Louise Bourgeois was a Surrealist artist born in Paris in 1910. In 1938 she moved to New York with her husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater, where she lived and worked until her death at the age of 98. She was quite a loner throughout her life. Accordingly, she did not hang around in the New York art scene and only later gained attention and fame for her art. Today, Louise Bourgeois is best known for her sculptures and installations. As a woman, she is considered a modern pioneer in this field and is known as an icon of feminist art. Although sculpture and installation are the artist’s main work, she was also a painter and printmaker.
The works of Louise Bourgeois tell of the themes of family, sexuality and body. They are pervaded by injury and loss. In her work, Louise Bourgeois reflects the pain of her childhood and her relationship with her parents. Her parents were weavers who ran a carpet repair workshop with around 25 employees in their home in Choisy-le-Roi, France. While the artist’s relationship with her mother as a child was a very warm one, her relationship with her father was extremely difficult. In several interviews, the artist repeatedly stressed that she never managed to get over her traumatic childhood. For Louise Bourgeois, working on her artworks was a kind of therapeutic process.
1. The Spider: A Symbol of Louise Bourgeois’ Mother
Let’s start looking at the work of Louise Bourgeois, with one of her late, but also most famous works: Maman (1999). It is a gigantic steel and marble sculpture in the shape of a large spider, nine meters high. The spider sculpture is one of several of its kind, but Maman (1999) is by far the tallest in the spider series. The body of the spider carries a bag containing 26 marble eggs.
Contrary to what one might think at first glance, there is nothing threatening about this spider. On the contrary, it is a symbol of the artist’s mother, who worked as a weaver and was a protective figure for the artist. Maman is also the French word for ‘Mom.’ Louise Bourgeois herself explained her sculpture as follows: “The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”
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2. She Became Famous Later In Life
From today’s perspective, the art of Louise Bourgeois is not only one of the most important in the art history of the 20th century, works like Maman (1999) are also among the most famous works ever created by a female artist. For most of the artist’s life, however, the art of Louise Bourgeois remained unknown to a larger public. This changed abruptly with a retrospective of her work in 1982 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After that, the French-American artist quickly became known to an international audience.
For Louise Bourgeois, however, exhibitions always remained secondary. The artist, who worked according to the credo “I am what I do, not what I say,” never showed up at vernissages of her exhibitions, which took place from the 1980s onwards in cities such as New York, London, Venice, Paris, Bilbao, etc.
3. She Formed Her First Sculptures As A Child Out Of Bread
Louise Bourgeois had a very troubled relationship with her father. It was thanks to him, as the artist repeatedly emphasized, that she experienced a double deception that she never fully overcame. Louise Bourgeois’ father had a romantic relationship with the English nanny who taught Louise English for over ten years, in her parental home and in front of her mother and daughter. Louise Bourgeois felt betrayed by two of her most important people: her father and her nanny who was very close to her.
To distract herself from her father’s eternal speeches and degrading behavior, she as a child started forming figures out of bread, which she calls her “first sculptures” in a documentary on the German channel 3Sat: “My father was always talking. I never had a chance to say anything. So, I started making little things out of bread. If someone is always talking and it hurts a lot what the person is saying, you can get distracted that way. You concentrate on doing something with your fingers. These figures were my first sculptures, and they represent an escape from something I didn’t want to hear. […] It was an escape from my father. I have done a lot of work on The Destruction of the Father. I do not forgive and I do not forget. That is the motto that feeds my work.”
In her quote, Louise Bourgeois refers to a well-known sculpture in her work: The Destruction of the Father (1974). In this three-dimensional sculpture, the artist settles accounts with her father in a certain way by alluding to the ancient myth of Saturn. In the ancient myth, Saturn is a father figure who eats his children. Bourgeois, however, reverses the legend and lets the children eat their father. Louise Bourgeois thus describes a scenario of destruction, as Sigmund Freud could have described it in pictorial mania.
4. She Studied Mathematics And Philosophy
Before Louise Bourgeois devoted herself to studying art history and fine arts in the USA, she studied mathematics and philosophy at the Sorbonne University in Paris. A glance, especially at the artist’s paintings and drawings, reveals influences from these studies even today. The picture series Femme Maison (1946-47) is strongly influenced by geometric forms and a formal and philosophical examination of space.
In Femme Maison, Louise Bourgeois examines the relationship between women and home. In the paintings, the heads of the figures in the picture are replaced by houses. In a figurative sense, they represent a double role of the woman in her female body, whose thoughts are trapped in the house and in the household. Painted in 1946 and 1947, these feminist paintings by Bourgeois can be considered ahead of their time. Although the artist has repeatedly created works of art that have a feminist message, Louise Bourgeois never openly joined the feminist movement.
5. The Most Famous Provocative Photograph Of Louise Bourgeois Was Taken By Robert Mapplethorpe
Probably the most famous portrait photograph of the artist Louise Bourgeois was taken by a famous photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s a picture you have to look at twice: At first glance, the black-and-white photography with a grey background seems rather unimpressive. The eye falls on the smiling face of the artist, Louise Bourgeois. It is only with the second glance that the viewer of the picture realizes that it must not be a friendly but an almost gloating laugh the artist shows in the image. The picture shows the artist in a kind of surreal scene: It is only now that one recognizes that she is wearing a huge penis under her arm, a sculpture she made herself, which in its shriveled and rather ugly appearance, powerfully clamps under her right arm.
Robert Mapplethorpe later named the 1982 shoot in his New York studio on Bond Street “surreal.” He said: “You couldn’t, sort of tell her too much, she was just there.” This image, which was created in the same year that Louise Bourgeois became famous worldwide with the retrospective at the New York MoMA, is a symbol of the artist’s attitude. “Revolt,” she once said in an interview, was the driving force behind her work. As one can see from her childhood reflections, it was a revolt against her father in particular, perhaps also against men in general.
Louise Bourgeois’ oeuvre is mainly dedicated to sculpture. And yet it is so varied and multifaceted that it is difficult to grasp. The artist reveals much about herself in her works. This gives her work the appearance of being able to be fully biographically and psychologically interpreted. Yet ambiguity is an important feature of Louise Bourgeois’ art. That is why it is always important to form your own picture when looking at her works.