The big awakening of the art world to the oeuvre of Louise Bourgeois may not have happened until she was in her seventies, but her impact has been far-reaching. In fact, she’s still showing the younger contemporary artists how it’s done now, says Axel Mörner
The artist Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) has had an enormous influence on the contemporary art world since the 1980s, and even since her death has been the source of new revelations. There can’t be many who are unaware of her gigantic iconic spider sculpture Maman (1999) and its casts, which have been exhibited at major museums all over the globe. It was quite unexpected that an artist as advanced in years as Bourgeois would become a symbol for feminism and deep psychological obsessions, but despite the late discovery of her substantial output, the art world quickly became mesmerised by her. Born in France in 1911 to a family who had a workshop specialising in repairing tapestries, she learned to appreciate the handicraft as a young girl. However, early disillusion came when her father’s decade-long affair with her governess was exposed. This haunted her as long as she lived and she regularly referred to it in her art. Some art critics have even suggested that her father’s infidelity came to define her whole career.
After studying in Paris, Bourgeois met the art historian Robert Goldwater (1907-1973). They married in 1938 and, after relocating to New York, adopted a boy and then, in quick succession, had two more boys of their own. Bourgeois’ awe at the impressive metropolis her new home was can be seen in her early sculptural works: loneliness, extreme architecture, the surrealists and the bebop/jazz-music scene all influenced her creation of totem-like artworks that have also been viewed as phallic symbols. She even called them her friends.
In an art scene dominated by macho painters, the abstract-impressionist movement fuelled her aspiration to reconsider her art. Following her father’s death in 1951 she fell into depression and secretly started going to psychoanalysis, which continued until 1985. She rarely exhibited during this period and was kind of a loner during the late 1950s. During the 1960s, following the emergence of pop art, she started to develop more organic forms in her sculptures, and participated in group shows, where she met the young artists Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman. She also began using new materials, such as plastic and latex, in her work. Conceptualism, minimalism and performance were at that time reinvigorating the art world, and Bourgeois became immersed in the women’s liberation movement, leading her to feel that she had found her place in the world. Consequently, her art began to find a new meaning, a keenness to define women’s place in art history.
She began producing more sexually orientated sculptures, such as Janus Fleuri (1968) and Sleep II (1967), which undoubtedly resemble both male and female genitalia. Were they a way of dealing with her father’s betrayal? Or were they a substitute for self-abuse? Dream-like drawings then became a large part of her work and were seen throughout the rest of her career. In 1982, when Bourgeois was 70, the Museum of Modern Art in New York staged a retrospective of her work – at last, the art world was becoming aware of her importance. After receiving several awards, she moved to a large studio in Brooklyn and hired Jerry Gorovoy as her assistant. During the 1990s she exhibited extensively, even representing the US at the Venice Bienniale in 1993. Then, the monumental spiders began appearing, along with more examples of her dark and enigmatic cells.
In the beautiful exhibition currently on show at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, her work is displayed throughout nine rooms, which have been given the following names: Runaway Girl, Loneliness, Trauma, Fragility, Nature Studies, Eternal Movement, Relationships, Talking and Giving, and Balance. These titles perfectly walk the viewer through the different chapters of Bourgeois’ life and the challenges she had to deal with. Whereas former exhibitions of Bourgeois’ work have had a gloomy, depressing air, focusing on the conflict she felt with her deceased father – seen with the dark installation “cells”, cages and enclosed compartments – in this exhibition there is a delightful levity and beauty that places the artist in a more positive and progressive light. It gives the visitor an even more comprehensive insight into her artworks and the person Bourgeois was.
Since she was more or less an outsider during the majority of her career she avoided the pitfalls of the art market, meaning she was lucky enough to be able to work undisturbed and develop artworks that were personal to her, including patched doll-like figures, glassworks, bronze objects and wood sculptures… The list is endless, as are the different techniques and materials she used, even though they were very classical and low-tech. More than 70 years of work are on show at the Moderna Museet, giving us an indication of the absolute and honest approach she had as an artist. Seven in Bed (2001) is, at first sight, a cute bundle of dolls; however, on closer inspection, there is a hint
of incest, constraint and maybe envy. In contrast to this, on the wall are several watercolours. One – called 10 AM Is When You Come to Me (2006) – shows a more direct and sensitive side: her beloved assistant Gorovoy, who worked with her until she died, usually started his working days with her at that hour. He also modelled his arms and hands for her, which led to the creation of several sculptures. Of course we cannot ignore Bourgeois’ instantly recognisable Maman (1999), the steel spider sculpture with six bronze castings that seem to be walking all over the world – a project that was made possible by the money being showered on her by an art market finally embracing her talent. The mother spider is a tender creature that helps, protects and comforts its offspring. And, as a farewell in Balance, the last room in the exhibition, there is a strong artwork – The Birth (2007) – which was painted in red watercolour on paper in a simple and fragile manner, depicting a woman giving birth: a final sign, maybe, that Louise Bourgeois was free from demons at last. Or, as a
work from 2005 of letters marked into metal simply states, I Love You.
Words by Axel Mörner.
Louise Bourgeois: I Have Been to Hell and Back, until 17th May; Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Maman (1999), outside the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Photograph: Louise Bourgeois in her New York home in 1998, The Birth (2007), Lair (1986), Blue Is The Colour Of Your Eyes (2008), Together (2005), Father And Son (2004), Couple (2001), 10 Am Is When You Come To Me (2006), I Love You (2007), Femme Maison (2008)