“It is really the anger that makes me work’’ – LOUISE BOURGEOIS (1910-2010)
The French-born American artist, Louise Bourgeois was born in Paris, on Christmas day, 1911. She was one of the most influential sculptor of the 20th century. Her parents, Josephine and Louis, ran a tapestry gallery and lived in the famous and fashionable St Germain quarter in Paris, during the week; Bourgeois family also had a villa and workshop in the countryside where they spend their weekends restoring the antique tapestries.
Here is Louise peeling a tangerine and sharing a little anecdote about her family life to go along with it.
At the end of the World War I, during the global pandemic, Louise’s mother contracted influenza. During the course of the illness, her father handled the affairs, especially long-term one with his daughter’s governess, who resided with the family, which produced the tensions in the household.
It is thought this fear and the anger towards her father stayed with Louise Bourgeois, and became a motif within her works, almost all of them, created in New York where she lived after her marriage to art critic Robert Goldwater.
She often spoke of her early, emotionally conflicted family life as formative. Her affectionate and practical mother, who was an invalid, was a positive influence. Her domineering father and his marital infidelities instilled resentment and an insecurity that Louise never laid to rest.
For instance, her nightmarish tableau The Destruction of the Father, from 1974, holds an arrangement of beast-like bumps, phallic protuberances and biomorphic shapes in soft-looking latex that suggest the sacrificial evisceration of body, surrounded by big, crude mammillary forms.
After all, Ms Bourgeois has suggested as a tableau’s inspiration a fantasy from her childhood in which a pompous father, whose presence deadens the dinner hour night after night is pulled onto the table by other family members, gobbled up and dismembered.
Louise Bourgeois had a wide range of education. In the early 1930s, she studied philosophy and mathematics at the Sorbonne. In that time, she wrote her thesis on Emmanuel Kant and Blaise Pascal.
In 1932, she started studying art, after the death of her mother, enrolling in several schools and ateliers in the period in the 1930’s, including the Ecole de Beaux- Arts and Academie Julian, where she counted Fernand Léger, the brilliant interpreter of cubism, among her teachers. He taught her how to express human emotions with minimal use of line in the painting, and also, he recognized her interest in three-dimensional form, urged her to take up sculpture.
Her Paris apartment was on the Rue du Seine, in the same building as André Breton’s gallery Gradiva was, and where she was introduced to the Surrealists.
In 1938, Louise opened her own gallery in a sectioned-off area of her father’s tapestry showroom, and also began exhibit her own works at the Salon d’Automne. In that period of her life, she met her future husband, an American art historian and critic Robert Goldwater, noted for his pioneering work in the field then referred to as primitive art.
The married couple moved to New York that same year and Ms Bourgeois attended the Art Students League, where she studied painting with Vaclav Vytlacil and produced prints and sculptures.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Louise’s husband Mr. Goldwater introduced her to a many of New York artists, dealers and critics. She knew many of the European surrealists then arriving as refugees in New York, later dismissed them as ‘smart alecks’; the artists to whom she felt closest were the American painters who would come to be known as Abstract Expressionists.
In the late ‘40s and ‘50s Louise Bourgeois had a several solo exhibitions in various New Your gallery. Her first solo exhibition of paintings happened in New York, 1945, and four years later, in 1951, her first exhibition of sculptures at the Peridot Gallery- an installation of tall pole-like figures that she intended as abstract portraits of the family members and portraits.
At this time, she gave up painting for good.
Her husband received a Fulbright grant, so they return to France for several years in the early 1950s, during which time her father died. Louise began psychoanalysis in 1952, continuing on and off until 1985.
From beginning of the ‘60s, Ms Bourgeois started experimenting with rubber, plaster, latex, and enjoyed some professional success as a sculptor. But significant shift in her career came in 1966, when she was included in ‘’Eccentric Abstraction’’ at the Fischbach Gallery in New York, an exhibition organized by critic Lucy Lippard.
Ms Bourgeois’ long involvement in the nascent feminist movement, about which she had ambivalent, but passionate feelings, began at this time. In the following period, she made one of her many trips to the marble works in Pietrasanta and Carrara, Italy, and produced dozens of her great and major pieces over several years.
Her husband died in 1973, the same year she began teaching at various institution including Columbia University, New York Studio School and Yale, which awarded her an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts Degree in 1977.
In the same period, she became politically active as a socialist and feminist, and joined the Fight Censorship Group, which defended the use of sexual explicit imagery in art and made several of her own sexually explicit works related to the female body, such as Fillette, a large detached latex phallus, from 1968.
That piece is one of her most famous work. It showcases her use of biomorphic imagery and her experiments with and distortions of both female and male anatomy to the point that they become indistinguishable.
In this work, the testicles can be read as breasts and the erect penis can be seen as a neck. The bizarre juxtaposition of the title, which means little girl in English, and the priapism of the work suggests a girl metamorphosed into that threatens her- in one version, the piece hangs from a hook and thus references castration; in the second one, the piece is being carried.
Rise To Fame As An Artist
By the mid 1970s, with shifts in the art world trends, her reputation was steadily growing. Marking her prestige in the art world, Bourgeois had her first retrospective in 1982, at MoMA, which was the first given to a female artist at that institution.
That retrospective secured her place as an influential figure.
In the following decade, her reputation grew stronger in the context of the body-centered art of the ‘90s, with its emphasis on vulnerability, mortality and sexuality.
Ms Bourgeois’ sculptures, in stone, steel, wood and cast rubber, very often organic in form and sexually explicit, emotionally aggressive yet witty covered many stylistic bases. But generally, they shared a set of repeated themes centered on the human body and its need for nurture and protection in a frightening world.
Certainly, her personal style contributed to her mystique. Her series of ‘’Cells’’ from the early 1990s, the installation of old doors, windows, steel fencing and found objects, were meant to be evocations of her childhood, which she claimed as the psychic source of her art.
These are dioramic, standalone sculptural forms – plaster casts, drawings and texts, as well as the penises, breast-like bulges and spiders, all within the confines of cell-like structures, usually penned in by doors or steel cages.
The Cells is her autobiography, her personal therapy and her catharsis, and through them she was able to analyze and express her memories, anxiety and fear of abandonment and pain. She only named these piece Cells from 1991 onwards, which explains the inclusion of her earlier work that seemed to inspire or influence the series.
So, combined the discernible theme of self, domesticity and motherhood could explain why Ms Bourgeois has become synonymous with the feminist art movement, taking on an almost ambassadorial role. She was a strong feminist, but never called herself a female artist or a feminist artist.
It would be reductive to call her with these names; it wouldn’t be able to place her gender from looking at a lot of the work. It was simply autobiographical for she dealing with universal emotions such as rejection and jealousy and these are pre-gender.
Gender And Art
But, one of the main reasons that she found herself in feminist movement was the timing of her work. Just as she seemed to find her feet in the 1950s, the male dominated genre of abstract expressionism exploded, making stars of the male contemporaries such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, and overshadowing her work.
Then, she began to rebel against patriarchy through her work. For instance, she thought that the surrealists made women the object of their work, whereas she was trying to make women the subject.
She was anxious, a trait she thought she inherited from her mother, and it is a continual thread through her work; she struggled with the burden of being mother, a wife and an artist.
She was also agoraphobic and often had insomnia, on occasions spending four consecutive days awake, by the end of which she would be in a manic state.
Being a woman making art about herself, it was probably unavoidable for the theme of gender to recur in Bourgeois’ work. It was her images of the body itself, fragmented, sensual but grotesque, and very often sexually ambiguous, that proved especially memorable.
In some cases, the body took the abstract form of an upright wooden pole, pierced by a few holes and stuck with nails; in others, it appeared as a pair of women’s hands realistically carved in marble and lying, palms open, on a massive stone base.
She transformed her experiences into a highly personal visual language through the use of mythological and archetypal imagery adopting a various objects, such as spirals, cages, spiders, medical tools, and sewn appendages to symbolize feminine beauty, psyche and psychological pain.
Louise Bourgeois often spoke of pain as a subject of her art, and fear- fear of the uncertainty of the future, fear of the grip of the past, of loss in the present.’’— The subject of pain is the business I am in…To give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering,… The existence of pain cannot be denied.
I propose no remedies or excuses.’’ It was her gift for universalizing her interior life, a complex spectrum of sensations that made her art so affecting.
Through the use of abstract form and a wide variety of media, she dealt with notions of universal balance, playfully juxtaposing materials conventionally considered female or male.
Louise Bourgeois gained fame only late in a long career, when her psychologically and abstract sculptures, prints and drawings had a galvanizing effect on the work of young artists, especially women.
Louise Bourgeois’ work always centered upon the reconstruction of memory, and in her 98 years, she produced an as astounding body of drawings, prints, books, sculptures and installations, which, nonetheless, has been the representative of both the tumultuous events of the 20th century in her life and in the world at large.