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Who is Louise Bourgeois?

A woman. Born in 1911, died in 2010. A French living in US. Three sons. Recognised in her late years: Bourgeois received her first retrospective in 1982, by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Unhappy childhood: father cheated on her mother. Complicated, fearful, full of destructive anger. An intelligent and widely cultivated person who were friends with any famous writer and artist you can think of that time. Studied mathematics but abandoned it for arts. A sculptor. A printmaker. An installation artist. Associated with Surrealism, Feminist Art. And still a mystery. All these random details of Louise Bourgeois’ life I carried to the Kettle’s Yard to see a show dedicated to one of the most important figures of modern and contemporary art.

The exhibition fills a room, for this occasion painted in pink, colour celebrating feminine. Bourgeois’ wide-ranging art, covered painting, sculpture, installation and printmaking, explore themes including childhood, family, motherhood and gender identity. However, to sustain consistency, I would like to review each set of works in the order (almost) they were created revealing a particular aspect of the artist’s works at a time. See the figure to follow my plan.

Figure 1. The sketch of an ARTIST ROOM of Louise Bourgeois. The artwork is numerated as follows: (1) Untitled, 1946-1947; (2) Tits, 1967; (3) Spider I, 1995; (4) Couple I, 1996; (5) Cell XIV (Portrait), 2000; (6) from left to right: Untitled (Safety Pins), 1991; The Stretch, 2006; Are you in Orbit? (#1), 2007; Are you in Orbit? (#2), 2007. (7) A L'Infini, 2008-2009.

(1) Untitled, 1946-1947 might be considered as a self-portrait of the artist. Extraordinary long hair was a significant feature of her. After she married, Bourgeois moved to New York City in 1938, and find herself surrounded by tall buildings and non-her-native language speakers. Loneliness and desperation can be sensed in the works exploring architectural elements. Here, wide open mouth looks like screaming on a rooftop with the tall chimney in the foreground. Around the same time, Bourgeois’ worked on series Femme Maison, corresponding to a direct translation of housewives into French. Parts of female figures were replaced by architectural forms. For example, a roof, according to the artist, had to be attributed to her own head.

(2) Tits, 1967 is a small sculpture cast in bronze, one of the works that represents a period when Bourgeois’ was particularly focused on body and the ability to combine both feminine and masculine elements. Although the sculpture, as the title specifies, represents two breasts fused together to create a single bulbous form, it is ambiguous and suggests the presence of testicles, or eyes. Fragmented body parts allowed Bourgeois question the duality of sexuality, desire, gender.

(3) In 1947 Bourgeois drew two small ink and charcoal drawings of a spider. Fifty years later, in the late 1990s, she created a series of steel and bronze spider sculptures. The one crawling up a wall in the show is Spider I, 1995, a small sculpture (304 x 1005 x 1215 mm, 36 kg) compared to gigantic Maman, 1999 (9271 x 8915 x 10236 mm, approximately 3658 kg). This iconic motif in Bourgeois’ artworks is related to her mother and raises ambivalence as an object: it represents patience and danger, power and intimidation, a role of maker/protector and predator; also, it reflects a personal history – a childhood in parent’s tapestry restoration workshop, her mother and grandmother worked in the French textile industry.

I am a prisoner of my memories, and my aim is to get rid of them.

Louise Bourgeois, from HENI Talks

(4) Childhood and adolescence memories have been the trigger for many artists, and exclusively Bourgeois is deeply influenced by it. As sewing and repairing of fabrics was a major part of her childhood, she tried to escape her family situation or to put it into perspective by art making. Couple I, 1996 is an example of her fabric sculptures, showing bodies suspended in space – sustaining a balance of two things coexisting. Either they lovingly hold each other or bound unable to escape – they bear a fragile moment of duality. According to the artist: “Horizontality is a desire to give up, to sleep. Verticality is an attempt to escape.

(5) Bourgeois began to make a series of self-enclosed structures known as Cells in 1989 and they became an important part of her output for many years. Looking like a separate closed room, a prison cell, a cage, as well as a reference to the cell of living body, it evokes a sense of danger and violence. You are allowed peak in, but you can’t enter the Cell XIV (Portrait), 2000. A red fabric sculpture of three screaming heads merged together is placed on a metal table. Red is dominating colour in the series of installations referring to blood, hazard, ferocity, life. Three heads can be recognised as the one of Cerberus, the three-headed dog in Greek myths, representing birth, youth and old age. The circle of artist’s life. At the same time, it can be regarded as three competing emotions of a single person. Or three different people, members of the same family. Some art historians suggest it can be linked to Bourgeois and her two siblings. In any case, Bourgeois focuses on themes of being trapped, anguish and fear.

(6) Drawing and printmaking were important aspects of Bourgeois’ practice. She began using lithography and etching early in her career, just after coming to New York, later she concentrated on three-dimensional work and returned to printmaking only in the 1990s. However, her topics remained the same. Untitled (Safety Pins), 1991 again underlined duality. For Bourgeois, the safety pin, despite its sharp and potentially hurtful point, provides a means of support. In her last years she began losing her eyesight and moved to working on relatively big etchings, in the exhibition included The Stretch, 2006 (1414 x 900 mm), Are you in Orbit? (#1), 2007 (1505 x 896 mm) and Are you in Orbit? (#2), 2007 (1524 x 907 mm). Artworks became more abstract, suggestive of natural world.

(7) For the project A L’Infini, 2008-2009, paper was made by hand specifically for Bourgeois. Each of the sixteen sheets has the same printed intersecting lines etched and the different pencil lines and watercolour washes. It is created to be completely immersive for a viewer. You can spot the main motifs of Bourgeois work: the female body, disembodied limbs, childbirth, arteries, blood, the spiral and spiral arrangement of the two strands of DNA. It abstractly puts across the idea of life as a journey, moving from birth, to youth, to relationship with a partner, and ultimately, to death. Living, loving, doing, undoing, redoing, trying, failing are an endless loop in the cycle of life. This set of works might suggest the summary of her lifetime themes and her own psychoanalysis in the work. Concentrating on ambivalence and duality of body, she created her own language to visualize her childhood and circle of life.


- (!) HENI Talk: Critic, painter and art historian Robert Storr reflects on the life and career of Louise Bourgeois.

- I will never be able to look at the tangerines the same.

- The full description of ARTISTS ROOM of Louise Bourgeois

- Audioguide of the exhibition of Louise Bourgeois' An Unfolding Portrait at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

ARTIST ROOMS Louise Bourgeois

The Kettle's Yard

Castle Street, Cambridge, CB3 0AQ

22 Jan 2019 – 24 Mar 2019

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