“Art is the guarantee of sanity. Pain is the ransom of formalism. That's the most important thing I have to say." These words couldn't be a truer reflection of what the artist Louise Bourgeois experienced during her lifetime. Considered one of the most influential, powerful and profound creators of the 20th and 21st centuries, Bourgeois (1911 - 2010) persevered in the exercise of her very particular artistic imagination until the day of her death at the age of 98.
Louise Bourgeois: Art From The Heart
Louise Bourgeois as the "mother of spiders". Photo © Peter Bellamy @ www.crystalbridges.com
“Art is the guarantee of sanity. Pain is the ransom of formalism. That's the most important thing I have to say." These words couldn't be a truer reflection of what the artist Louise Bourgeois experienced during her lifetime. Considered one of the most influential, powerful and profound creators of the 20th and 21st centuries, Bourgeois (1911 - 2010) persevered in the exercise of her very particular artistic imagination until the day of her death at the age of 98. Heavily influenced by her lived experience, her childhood and her family environment, her work displays a creative core of the highest order covering hundreds of stylistic bases, formats, materials and narratives. Her works are neither mere plastic nor empty spectacle. They are personal accounts that extend out and relate to the whole collective of human beings, wearing her heart and innermost feelings on her sleeve, shamelessly, in order to reach that same profundity in her spectators. Her unmistakable spider sculptures, her unsettling "Cells", her poetic yet disturbing engravings constitute a vast, unique and fascinating trajectory that transcends the edges of reason and cultural boundaries to plumb the intimate depths of whoever contemplates or engages with her work.
Arch of Hysteria (1993). Museum of Modern Art, New York @ www.moma.org
A childhood woven around her family
Louise Joséphine Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911 into a family with close ties to the textile industry. Her parents owned a gallery and a restoration workshop with looms where they would weave their own, repair and sell tapestries. This circumstance was to leave a lasting mark on the work of Bourgeois who, throughout the rest of her life, would include fabric, cord, wool and net in a large part of her creations. While her family situation was a comfortable, nurturing and protective one, it was also somewhat unstable with her mother Joséphine contracting a severe case of Spanish flu in 1921 when Louise was just ten. A year later, the family hires an English governess by the name of Sadie Gordon Richmond who becomes a lover to Louise's adulterer father and spends inordinate lengths of time living in the family home as such. This complicated living environment would have a profound effect on Louise's character and she was to experience deep feelings of abandonment and an intense dread of the loss of her loved ones for the remainder of her life.
Saint Germain (1938). Lithograph on paper @ www.moma.org
At 12, Bourgeois' father asks her to collaborate in the family business by contributing her own drawings and patterns. Our budding artist combines this with both her education and the large amounts of time she spends caring for her invalid mother who would suffer repeated relapses and die in 1932 when Louise was 21. That same year, Bourgeois graduated with a first class BA (Honours) in Philosophy although her mother's death plunged her into a deep depression from which she would eventually decide to extricate herself by means of her art. She abandons her studies and seeks out the many workshops that Montparnasse and Montmartre were abuzz with at that time. In 1938, she studies with Fernand Léger, cuts all ties with the family business and opens her own art gallery. This is also the year she marries the art historian Robert Goldwater and moves with him to New York.
Untitled (The Wedges) (1950). Photo @ www.hyperallergic.com
The artist in New York. The dawn of sculpture.
Now in New York, Bourgeois wastes no time enrolling at the Art Students League and becomes interested in engraving, a technique that would remain in her repertoire til the end of her life. During this time, she researches tri-dimensionality in art and by the mid 1940's has created her first series of wood sculptures, totem poles of highly stylised yet disturbing shapes. 1945 sees the inauguration of her first ever solo exhibition, hosted by the prestigious Bertha Schaeffer Gallery in New York. These are the years when Abstract Impessionism reigned supreme and Bourgeois exhibits alongside its prime movers such as Rothko, de Kooning and Pollock. Nevertheless, her work keeps its distance from the accepted strictures of abstractionism and rather portrays a universe that is far more carnal, explicit and perplexing. Bourgeois' imagination was to remain always on the periphery of schools and tendencies, transcending them with a body of work that was intimate and beguiling.
Following her father's sudden death in 1951, Bourgeois again suffers a deep depression during which she begins to develop her all-encompassing installations that spoke intimately of her memories, lived experiences and traumas. This is also when she starts to attend sessions with a psychoanalyst, coinciding with a period of self-imposed seclusion. In 1964, she comes out of isolation and organises her first solo exhibition for 11 years in which she showcases her latest work both plastic and organic and, for the first time, includes the concept of "lairs", the precursor to her subsequent and spell-binding "Cells".
Destruction and confrontation: facing up to life
The destruction of the father (1974). Photo @ www.historia-arte.com
Bourgeois's artistic trajectory would appear to broaden and flourish from 1973 onwards. These early years see the first of her installations which revolve around the concept of “lairs” and which she uses as a tool to face up to her personal demons. After her husband's death, she decides to take advantage of the pain and resentment she had been harbouring to create works that bare her all, literally. This is the case with "The destruction of the father" (1974), an impactful installation that seems to show the insides of a vital organ whilst at the same time mimicking a sinister dinner party. The setting, with deliberately arranged organic shapes bathed in red light, is the essence of depredation and even "digestion". It is a direct confrontation with her memory of the relationship she had with a father who forced his family to live with his lover Sadie, the tutor much loved by Bourgeois, and even tried to marry Louise off to one of his friends, something which led to her first suicide attempt.
In her book "Destruction of the father/Reconstruction of the father: writings and interviews (1923-1997)", Bourgeois describes the painful process involved in the installation's creation: "With Destruction of the father, the memories it evoked were so powerful and the job of projecting them outwards so hard that [...] I felt as if it had actually happened. It transformed me, really."
On Confrontation (1978), the performance piece A Banquet: A Fashion Show of Body Parts (1978) and various aspects of the work of Louise Bourgeois
Lairs, cells and spiders. A return from the subconscious
The years of psychoanalysis undertaken by Bourgeois can be seen reflected in much of her output but it is only after 1986 that she starts to create specific pieces, namely "The Cells", to expose the essence of her relationship with social contracts, her lived experiences and the subconscious. These were enclosed installations, each telling its own story and communicating that experience to the minds of whoever enters in. The original one, "Articulated Lair" (1986), was to be the first in a series of some 60 works created using theatrical elements, staging, interactive spaces and, as ever, the presence of emotions. Bourgeois created these scene-settings to connect her work with certain traumatic life events, using them for liberation from them. When the spectator enters inside and experiences the artist's subconscious world, they too come to share her nightmares.
CELL XXVI (2003). Photo @ www.champ-magazine.com
In the mid 1990s, Bourgeois begins to explore another of her obsessions, namely the spider as mother, predator and weaver. Reverting back to her childhood references (spiders and the sick but protective mother), and by now in her eighties, Bourgeois begins to sculpt designs in the form of spiders that are equally terrible and fragile, both victim and destructive force. For her, the spider represented "intelligence, productivity and protection." She creates monumental sculptures (for instance, the famous "Maman" of 1999, on display outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) and diminutive ones ~ beings who appear almost mythological and whose mission is to reconstruct and restore. “I come from a family of restorers.”, she once said. “The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn't get mad. She weaves and repairs it."
Maman (1999). Photo @ www.guggenheim-bilbao.eus
Louise Bourgeois died in 2010 at the age of 98, never having stopped working or researching until the very last days of her life. Her oeuvre, vast and nuanced, is fundamental to our understanding of artistic evolution in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Bourgeois saw the inauguration of her first solo exhibition in 1945. From then on, her work was exhibited in many galleries and museums throughout the USA until she finally achieved universal recognition. For decades, her exhibitions have travelled the whole world and attracted thousands of visitors. Still today, they continue to arouse enormous interest, as much amongst specialist critics and art historians as the public.
"Louise Bourgeois" at the Tate Modern, London (2007-2008)
In 2007, London's Tate Modern organised a comprehensive Bourgeois retrospective in collaboration with the Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris. The exhibition then moved on to various museums in the USA.
"HONNI soit QUI mal y pense" at La Casa Encendida, Madrid (2013)
HONNI soit QUI mal y pense (Shame on him who thinks ill of it, referring to her indifference to people's perception and judgement of her work) is the title of a drawing by Bourgeois used to name an exhibition organised by Madrid's La Casa Encendida in 2013. The show focused primarily on the artist's output during the last ten years of her life.
Exhibition curator Danielle Tilkin (in Spanish) describes Bourgeois' work as autobiographical, intensely retrospective, wholly independent of all other schools and movements, engaged in social discourse at any given time, full of black humour, critical distance, internal conflict and reflection on the past and present, reproduction, time and the constant cycles of life.
Bourgeois' assistant Jerry Gorovoy (in English) gives his intimate, in-depth analysis.
Louise Bourgeois (in French) ~ "You have to look at yourself truthfully. Only when you look and like yourself and accept yourself does the silence dissipate and you can then enter into a dialogue. Things don't have to be black or white. Things are much more interesting if they're grey. And if they're subtle. Me, I want to invent something new. I want to invent a sculpture, a script, signs. History is of no interest to me. I'm sick to death of history and tradition."
"Louise Bourgeois. Structures of Existence: The Cells" at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (2016)
In collaboration with the BBVA Foundation, Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum organised a large exhibition of the artist's famous "Cells" (28 installations in total) and of the build-up that lead to her developing these pieces that were so full of her own personal imaginings.
He disappeared in complete silence (1947)
This essential publication compiles the imaginings of a young Louise Bourgeois, both in the plastic and artistic as well as the literary sense. It was created just before her transition to sculpture, a discipline she arrived at via her idiosyncratic wooden "totem poles" and the book's illustrations reflect the research she did prior to this transition. The text, brief and intense, derived from the artist's efforts to disseminate her work and make it better-known on an international level. Although not a success at the time, the book has since come to be considered a reference point fundamental to understanding her work, even though the book wasn't eventually completed until several decades later.
Louis Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father (Writings and Interviews, 1923-1997)
“Every day, you have to abandon your past or accept it, and then, if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor.” This is just one of the many reflections appearing in this fascinating book, which brings together the thoughts and texts Bourgeois collated over seven decades. The volume also includes several interviews she gave that detail her concept of art and and give clues as to the origins of much of her work. One will also find in its pages some of her "pen-thoughts", illustrations that combine text with drawings. It is, without a doubt, essential reading in order to understand Bourgeois's vast and rich body of work.
Structures of existence: The Cells. Louise Bourgeois (2016)
The catalogue for the Guggenheim Bilbao's magnificent exhibition of "The Cells" is an exhaustive study of this suite of sculptures, fundamental pieces in the artist's work. The study includes the complete catalogisation of every installation, as well as keys to the creative process by which Bourgeois came to design and realize each of them. We can also find in its pages a thorough analysis of the concepts that form the basis of her work, namely space and memory, conscious and subconscious thinking, the body and architecture.
(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)