Only recognised late in life, Bourgeois produced powerful, predatory art about the female experienceby Emma Crichton-Miller / March 2, 2019 / Leave a comment
When Tate Modern opened on London’s South Bank in the year 2000, its visitors were confronted with what remains one of the most powerful works to appear in the Turbine Hall. Three mysterious metal towers accessed by spiral staircases rose 14m from the floor—one enclosed in a rusted steel skin, two others furnished with large mirrors, each platform with a sculpture of a mother and child inside a bell jar. On the mezzanine bridge stood a giant steel spider, poised and predatory.
The installation was like a living dream—or nightmare. Yet it had an overwhelming emotional impact. You could climb the staircases and watch yourself reflected in the unfolding psychodrama. The towers were named, with Beckettian simplicity, “I do, I redo, I undo,” with texts such as: “I am the good mother.” The spider itself was simply “Maman,” a highly-charged title for this viscerally imagined sculpture. It was an assertion of both the significance and distinctiveness of female experience.
For many Londoners this was their first introduction to Louise Bourgeois. The French artist, for years resident in New York, was just shy of 90. Even at that age, her fame was still expanding and she was still producing works of profound originality and sophistication, which continued until her death in 2010. And yet, owing to her own partly diffident, partly cantankerous relationship to the art establishment, she had not until then been widely celebrated outside the US and France. If it was a bold move to choose Bourgeois to open Tate Modern, over better-known male artists, the Turbine Hall exhibition sealed her position as the Grande Dame of contemporary sculpture.
She took images, ideas and techniques rooted in her childhood and the art scene of 1930s Paris, and transformed them into works of radical, even shocking, newness. As the critic Jonathan Jones wrote looking back at the exhibition: “Bourgeois showed that powerful images dredged from the unconscious can make the most massive space intimate and confessional.”
Since 2000, Bourgeois’s work has been exhibited around the world. Tate Modern mounted a retrospective in 2007 and a smaller display in 2016. Now it is the turn of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge to offer a selection of sculpture, prints and drawings from the Artist Rooms collection. Curator Amy Tobin explains that the collection, originally acquired by Anthony D’Offay, consists mostly of later work, “when she had opened up about her history.”
It had become apparent from the 1980s onwards, through her writings and interviews, just how autobiographical her work had always been. Her paintings and sculptures were a response to uncontainable psychological stress—owed partly to her relationships with her parents, but then amplified by marriage and motherhood. Tobin starts with a very early self-portrait, a drawing, from 1947. Other highlights include the disconcertingly erotic bronze sculpture Tits (1967); one of Bourgeois’s hanging fabric sculptures, the spooky Couple I, (1996); and the wall-sculpture Spider I (1995).
Tobin is also showing À L’infini, a series of large-scale works on paper, combining print with gouache and pencil, accomplished with the help of Bourgeois’s longtime assistant Jerry Gorovoy when the artist was 97. Depicting a female body, couples, childbirth, disembodied limbs and body parts—among other elements resembling coils, spirals, tubes and flower buds in reds, pinks and white—this large grid of prints is shown alongside a more abstract series of monochrome etchings from 2006 and 2007. Tobin’s idea is to unlock some of the mysteries of the later work by revealing the consistency of Bourgeois’s imagery and its source in her own life.
Although she lived so long—she died aged 98—it was her traumatic childhood and adolescence that shaped Bourgeois’s seething imagination. Her parents ran a gallery selling historical tapestries. From an early age Bourgeois, the middle child of three, made drawings to guide their restoration. The apple of her father Louis’s eyes (she was named for him), she was nonetheless embroiled in a teasing power-play with him. The introduction into the family of his mistress as a governess for the younger children set the seal on the artist’s emotionally dysfunctional upbringing.
Close to her mother, whom she nursed for over 10 years, she later said: “The Spider is an ode to my mother… She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver.” That Bourgeois’s spiders often seem threatening perhaps suggests a more complicated relationship. So tightly wound were her emotions that after her mother died in 1932, her father’s mockery of her grief provoked a suicide attempt. After Louis fished her from the river, she decided to study mathematics at the Sorbonne, finding in Euclidean geometry a safe haven from family turbulence. But maths wasn’t enough, as she later explained: “In order to stand unbearable family tensions, I had to express my anxiety with forms that I could change, destroy, and rebuild.”
She took up art, studying simultaneously at the École des Beaux-Arts and various independent institutions. She began by painting, harking back beyond the Surrealists and Cubists, to Cézanne and Matisse.
Later, Bourgeois recalled the moment that, “[Fernand] Léger turned me into a sculptor.” She had persuaded the French modernist to let her study with him, in return for English translation. He had hung a spiralling wood shaving on a shelf and asked his students to draw it. At that moment, Bourgeois realised: “I did not want to make a representation of it. I wanted to explore its three-dimensional quality.”
Before she could do this, however, she met Robert Goldwater, an American art historian and curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was holidaying in Paris and visited the shop where she was by now selling prints and drawings. They swiftly married. In New York, Bourgeois found herself in the cultural elite, rubbing shoulders with leading critics, curators, dealers, collectors and museum directors, a stimulating but also daunting context soon augmented by the arrival of Europe’s artistic avant-garde.
In this wartime cultural ferment, Goldwater represented the opposite of her mercurial, philandering father: stable, rational and admiringly supportive of her work. Bourgeois thought that she couldn’t conceive and the couple adopted a son, only for her to give birth to two other boys in quick succession. All the while Bourgeois kept working and studying, producing but not exhibiting reams of drawings accompanied by prolific writing and developing her figurative painting. Deeply suspicious of the way the surrealists turned women into symbols, and wary of the teasing Marcel Duchamp, she was developing an unflinchingly personal body of work, exploring motherhood and eroticism, depression and rage, physical and mental anguish—evolving what she would later call “an arsenal of forms.”
As art critic and curator Robert Storr, who knew Bourgeois well, puts it: “Adhering to a strict economy of graphic means, she was able to preserve images that welled up from the most profound reaches of her deeply informed imagination, one of startling and elemental clarity and strangeness.”
But it was not until 1947, when Bourgeois was 36, that this private world made its way into the public. Bourgeois had been working in the famous print studio of Stanley William Hayter, transposed from Paris to New York during the war. It was a meeting point for European and American artists. There she produced six paintings entitled Femme Maison, four on linen, two on paper, some monochrome, others highly coloured, exploring the potent emblem of a half-woman, half-house. These were her last finished paintings.
Adopting the rooftop space on her apartment building, she turned at last to sculpture, creating her well-known series of Personnages, potent wooden standing figures, some more figurative, some less so. Bourgeois’s explanation for the sudden arrival of these objects was explicitly psychological: “These pieces were presences…” she later said, “missed, badly missed presences… I was less interested in making sculpture at the time than in re-creating an indispensable past.”
They nevertheless marked a turn towards three dimensions and were much exhibited in New York in the early 1950s. But just as Bourgeois was beginning to make a name for herself, her father died in 1951 causing her to retreat from the fray. In accounts of the New York art scene of the time Bourgeois’s name is absent.
She did not, however, stop working. Her totems became assemblages, towering agglomerations of urban detritus. Bourgeois later said: “To do an assemblage is a nurturing mechanism… it is not an attack on things, it is a coming to terms with things…” At the very end of the 1950s, when her children had left home, Bourgeois began to experiment with new materials—plaster, clay, latex, pigmented resin: soft, visceral, organic materials—bringing into three-dimensional space some of the images that haunted her.
It was then as an almost entirely new artist that Bourgeois was given a solo show in New York in 1964, in a gallery that had also shown the work of Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg. Bourgeois’s explicitly personal and often sexual work was at odds with formalist ideas then current, as also with the cool irony of Pop Art. It took the arrival of the 1970s, and a new era of sexual politics, for her work to finally be embraced. The artist, herself ambivalent about feminism, became the movement’s figurehead in America, and was photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe on the frontispiece of the catalogue for her 1982 retrospective at MoMA holding Fillette, a 1968 sculpture of a giant penis.
Yet Bourgeois has always evaded categorisation. Often anticipating developments by decades, her influence has been widespread without her ever having joined or created a school. From soft, contemporary materials she turned, in the late 1960s, to the hard and classical—marble and bronze. From 1989, she began to create ambitious cell-like interiors filled with found and made objects, into which the audience peers to pursue darkly ambiguous narratives. In the last decades of her life, Bourgeois also turned to fabric and textile, the material of her parents’ business, producing tottering fabric towers and unsettling arched and indeterminately gendered figures.
As Tate Modern’s Director, Frances Morris, wrote in the catalogue for the 2007 Tate exhibition: “Without ever ceding a level of seriousness and respect towards technical expertise or craftsmanship, Bourgeois’s practice, her ‘signature’ is, by contrast, inscribed in her journey from one material to the next, from one technique to another, following a relentless need to experiment across media…”
As Morris points out, this “anticipates, by some decades, the easy traffic between media and materials that many contemporary artists enjoy.” What is undeniable is that through this experimentation, Bourgeois was able to keep doing, undoing and redoing, reverting always to the well of original imagery that enabled her work to be both intimately personal and triumphantly universal.