Louise Bourgeois was a bold, 20th-century French American, contemporary artist, who explored a broad spectrum of themes with an extensive set of materials and media. She was known for her abstract, biomorphic pieces that addressed the connections between different genders. Although her work cannot be pigeon-holed into a singular artistic movement, she is associated primarily with feminist art, and surrealism, and is most recognized for her large-scale installations and sculptures. Most of her early pieces were paintings and prints, however, following her interest in psychoanalysis, she began exploring wood and plaster sculptures of various scales. Her familial titles as a wife, daughter, and mother became the prime inspirations of her art.
Overview of Bourgeois’ life: The Beginning, Middle, and End
The middle child of three, Louise Bourgeois was born into a Parisian family that dealt with antique tapestries. While her father performed infidelity and her mother practiced ignorance, Bourgeois resultantly took to her work as therapy, infusing it with feelings of rage, resentment, loneliness, and intrinsic sexual expression. She explored themes of family, motherhood, sexuality, and the subliminal experiences of the female body. However, she did not always officially belong to the creative field. Bourgeois was initially enrolled as a mathematics and philosophy student at Sorbonne in 1930. The causation of her shift from mathematics to art was the passing of her mother. Following her academic completion at Sorbonne in 1935, she delved into art studies at various institutions, including École des Beaux-Arts, École du Louvre, and other independent academies.
Up until the 1940s, Bourgeois established her gallery, got married, and migrated to the States, where she resumed her exploration of painting, printmaking, and sculpting. Her creations are a crystallization of circumstance and conflict. She also exhibited independently at various galleries in New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1952, Bourgeois began psychoanalysis – for approximately three decades – and explorations with latex, plaster, and rubber. As she investigated issues of anxiety, loss, and vulnerability for the American Abstract Artists Group, she reached a pivotal point in her profession. Louise Bourgeois gradually gained greater artistic assurances and transitioned to bronze and marble in the 1960s in Italy. In 1973, Louise Bourgeois was a faculty member at numerous New York City academia, including the prestigious Cooper Union and Pratt Institute. Also, she held Sunday salons at her apartment during this period, wherein emerging artists brought their work for evaluation.
Additionally, Bourgeois involved herself in politics in the 1970s as a feminist and socialist. She was also a member of Fight Censorship – a group advocating sexually explicit artwork – and produced various pieces focused on the female body. As a token of her prominence in the artistic community, MoMA presented Bourgeois with a retrospective in 1982 – a first for Louise, as well as a first for a female artist in general. She was also elected as an American representative in the Venice Biennale of 1993. Soon after, 2010 was met with the passing of Louise Bourgeois. She continued to produce pieces until her passing, and they had a set of recurring themes focused on the human body, and its need for nurture and sheltering in a terrifying environment.
Louise Bourgeois once remarked that her magical and mysterious childhood never lacked any drama or inspiration. From her words and works, we can decipher her artistic philosophies. Firstly, Bourgeois believed that life and art are united and that art is about life. At the start of her career itself, she was set apart from her contemporaries by urging that her work was a daily catharsis of her experiences, trauma, and torment. Abstract Expressionism – which had no leeway for personal references – dominated New York in the 1940s and 1950s. However, to Bourgeois, the visual representations of self were so critical that she proclaimed art and life are synonymous with each other.
Secondly, Bourgeois claims that nature and its metaphors are a medium of communication. Since she grew up engulfed in nature, she had an affinity for all living things. This is evident in her artwork involving flora and fauna. One of the recurring themes in her designs was arachnids – which she associated with saviors. From the 1940s, spiders appeared and reappeared in her drawings, prints, and as large sculptures. She believed that they imitated maternal instincts of intelligence, tenacity, and defense that her mother possessed. Additionally, she was of the opinion that repetition was vital for the audience to accept and appreciate art to its fullest. Some of her vocabularies included “pregnant bellies, spirals, spiders, and the color blue,” while she experimented with various materials and mediums such as graphite, latex, lithography, marble, watercolor, and more (Kedmey, 2017).
Lastly, she asserted that one should never abandon the creation of art. The only barrier in Bourgeois’ career was her death. In her 80s, she unveiled new bodies of work that were prominent in her career – which we will explore further in this article. Even when she was in her 90s with decelerating eyesight, she chose to enlarge her printmaking plates to view them more clearly. The prints she developed before her death are nearly two meters tall, aptly demonstrating her inclination toward creating art.
The Bold Bourgeois: Her Works
Femme Maison, 1946-1947
While Louise Bourgeois was adapting to American life and parenthood, she created a series of colored paintings investigating female identity. These depictions titled Femme Maison – or literally “housewife” – were amalgamations of architecture and anatomy, concluding as collages with surrealist implications of women’s struggles while harmonizing family and work. The inspiration for the paintings stemmed from Bourgeois’ marriage, migration to new lands, and newfound role in motherhood. Femme Maison is a hint at her struggles in creating an artistic repertoire whilst feeling imprisoned by her recent roles and duties.
The Destruction of the Father, 1974
Louise’s father was known to boast during family dinners. Created as a vengeful representation piece targeted at her father, The Destruction of the Father is a dinner table depiction of Bourgeois’ life. The piece is set in an intimate context – suggestive of a cave or womb – with crimson illumination implying negative connotations and a table clad with a flesh-like appearance expressing brutality and severed body parts. Bourgeois describes the graphic narrative as the following and summons the spectator to observe criminal aftermath: the sculpture is both a bed and a table. The children gather the father, place him on the table, and turn him into food. They dismember, dissect, and then devour him; thus liquidating him in the same manner as he did his children. Using fabric, latex, plaster, and wood, Bourgeois creates her first significant installation piece – inspired by infidelity. It directly addresses the continual pain and betrayal from her father’s repeated affairs.
Possibly the most popular of Bourgeois’ artworks is the Maman – a bronze, steel, and marble sculpture standing over 9 meters tall. This spider piece is a depiction of and tribute to the artist’s mother. She draws various similarities between her mother and the spider, namely: both are clear, protectors, and weavers. Maman showcases an arachnid supporting a sack of seventeen marble eggs which she shelters with a steel cage-like body and thin, lengthy legs. Spiders served as recurring constituents in Bourgeois’ works. They made an appearance in two of her 1947 drawings, as well as, before her passing – during the 1990s – when she was preoccupied with recollections of her youth and her mother.
“She smashed a taboo,” states art critic for The Times, Christopher Knight (Muchnic, 2010). Louise Bourgeois was a female iconoclast of her time who fearlessly pursued her art until her passing at the age of 98. Women were not allowed to publicly display domestic intricacies; however, Bourgeois was the first contemporary to depict the complexities and potential of household themes. She believed that the art world’s delayed discovery of her was “a blessing in disguise” as it enabled her to dictate the variables influencing her art. “To be an artist is a privilege; it is not a métier. You are born an artist. You can’t help it. You have no choice” (Artspace Editors, 2017).
- Artspace Editors (2017). ‘I Don’t Need an Interview to Clarify My Thoughts’: An Interview with Louise Bourgeois. [online] Artspace. Available at: https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/book_report/louise-bourgeois-phaidon-folio-54962.
- IdeelArt.com. (2016). IdeelArt | The online gallerist. [online] Available at: https://www.ideelart.com/magazine/louise-bourgeois-art.
- Kedmey, K. (2017). Louise Bourgeois on How to Be an Artist. [online] Artsy. Available at: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-artist-louise-bourgeois.
- Muchnic, S. (2010). Louise Bourgeois dies at 98; revered artist’s work was a ‘form of psychoanalysis’. [online] Los Angeles Times. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-bourgeois-20100601-story.html.
- The Art Story. (2010). Louise Bourgeois. [online] Available at: https://www.theartstory.org/artist/bourgeois-louise/.
- Wikipedia Contributors (2019). Louise Bourgeois. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louise_Bourgeois.