The thematic organization of “An Unfolding Portrait” follows Bourgeois in light circling rhythms as she revisits previous subjects, expanding upon them or transferring them into more substantial media. It shows that nearly all her basic themes of family and betrayal can be found in her works of the 1940s.
In the first section, “Architecture Embodied,” two of the totemic wood sculptures that Bourgeois began making in 1947, “Pillar” and “Figure,” are surrounded by engravings populated by similar forms enacting clearly figurative dramas.
Elsewhere a small watercolor drawing of St. Sebastian from 1947 presents the martyred saint as a simple scarecrow with a pincushion head. Nearby hang several versions of a 1990 etching that morph the saint into a curvaceous woman warrior who resembles an ancient fertility figure shot through with arrows. They seem to set her in motion.
The earliest work here is a small almost naïve painting from 1940. Its garbled outlines and mostly dark colors yield two simplified heads facing in opposite directions, with a small figure in silhouette between them — the artist’s originating triad of parents and child. The heads presage a self-portrait print from 1990, displayed nearby, as well as the soft fabric figurative sculptures that Bourgeois took up in the late ’90s.
These exceptional works are represented here by a vividly expressive pink and white head that is either ecstatic or grief-stricken. Its patched surface is similar to one of the heads in the 1940 painting, which almost seems bandaged. Both pieces resonate with another of the artist’s childhood experiences: visiting her wounded father in a field hospital during World War I.