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…