Wednesday art idol

Louise Bourgeois: absent mothers, childhood trauma and Freudian philosophy
Art | 20 May 2020
Text Finn Blythe
This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Wednesday Art Idol

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Louise Bourgeois made art as a means of survival and confronting fear. One of the most unique and influential artists of the 20th century, her widely referenced work includes painting, printmaking and most famously sculpture. Regarded as a reluctant hero of feminist art, her pioneering work derived from lived experience as a woman, mother and daughter.

Early Life

Louise Bourgeois grew up in early 20th century Paris, working in her parents’ tapestry restoration business where she reanimated old heirlooms and the classical scenes they depicted. During her teens, Bourgeois’ father began an affair with the family’s resident English governess, Sadie Gordon Richmond. Combined with her mother’s suffering from influenza, this infidelity had a profound impact on Bourgeois, whose later work was fuelled by an open wound of betrayal.

Bourgeois initially entered Sorbonne University to study mathematics, a subject whose immutable principles she claimed gave her much needed peace of mind. After her mother’s death however, Bourgeois abandoned mathematics to pursue art, earning her living by giving guided tours at the Louvre. Bourgeois eventually settled in New York in 1938 where her new husband Robert Goldwater was an art professor at New York University. Also in the department was Vaclav Vytlacil the Czech-American painter and former teacher to Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg, under whose esteemed tutelage Bourgeois continued her education in painting and printmaking.

Louise Bourgeois, No 1 of 14 from the installation set “À L’Infini (To Infinity)” (2008)

Later Work

It wasn’t until 1954, when Bourgeois joined the American Abstract Artists Group that her career really transformed. Befriending the likes of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, Bourgeois broke new ground as an artist, pushing the scale and material of her sculptures and becoming a leading figure in feminist art. It was also around this time that Bourgeois immersed herself in psychoanalysis and the teachings of Freud in an attempt to exorcise traumatic early memories. This exploration of the subconscious became an inseparable component of her work and provided a cathartic form of relief seen in her visceral, flesh-coloured, soft-sculpture Destruction of the Father, in which a family dinner table is overrun by blob-like children consuming their patriarch. 

That work opened the floodgates to Bourgeois mining the furthest depths of her consciousness. In the early 50s, she had begun receiving psychoanalysis treatment four times a week, this would continue for over 30 years and lead Bourgeois to immerse herself in the teachings of Freud. This manifested in virtually all Bourgeois’ work, but particularly Cells, a series she began making in the late 80s. These room-sized installations offered a portal into the deepest recesses of her mind, filled with architectural salvage, found objects and memories from her childhood.

In 1999 and approaching her 90th birthday, Bourgeois created Maman as part of her inaugural commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Halls. Over 30ft high, this a monumental spider was reproduced many times with versions dotted across the globe (including one outside Guggenheim Bilbao) and remains arguably her best-known work. The spider, a recurring motif throughout her work, was referred to by Bourgeois as “An ode to my mother”, and reveals another layer of her references to motherhood. Like so much of Bourgeois’ work, the spider represents femininity, the body and nurturing love while simultaneously speaking of her early trauma and the peace she found in excavating painful memories.

Louise Bourgeois, Destruction of the Father, 1974

Cells 1989-93

Created as a series of 60 separate works that began in 1986, Cells are closed spaces and deeply personal installations that look somewhere between a film set and museum exhibit. Their title refers both to the idea of cells as living organisms and places of contemplative containment. For Bourgeois, they were an opportunity to give physical form to her emotions using fabric, clothes, representations of body fragments and furniture. At times they are erotic, at others melancholic, threatening or familiar domestic spaces that always reflect elements of Bourgeois’ life, like autobiographical microcosms.

In Clothes (1996), Bourgeois hung old dresses and frocks like spectral mobiles, creating a nightmarish walk-in wardrobe filled with personal history and the memories embedded within each garment. Spider (1997), an enormous arachnid stands over a steel mesh cage, which viewers were invited to enter, sit in and experience the matriarchal protection of the spider. “The cells represent different types of pain: the physical, the emotional and the psychological, and the mental and intellectual. When does the emotional become physical? When does the emotional become physical, it’s a circle going round and round.”

Louise Bourgeois. Spider (Cell). 1997 The Easton Foundation, New York. © 2017 The Easton Foundation

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