Petite, hoarse of voice, and a bit coarse of manner; open, but suspicious of journalists; secretive, but provoking. This is a woman who has struggled throughout her life because of childhood trauma – an artist who transformed this traumatic experience into an original, artistic language. But in the end, she was a person about whom most of the world learned far too late. Louise Joséphine Bourgeois was born in Paris on Christmas Day, 1911, as the third child of Joséphine and Louis Bourgeois. The family's surname was quite fitting, for they were owners of a gallery that dealt in antique textiles. When Louise was a toddler, the family moved to Choisy-le-Roi, where they opened a workshop for restoring tapestries. Just like most everything from her childhood to be referenced in her later works, the activities of the tapestry workshop can be clearly seen in her sculpture series in which a human body is woven into vertical spirals.
Louise Bourgeois in her studio. Photo from Louise Bourgeois' archives
“When a tapestry was washed in the river, four people were needed to pull it out and ring it dry [...] The spiral is important to me,” Louise Bourgeois has said. “I would dream of my father's mistress. I would do it in my dreams by ringing her neck.” This is where Bourgeois' great life tragedy comes into play – in her relationship with her father. Louis was a tyrant and a philanderer. Louise hated his impulsive, despotic nature; she hated that he teased her in front of others. But what she hated him most for was his infidelity to her mother. Joséphine had frail health due to a heavy bout of the flu, which is why Louis – who always insisted that he loved his wife – looked for physical relationships elsewhere. When Louise was twelve, her English governess, Sadie, became her father's newest mistress; the affair lasted for many years. In her diary, Louise wrote that her mother was “an intelligent, patient and enduring, if not calculating, person”, who knew about her husband's infidelity but thought it better to turn a blind eye to it. "He was the wolf, and she was the rational hare, forgiving and accepting him as he was." This family model obviously left an indelible mark on the young girl's psyche, and sowed the seeds of reproach and insecurity that would last a lifetime, and which would later become the source of her interest in the double standards assigned to gender and sexuality.
Spiral Woman. 1984
“I got peace of mind only through the study of rules nobody could change,” Louise wrote. In 1930 she entered the Sorbonne to study mathematics and geometry – subjects deemed to be of the highest stability. When Louise's mother died a couple of years later, the tragic event led Louise to abandon mathematics and to turn to something completely different – art. Her father, of course, thought that artists were riffraff, and refused to continue to fund Louise's education. Louise did not give up, however, and in lieu of tuition, attended classes as a translator for English-speaking students. (Whatever inexcusable things Sadie may have done, she nevertheless did teach Louise to speak English well.) Once during such a class, the great artist Fernand Léger saw Louise's work, and proceeded to inform her that she was a sculptor, not a painter.
Louise graduated from the Sorbonne in 1935 and continued her art studies in several other institutions, including the École du Louvre and the École des Beaux-Arts, as well as undertaking private studies in the studios of various artists. It was at this time that she consciously chose the source of inspiration for her creative work – her childhood traumas – and she didn't waver from them throughout her long life. “My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama.” Later on, she would often refer to her early childhood, filled with emotional conflict, as her formative period.
In 1938 Louise Bourgeois married the American art historian Robert Goldwater, and they moved to New York. Goldwater was a professor specializing in primitive art at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, and later became the first director of the Museum of Primitive Art in New York. He was a member of New York's high society, and was friends with Alfred Barr – the first director of MoMA, as well as with renown art collector Peggy Guggenheim and all of the better-known abstract expressionists. Louise, meanwhile, continued her private art studies and cared for the couple's growing brood – Michel, whom they adopted from Fance in 1939, and soon after, their biological children – Jean-Louis and Alain.
Sleeping Figure. 1950
The early 1940s were not an easy time for the young artist in New York – there was difficulty in adjusting to a new country, but what she found even harder was entering the New York exhibition scene. Although she had her first solo show in 1945, the art world paid scant attention to her for many years afterward. During this time, she created her standing sculptures from scrap metal and driftwood. One of these pieces is “Sleeping Figure” – a soldier who cannot return to the real world.
In 1954 Louise joined the American Abstract Artists group, which also had Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt as members. At this time she also befriended Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Bourgeois moved on from her standing wooden structures to working in marble, plaster and bronze, and took for themes such subjects as fear, vulnerability, and the loosing of control. In 1958 Bourgeois and her family moved to West 22nd Street in Chelsea, where she stayed and worked for the rest of her life. A notable event in her career occurred in 1966, when her works were included in the exhibition “Eccentric Abstraction”, which was organized by the critic Lucy Lippard at New York's Fischbach Gallery. Robert Goldwater died in 1973; after his death, Bourgeois worked as a lecturer at several institutions – Columbia University, Yale University, the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn College, and elsewhere.
One of the factors that contributed to Bourgeois finally, after so many years, being noticed by the public was her link to feminism in art. She never counted herself among the hard-core feminist artists, but in the 70s she was part of the Fight Censorship Group; the group was founded by the artist Anita Steckel, with the goal of allowing sexual imagery to be used in artworks. Because of this, the feminist movement labeled Bourgeois as one their own, and this, in turn, drew attention to her. Bourgeois' peculiar art drew many admirers, although in the “official standings” she was still considered quite marginal.
The turning point came in 1982, when she had her first retrospective exhibition, at New York's MoMA. In the accompanying interview published in the magazine Artforum, Bourgeois revealed that the images in her sculptures are completely autobiographical in nature, that through her art, she was obsessively reliving the traumatic moment when she discovered the truth about her father's relationship with her English governess, Sadie. Already more than 70 years old, this retrospective finally brought her both critical and public recognition. Her next retrospective took place in 1989, as part of Documenta 9 in Kassel, Germany, and in 1993 she represented the USA at the Venice Biennale. In 2000 Bourgeois' works were included in the grand opening of the Tate Modern in London, and in 2001, her works were shown at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2007 a second grand international retrospective of Bourgeois' work was held at the Tate Modern in London, and at the Centre Pompidou in Paris; the exhibition then traveled to New York, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. This late-in-life “discovery” of Bourgeois played a decisive role in the rise of her overall popularity; in a sense, she became the poster-child for an artist's strength, perseverance and commitment to his/her convictions – even under the harshest cases of being ignored.
I Do. 2011
“Everyone should have the right to marry. To make a commitment to love someone forever is a beautiful thing,” stated Bourgeois at age 98, a proud and active supporter of the movement for LGBT rights. For the non-profit organization Freedom to Marry, she created the work “I Do”, which featured two blooms on one stem.
Louise Bourgeois died on May 31, 2010, from a heart attack. She was an actively working artist up until the end, and as always, following her motto; “I believe that if you work enough, the world is going to get better.”
“The subject of pain is the business I am in,” she said, “to give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering. The existence of pain cannot be denied...I can't make it disappear, it's here to stay.” Bourgeois often spoke of pain as a theme in her work, and of fear – fear of the clutches of the past, fear of the uncertainty of the future, fear of loss in the present. Subsequently, her talent and the strength of her art were a direct result of her ability to universalize her inner life as a complex spectrum of feelings.
Bourgeois worked with wood, steel, stone, rubber and other materials. Her works are often organic in form, sexually explicit, and emotionally aggressive; but they were also clever, and created in a variety of styles. Nevertheless, the main and oft-repeated central theme in her works was the human body and its vulnerability in this evil world – sexuality and the relationship between sexuality and vulnerability. “I have a religious temperament. I have not been educated to use it. I’m afraid of power. It makes me nervous. In real life, I identify with the victim.” Bourgeois' bodily images are sensitive and grotesque, fragmented, and often sexually ambiguous. In some cases, the bodies have already reached a level of abstraction – like her early works composed of standing wooden boards, altered with just a few holes and scratches; in other cases they are fragments – like a marble pair of woman's hands with palms splayed open, set upon a massive base of rock.
Destruction of the Father. 1974
In Bourgeois' autobiographical works, made-up memories are often intertwined with real ones. In terms of her psychoanalytical obsession with her father's “betrayal”, the undeniable apogee of this theme can be found in her very descriptively titled piece, “Destruction of the Father” (1978). It's an installation made up of a soft-looking, “fleshy” room that reminds one of a womb; various skin-colored objects made from plaster, latex and fabric are scattered around the room – they have been made to look like body parts: breasts, penises and other bio-morphic appendages. Of course, what one sees is not completely explained, but it is arguably reminiscent of a ritualistic dissection of a body. Bourgeois has let it be known that the inspiration for the piece came from a childhood fantasy – her despotic father, whose presence made every evening meal unbearable, is pulled upon the table by the rest of the family, then cut up into pieces and eaten.
Nevertheless, Bourgeois' most provoking piece of “expression” could be said to be an earlier piece, the series “Fillette” (meaning “little girl”; 1968), which is made up of huge latex phallic objects that have been strung up. In 1982, one of these “penises” and their creator were photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe – with a sly smile on her face, Bourgeois holds the object carelessly tucked under her arm.
Two other well-known and oft-exhibited works by Bourgeois are two installation series titled “Cells”; they were begun in the late 80s and continued up into the 21st century. One part consists of enclosures made from wire, with various symbolic objects arranged within; the other part consists of small fabricated rooms which one can enter. For these pieces, Bourgeois used earlier sculptural forms and found objects, as well as personal items imbued with great emotional value. Bourgeois herself has said that “Cells” represent “different types of pain; physical, emotional and psychological, mental and intellectual… Each Cell deals with a fear. Fear is pain… Each Cell deals with the pleasure of the voyeur, the thrill of looking and being looked at.”
Louise Bourgeois with her mother
Whereas Bourgeois' father was “eaten up” in one of her pieces, her mother was interpreted completely differently. “The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever.” By the end of the 90s, Bourgeois' main artistic subject was the spider (and it is also the piece for which she is best known today). Bourgeois saw an association between the spider and her mother – in her mother's strength, and in her weaving, spinning, feeding and protection. However, taking into account the sheer size of the artwork, as well as its clearly alien “look”, Bourgeois' drawing of associations between her mother and a spider seems just as disturbed as cutting up her father for dinner.
The first spider, “Maman”, was a nine-meter high sculpture made from steel and marble; it was first exhibited at London's Tate Modern during its grand opening in 2000. Later on, six bronze copies were poured from the original model, and these have now traveled the world. It stands to mention that one of the “Mamans” was sold at auction in 2011, for 10.7 million dollars; this is a record sum not only for the artist herself, but it is also the highest price ever paid for a work of art made by a woman.
In her later years, Louise Bourgeois opened her studio to the public for one day every week; she invited young artists and critiqued their work – often times with brutal frankness. Her directness, her nonconformist attitude, and her secretive and uncomfortable works, as well as her great age, made her a kind of embodiment of what a “true artist” should be – both rebel and “wise woman”. In regards to herself, she said: “Art comes from life. Art comes from the problem you have in seducing birds, men, snakes—anything you want. It is like a Corneille tragedy where everybody is pursuing somebody else: you like A, A likes D, and D likes… Being a daughter of Voltaire and having an education in the 18th-century rationalists, I believe that if you work enough, the world is going to get better. If I work like a dog on all these…contraptions, I am going to get the bird I want… [Yet] the end result is rather negative. That's why I keep going. The resolution never appears; it's like a mirage. I do not get the satisfaction – otherwise I would stop and be happy...”
Louise Bourgeois. I Have Been to Hell and Back Moderna Museet, Stockholm Through 17 May, 2015