The absorbing world of iconic French-American artist Louise Bourgeois is being celebrated in a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For this occasion, one cannot help but plunge into her work and shine a light on some of her most compelling pieces.
Born in Paris on Christmas day in 1911, Bourgeois is best known for her installation art and large-scale sculptures of spiders, but she was also a writer, painter, and printmaker.
Until the early ‘90s, the full range of her work remained unknown in a male-dominated art scene. She found her work unjustly overshadowed by male contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, pushing her to rebel against the patriarchal society through her work.
Bourgeois’ work is fascinating in that the imagery, the material, and the scale always change. We have to put together the pieces of something very complex and consider her whole body of work as a sort of self-portraiture, very close to who she was and how she felt.
She explored a variety of themes that she constantly revisited over the course of her career. These themes – including the family, the body, sexuality, motherhood, womanhood, and patriarchy – all emerged from emotions she had always struggled with. Whatever medium she worked with – sculpture, installation, drawing, or writing – she used art as a way of expressing her own subconscious.
Like she always said: “I am not what I say, I am what I do.”
Many agree that some of her best work came from addressing very fundamental trauma and sadness in her life. Childhood, in particular, is at the centre of her work. She would describe herself as a guerrilla fighter, fighting against the demons of her childhood and fighting her way as a woman.
Anxiety is a continual thread throughout her creations. In her self-portrait, she represented her adult self containing her infant self as a metaphor for her personality but also her art.
Because of the themes she approached and her assertive style, Bourgeois quickly became synonymous with the feminist art movement. It was rather unusual to see a woman create sculptures at the time, in particular, sculptures in wood and bronze that were male-dominated.
In her work, women become houses. In a series of paintings, the female body is confined in rooms the size of their heads. The title of Woman House is also very revealing, reflecting on and denouncing both a lack of freedom and the reign of domesticity for women.
Bourgeois’ most popular and iconic work is probably her giant spider sculptures. Spiders have indeed a very important place in her work. She has written about them, painted them, sculpted them, and named them Mother.
“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. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”
She never got over the death of her mother and created a poignant protective figure made of steel and marble as a motherly figure. The spider shows women as protectors: strong, maternal, and powerful. Just like her mother did, she builds architecture out of her own body.
Her Cells are another central aspect of her work. In these installations, she creates a claustrophobic atmosphere of isolation and builds eerie representations of her inner life and repressed memories often based on her childhood drama. In these confined spaces, fragmented images conjure up secrets, loss, and pain.
One of the most violent and captivating cages is the reproduction of her large childhood house enclosed by wire fencing with a guillotine threatening to fall above it all.
In these theatres of memory that she uses as her catharsis and personal therapy, references to the body and the home are abundant. She uses objects from her childhood that she places inside the cell-like structures, over which often presides a spider, her protective guardian.
Louise Bourgeois passed away in 2010. One of her final works, a series of hand-painted pictures titled I Give Everything Away, was finished just a few weeks before her death, a simple goodbye note to us all.
Through her prolific work, she tried to come to terms with her resentment. She used to say that it was anger that made her work and that her pain always pushed her to create.
She was able to analyse and express her memory, anxiety, and fear. In her art, women became houses, mothers became spiders, and spiders are protective, watching over our pain and memories.
You can see Louise Bourgeois’ work at MoMA until January 28, 2018.
Words: Pauline Schnoebelen
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