Louise Bourgeois: Death of the Spider Woman
It is just under a year since the French-born American artist, Louise Bourgeois died of heart failure at the age of 98. She gained recognition and fame quite late in a long career. At age 70 her psychologically charged abstract sculptures, drawings and prints had a galvanizing effect on the work of younger artists and women in particular.
Her work included sculptures in wood, steel, stone and cast rubber, often organic in form and sexually explicit. Emotionally charged and aggressive yet witty, the work covered many stylistic bases, but from beginning to end they were concerned with repeated themes focussed on the human body and its need for nurture and protection in a frightening world.
Her expression of the need for protection was often translated into images of home or shelter, gouged lump of cast bronze, for example, suggested in an animal’s lair and a table-like wooden structure with thin, stilt like legs resembled a house ever threatening to topple. Her series of “Cells” from the early 1990s — installations of old doors, windows, steel fencing and found objects — were meant to be evocations of her childhood, which she claimed as the psychic source of her art.
When she made work of the body itself, they could be described as sensual but grotesque, fragmented, often sexually ambiguous, that could provoke or shock. In some cases the body took the abstract form of an upright wooden pole, pierced by a few holes and stuck with nails; in others it appeared as a pair of women’s hands realistically carved in marble and lying, palms open, on a massive stone base.
The most familiar sculpture was the much-exhibited “Nature Study” (1984), a headless sphinx with powerful claws and multiple breasts. Perhaps the most provocative was “Fillette” (1968), a large, detached latex phallus.
It was in her early 70s that she gained the critical and popular acclaim that had long eluded her. In 1993 she represented the United States in the Venice Biennale. In an art world where women had been treated as second-class citizens and were discouraged from dealing with overtly sexual subject matter, she quickly assumed an emblematic presence. Her work was read by many as an assertive feminist statement, her career as an example of perseverance in the face of neglect.
Bourgeois often spoke of pain as the subject of her art, and fear: fear of the grip of the past, of the uncertainty of the future, of loss in the present.
“The subject of pain is the business I am in,” she said. “To give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering.” She added: “The existence of pain cannot be denied. I propose no remedies or excuses.” Yet it was her gift for universalising her interior life as a complex spectrum of sensations that made her art so affecting.
Louise Bourgeois was born on Christmas Day in 1911, on the Left Bank of Paris, the second of three children born to Louis and Josephine Bourgeois. Her parents, financially comfortable, owned a gallery that dealt primarily in antique tapestries. A few years after her birth the family moved out of Paris and set up a workshop for tapestry restoration in Choisy-le-Roi. Ms. Bourgeois remembered as a child drawing fragments of missing images to help in the repairs.
She often spoke of her early, emotionally conflicted family life as formative. Her practical and affectionate mother, who was an invalid, was a positive influence. Her father’s domineering disposition, as well as his marital infidelities (he had a 10-year affair with the children’s English governess), instilled a resentment and an insecurity that Ms. Bourgeois never laid to rest.
Until she was in her 50s, Louise Bourgeois, was known to the New York glitterati merely as the charming French lady who appeared at private views on the arm of her American husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater. There had been a few decently received shows of Bourgeois’s own work in the 1940s and early 50s, but then the abstract expressionists took centre stage. Nothing could withstand the sheer artistic elan and commercial drive of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, and the backing of Clement Greenberg, a critic whose thumbs up or down meant life or death. It was not until the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) gave Bourgeois a retrospective in 1982, when she was already 70, that she at last took her place as queen of New York, one of the most inventive and disturbing sculptors of the century and, later, as the first artist to to tackle a commission for a temporary work to command the vast spaces of the turbine hall of the new Tate Modern, in London.
Similarly, for a 1994 exhibition titled “Louise Bourgeois: Locus of Memory, Works 1982-1993,” she created a single sculpture and suite of drawings in which the central image was a spider, a creature she associated with her mother, a woman of ever-changing moods.
What then was Bourgeois alluding too with her spider creations? Was it in fact a metaphor for her art activities and the artist as creator and weaver? Or was it merely a way in which she could acknowledge her mother? A tribute perhaps to her for patience, inventiveness and the protection she gave to her daughter?