in the exhibition is dedicated to the realist paintings of Sylvia Sleigh, with whom Ursula Hauser built a strong bond during her visits to New York, where the British artist was based from the early 1960s until her death in 2010.

Following Sleigh’s death, Ursula Hauser bought the house she had so often visited, preserving Sleigh’s legacy by installing her paintings and restoring many of her original features.

Passing underneath the Bourgeois spider into the largest room in the exhibition, the viewer encounters Szapocnikow’s Stele (1968), showing a woman’s mouth, chin and knees protruding from a black amorphous slab. The title refers to ancient funerary monuments but in this piece the headstone engulfs the body, rather than commemorating it.

The final room is dedicated to textile-based works focusing on process and materials. Pieces by Sheila Hicks and Sonia Gomes employ meticulous hand-woven techniques to imbue meaning, while works by Eva Hesse and Carol Rama explore mixed media.

Hesse’s Oomamaboomba and H + H are two of only a handful of the artist’s reliefs in existence. Due to their delicate condition, it is rare to see these works exhibited.

The exhibition culminates with Louise Bourgeois’ Legs (1986), the first Bourgeois work in Ursula Hauser’s collection and one of the pieces closest to her heart, always installed in her home. She first encountered the work at the Venice Biennale in 1993 and became utterly transfixed by this hanging sculpture that depicts two elongated legs, suspended in space and time. She was able to purchase the work and it was shortly afterwards that she visited Bourgeois at her studio in Brooklyn, a meeting her daughter Manuela Wirth describes as “the most profound moment in her life as a collector.”

Coinciding with the exhibition, a new book, Inner mirror: Conversations with Ursula Hauser, Art Collector, is being published, presenting the first extensive and intimate account of her life and art collection.

Pictured: H + H by Eva Hesse, 1965, varnish, ink gouache, enamel, found object, paper cache, unknown modelling compound, particle board, wood; Unconscious Landscape by Louise Bourgeois, 1967; The Good Mother, Louise Bourgeois bronze; steel, ceramic beads, wood, wire and cloth.