“I am not what I am
I am what I do
with my hands…”
─ Louise Bourgeois (4)
Louise Bourgeois died on May 10, 2010 at 98 (1) Although she first studied painting and her first works were as an engraver and painter, during the 40’s she began to work on sculptural work and it is was as an sculptor that she became worldwide recognized. During the 50’s, Bourgeois turned into psychoanalysis and after a long period she did not make art. It was not until 1964 when the artist presented a new collection of sculptures shaped on plaster. The very organic forms of these sculptures, contrasted with wood totem like sculptures she previously made, giving a daunting sense of figuration and abstraction. This was the beginning of her stronger work, based on themes of loneliness, jealously, anger and fear (2). During her live, she worked on the most avant-garde art: cubism, abstraction, minimalism, realism but about all, her sculptures were always at the cutting edge of contemporary style.
Her works were inspired by her more intimate feelings, using a postmodernist approach. She explored birth, sexuality and death on great detail throughout her long life. Her themes related to male/female relationships, including anger, betrayal and even murder, were influenced by surrealist and modernist sculpture. Most of them created a sense of ambiguity and provoked emotional reactions from the viewer. This artists created gendered metaphors way before any other feminist artists started working on this genre in the US.
During her first years as an artist, Bourgeois experienced the pressure of working among male peers, including her husband, an art historian. She also had to deal with issues of maternity, family and anxiety attacks. Together with her experiences at her own small family in New York, she was traumatized by a long affair her father had with an English tutor she and her siblings had when children. She frequently referred to this incident on her work. Her 1974 Destruction of the Father addresses her father philanderer and domineering activities. The sculpture is a mix of phallic and mammalian shapes all gathered around a table, where there are corpses, displaying to be eaten. Another sculpture, Cells, refers to domesticity, some depicting sentimental or nostalgic child notions, perhaps overwhelming and violent feelings (4). Cells were a series of installations or sculptural works she created from 1990 to 1994. Some cells where made out of wood, glass or metal. Inside, she place items like broken furniture, houses, household items, perfume bottles. One of them is a steel cage containing a house and it has a guillotine on front. The installations give a sense of menace, confinement and oppression. The title also acts as double intender: sanctuary and security, home and jails.
For her works on paper, she explored a variety of techniques like aquatint, drypoint, engraving, etching, lithography, photogravure, relief, screen and digital printing. Her Femme Maison, 1984 was a Photogravure with chine collé. Her early paintings were created during 1946-1947 with clear feminist overtones. On these paintings, the head of the women are taken by houses, implying the suffocating place of the women in the house that takes her full head. (5)(see attachment)
She said that her work was “a guarantee of sanity; “represented her emotions, concerns and struggles (2). In some of her pieces, especially books, she used fabric to give the book a sculptural presence. Fabrics connected Bourgeois to her childhood since her family was in the tapestry business. Later in her life, she associated sewing with the process of repairing relationships. She printed on old handkerchiefs and other materials and then constructed books with them. The artist collaborations with the printer Felix Harlan were continuous, especially with her book’s projects.
Spiders were also a common symbol used by Bourgeois in her drawings, prints and sculptures. The spider is a representation of her mother, who she considered a cleaver and skillful woman, also considered her best friend. Mama was the first monumental sculpture, commissioned to the artist for the Tate Modern in London inauguration and displayed first outside the Tate Gallery. In 2005 it was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada and finally in 2012, the sculpture found a permanent home at the Qatar National Convention Center. One of her spiders is at the Bilbao Museo in Spain, and last year, Dartmouth College had one of them in front of the Black Family Visual Arts Center to commemorate the Year of the Arts. This last sculpture is made out of bronze, silver nitrate, patina and stainless steel (6).
Something very interesting about this artist is that she became recognized by her work late in her life. At 60 she started teaching at Pratt Institute, Copper Union and Brooklyn College. Her work immediately fit into the Feminist movement and her exhibition opportunities increased (although the work has been more or less on the same line since the beginning). Her first retrospective was in 1982 at MOMA, at the age of 71. This was the first retrospective of a female artist at MOMA and in 2000; the Tate Modern in London exhibits her 30 ft. spider.
The New York Times Art critic, Christopher Knight said …”Bourgeois was the first modern artist to expose the emotional depth and power of domestic subject matter. Before her, male artists had only nibbled around the edges and women just weren’t allowed.” (8) To me, what makes solid Bourgeois work was her solid foundation and her knowledge of facts, the physiological element and the compulsive way she used to create her art. All combined, gave us this intriguing and somewhat difficult to see body of work. Her work is not abstract, it is just thoughtful created and simple, without elements of distraction. During the 60’s, she declared herself a feminist but continued working on her own style, rejected the label of “feminist aesthetic.” This is another element contributing to make her work powerful, interesting and challenging for the time. She describes her work as related to “pre-gender” as an example: jealously which is not male or female (8). She found great pleasure on being discovered not because of fame, but because that gave her the opportunity to work on her art undisturbed plus let the viewer appreciate her long artistic trajectory (8).
For thirty years, on Sundays, she hosted continuously Salon style critiques. Artists from all over the world requested an invitation and some of them received the sharpest commentaries by Bourgeois. Artists and curators gathered to hear what Bourgeois have to say about their art. I loved her rules to participate: “you can’t have a cold and you must bring your work” (12). It seems like the last years of her life, biographers, filmmakers and the two assistant of Bourgeois (who are not artists) run the salons and the artist enjoyed being around young artist and listening to their discussions more than giving feedback (13).
Bourgeois worked until the week before she died. I cannot find a more inspiring fact of an artist. She was one of the most consistent contemporary artists when talking about subject matters depicted with her art. Her pieces were not made to please the viewer, but to voice her own thoughts. All her work was daring, created tension and she took a great risk addressing the patriarchal destruction and order. The artist evolved in emotions during her years with her husband and children, using clothing and soft materials; materials that the artists could manipulate and shape, evoquing also physical torment and emotional stress. Her pieces during the sixties were anti-formal and that was a source of inspiration for many young artists like Eva Hesse (10). Bourgeois was one the strongest artist ever. She shaped her emotions, her unconscious views with profound intensity, but managed to portrait elegance, relevance and triumph instead of fragility or victimization. I wonder if the training in mathematics and philosophy when received at the Sorbonne were pillars to create such a challenging work with a clear sense of direction and organization. It is like if she challenged every mathematical principle (ironically male established) with their emotional art.
Comparing Marie Denise Villers with Louise Bourgeois offers many points to reflect upon. They were both French artists, born 137 years apart. Both studied painting in France. The first studied with the painter Girodet-Trioson, who was disciple of Jacques-Louise David. The second studied philosophy, mathematics and painting, and later moved to New York with her husband. In the United States, she turned towards sculpture, psychoanalysis and printmaking. Villers portraits were exhibited in the Salons and although little is known of her body of work, it seems like her portraits were much liked. Bourgeois first decades as artist passed fairly unnoticed. It was not until the Feminist movements started in the United States, that her work became of great interest for curators, art dealers and academia. I am tempted to think that the consistency, variability of mediums and deepness of Bourgeois work put her into the genius category. Nobody disputed Bourgeois creativity and during last four decades as an artist, she was recognized not only for current work but also for her work during the forties and fifties, when she was also addressing deeply personal concerns about womanhood.
Villers and Bourgeois are examples of marvelous artist. For Villers, her work will be in doubt forever while Bourgeois achieved the highest honors an artist might get in her life and nobody has raised questions about attribution. While Villers style adapted to the established style, Bourgeois challenged the world with her radial art. I wonder why male historians, male artists and male curators let the work of Bourgeois alone. I wonder if there was a degree of intimidation, caused by the upfront work of this artist.
Completing this last assignment left me with more questions than answers and I feel Bourgeois is still one of these rare cases we see in history. I think of her as a Renaissance woman without boundaries. She is one of the post-modern masters and it was delightful to read about her trajectory as an artists. Bourgeois life was not an easy one, but she was extremely brilliant, persistent and creative and accomplished her dream until the end of her life.