Louise Bourgeois

Published:  Esquire Art 2007 – 2010

Louise Bourgeois is the sort of artist every curator wants to have and to hold; the objects she conjures up with such skill and steely, creepy passion draw large crowds. They stay in your dreams. You can put her work outside like a monument, or in your most massive indoor space. Or in intimate rooms, all the more to frighten you. What large tentacles her spiders have!
You could take your granny to see a Louise Bourgeois show, if your granny loved Freudian slips and dark sexual innuendo and the odd bit of surrealism thrown in, and believed that it was about time that an old lady’s fantasies were being given top billing. It might help also if you explained to your granny that Louise Bourgeois, in her bravery and her great creative restlessness, is one of the most exciting artists alive.
Bourgeois is a unique figure in our world. Her dream life happens in broad daylight and seems like pure will. Her unconscious is worn on the outside as the rest of us wear clothes. (She is fascinated by clothes.) It is as though she has Freud and all his theories for breakfast every day and then leaves the choice pieces of him for later, all the more to relish them.
The gap between the life of a child and the life of a grown woman exists in her images only when she makes pieces which are overtly sexual. And even then, it is as though a very imaginative and creative little girl was told all about our reproductive systems and shown their best-known manifestations, and duly responded with a mixture of disgust and fascination.
It is important to emphasise that Bourgeois’s work is never silly, and there is a governing ferocity in the way she approaches image-making which suggests not only a formidable intelligence (the interviews she gives also make this clear) but considerable suffering.
She was born in Paris in 1911 into a family whose business was the repair and sale of tapestries. Her background in art was as important as the effect which the general sexual shenanigans in her household during her adolescence had on her. Her father, who was a great philanderer, for example, invited his English girlfriend to be the children’s tutor. Her mother agreed to this arrangement. (One of Bourgeois’s most powerful and suggestive works is called ‘The Destruction of the Father’.) Her mother died in 1932. In 1938 Louise Bourgeois married the American art historian Robert Goldwater and moved to New York. She had three children.
It is easy to name her influences. In New York during the war years she knew and disliked most of the Surrealists; she took what she needed from them and ran, but it is clear that she found what they were doing interesting, as she did the work of Giacometti and Brancusi and Duchamp. But what is remarkable is how far apart she stood from everyone around her, matching a playful French mind and sense of tradition with a pure American ambition and earnestness and need to be an innovator. In 1950, she was invited by Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to take part in the famous panel discussion in Studio 35 to define the new art, along with Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell. She was, by that time, a star. The list of artists who have copied her is very long.
But every time she found a system that worked wonders, she grew restless and often went quiet, finding new shapes and sizes for her sculptures, and new materials. Always at the centre of her enterprise, however, is the body as totem and taboo, and sometimes also the cage or cell as the site of comic and tragic occasions. Her work can be genuinely disturbing, more than the work of the Surrealists, because it is infinitely ambiguous, oddly tormented. She is not joking.
She can also be hugely, enigmatically tender in the images she makes. For example, ‘Sleep 11’ is a version in marble of a little harmless unerect penis. She made a portrait of her husband in bronze in 1969 in a bed of penises. ‘It is a sign of his virility and sexual appetite,’ she said. ‘I wanted to flatter him.’
But turn your back and she wants to flatter no one, but keep her own demons at bay. The word ‘Fillette’ means little girl; Bourgeois’s piece of sculpture of that name looks like a strange penis and pair of testicles, too fleshy and strange for comfort. (She posed for Mapplethorpe holding it.) Sometimes, Louise Bourgeois would give you the creeps. But that is only one aspect of her immense genius.