Maman Louise Bourgeois Descriptive Essay

The sculptor Louise Bourgeois just turned ninety, but she still works six days a week. On Sunday she rests, because that's her assistant's day off. This leaves her at loose ends, however, so for the past thirty years she has held a Sunday salon in her brownstone on West Twentieth Street. The attendees are mostly young artists, who have come to show her their work. Last spring, I went to one of these gatherings. There were fourteen visitors, who sat in hard chairs in a small, peeling parlor. Once we had all signed release forms—to compound everyone's nervousness, the salons are videotaped—Bourgeois materialized in the doorway, a tiny woman in a pink blouse, black culottes, and black sneakers. Her hair was brushed back elegantly, and she wore gold hoop earrings. The art critic Paulo Herkenhoff helped her into a chair behind a table facing us, and from there, atop a wooden box and a pillow, to raise her high enough for us to see her, she presided for the next four and a half hours.

Bourgeois is not a dear old lady. With Herkenhoff's help, she drew each artist into a discussion of what he or she was doing. Usually she made an encouraging comment, but not always. One artist showed her a series of Keith Haring-esque drawings he had made. "But it is silly, faux-naïf," she said. The man tried to explain. Finally, Herkenhoff asked her if she wanted to see more from this portfolio. "No," she answered. "I am through, I am through." People have been known to exit Bourgeois's salon in tears, but if you can take it the dynamics are interesting. The critic Amei Wallach has described a session in which Bourgeois, while modelling a piece of clay, talked about the difference between painting and sculpture:

When you go from painting to this, it means you have an aggressive thought. You want to twist the neck of a person. . . . I became a sculptor because it allowed me to express—this is terribly, terribly important—it allowed me to express what I was embarrassed to express before.

Then she wrung the neck of the figure she was creating.

Bourgeois is one of the few surviving artists of the early modernist period. By rights she should be thinking about mass or space or something like that. In any case, she should have been spared the violent catharsis, the discharge of terror and wrath, being enacted by female artists today. But this drama is a daily event for her. She has crushing anxiety attacks. "That happens to me four times a day," she has written. And it has been happening for as long as she can remember.

Fear is the main theme of her work, but anger is a close second. "I have fantastic pleasure in breaking everything," she has said. Once, in an interview, she threw a ceramic vase onto the floor and stomped on its fragments. But mostly the violence is in the work. In one celebrated piece, a six-foot marble statue called "She-Fox" (1985), the animal has been decapitated, and there is a big gash in its throat. At the base of the statue, huddling behind the animal's haunches, is a tiny female figure. Bourgeois has explained that the she-fox is her mother and the little supplicant is herself: "I cut her head off. I slit her throat. Still, I expect her to like me."

Bourgeois has not failed to notice that her psychological difficulties may have something to do with her sex. "Women are losers," she has said. "They are beggars, in spite of women's lib." She has protested this fate. Probably her best-known sculpture, because Robert Mapplethorpe photographed her holding it, is "Fillette" (1968), a latex figure of what is unavoidably an erect penis, about two feet long, with a pair of testicles to scale. Bourgeois recalls that when Mapplethorpe asked to photograph her she was afraid; she knew that his work was about men, with big penises. So she brought her penis, "Fillette," carrying it jauntily under her arm, like an Hermès handbag. She says she feels kindly toward the male reproductive anatomy, as well she might, since she had three sons. "Fillette" is not a compliment to the male sex, however. Its very size is comical. Furthermore, its surface looks corroded, as if it were rotting.

Bourgeois was born in 1911, her parents' third child, and third daughter. As she has said, this was a problem:

My mother must have thought, "How am I going to keep my man, presenting him with three girls in succession?" She was not without imagination and she said, "Don't you see, this little girl, we are going to name her for you. [He was Louis.] Do you know that child is your spitting image?" And my father said, "Gee, it is true. She is very pretty and she's just like me." So this is the way I made it, you see, but . . . I was supposed to make myself forgiven for being a girl.

The word her mother used for "little girl" was probably fillette. Hence, I believe, the title of Bourgeois's mock-compensatory penis.

Two years after Louise's birth, her mother finally produced a son, but by then Louise was already her father's favorite—which, as she tells it, meant that he dominated her relentlessly, in order to bring her up to snuff. Her feelings about that, or some of them, can be read in a large latex-and-plaster piece, a grisly assemblage of bumps and lumps, together with assorted body parts—chicken legs, lamb shoulders—called "The Destruction of the Father" (1974). Bourgeois has described the fantasy underlying the piece:

At the dinner table, my father would go on and on, showing off, aggrandizing himself. And the more he showed off, the smaller we felt. Suddenly, there was a terrific tension, and we grabbed him . . . and pulled him onto the table and pulled his legs and arms apart—dismembered him, right? And we were so successful in beating him up that we ate him up.

She hated him, and she loved him like crazy. When he died, in 1951, she stopped showing any new work for eleven years.

So Bourgeois, this bold modernist sculptor, a contemporary of Henry Moore and David Smith, has all the same female troubles that the women who go on "Oprah" have. Worse, she claims that she became an artist simply in order to cope with such problems. Her art, she has written, is a form of therapy, a way of preventing herself from going out and killing someone, or herself. The audience is "bullshit, unnecessary." Jerry Gorovoy, her assistant of twenty years, confirms this. According to him, on any given morning, "she's not sitting down to make art. She's trying to get through the day, and the art is the by-product." Her art, he says, is "about what went wrong."

What went wrong? Bourgeois's parents were prosperous French artisans, restorers of antique tapestries. Her father travelled, hunting up the old textiles, and ran a gallery in Paris where the family sold them. Bourgeois's mother, with a staff of about twenty-five women, repaired the tapestries. Many collectors were American, so the scenes could not be unchaste. Bourgeois has recalled how her mother "would cut out the genitalia, very delicately, with little scissors, and collect them." (Another source of "Fillette"?) The resulting gaps had to be sewn over, as did the sections of the tapestry that had disintegrated. To redraw missing parts, the firm employed a certain M. Gounod, from the Gobelin works, who came on Saturdays. But sometimes M. Gounod didn't turn up. When Bourgeois was ten, she was put to work to cover for him, and so she learned to draw.

She didn't intend to be an artist. Her passions were mathematics and philosophy. That is what she studied at the Sorbonne, after twelve years at Paris's Lycée Fénelon. Best of all, she liked solid geometry, a field, she has said, "where relations can be anticipated and are eternal." Mathematics, she says, never betrayed you. Eventually, however, she discovered that mathematics offered no certainties either: "You're told that two parallels never meet, and then you learn that in non-Euclidean geometry they can easily come together. I was deeply disappointed, and turned toward the certainties of feeling." That is, she turned to art. She spent her early twenties running from studio to studio in Paris, to study with different teachers. The one she liked best was Léger, who told her that she was a sculptor, not a painter. To pay for her art lessons—her father refused to help—she did various odd jobs. In Léger's studio she earned her way via translation services. Her English was very good, because she and her brother had had an English nanny.

In 1936, she met an American art-history student, Robert Goldwater, and two years later she married him. Not surprisingly—two of her sons are still alive—Bourgeois has said much more about her childhood than about her adulthood, and on the subject of her marriage she has been notably silent. But from her rare, sidelong remarks about Goldwater it seems that she liked him for the same reason that she had liked mathematics: he "was a completely rational person. . . . He did not betray me. He did not betray anyone. I never saw him angry in my life. Ever." Goldwater became an important art historian. He was interested in nothing but ideas, she says, with the result that "each of us remained forever, forever, mysterious to the other." But she told me that she was always grateful to him: "I was a runaway girl, and Robert saved me." (Everything Bourgeois "told me" was said in writing. She rarely gives interviews these days. I was allowed to submit a list of questions—Nabokov's system—and she answered them by E-mail.)

Goldwater moved her to New York, and she loved the city. She missed home, though, and, like a good, guilty female, she felt she had abandoned her family. In her first solo sculpture show, in 1949, she exhibited two rooms full of slim, pole-like figures—some bronze, some wood—one with wings, one with nails driven into it, and so on. She called them "Personages," and they looked like people, whispering to one another across the space of the gallery. Soon after that show, her father died. She went on making uprights, but now they were wild, spiralling things. It was at this time that she dropped from public view, though she did not stop working. Eventually she began using latex and plaster, creating large, gluey-looking objects that resembled mouths or genitals or the interiors they led to. In "Le Regard" ("The Gaze") one peered inside a sort of giant, messy clam and saw, between folds of material, a small, round, wet-looking thing. This is an embarrassing piece. We feel we shouldn't be looking.

In her early work, Bourgeois anticipated much that others would do later: installations, minimalism, body art. She did not get a lot of attention, however. This was partly her fault—at times she seemed to flee attention—but it was also owing to the boys'-club atmosphere of the postwar American art world, the world of the Abstract Expressionists, with their emphasis on virility, "action," abstraction. In comparison, her work, however abstract, seemed narrative, soft.

It was only with the challenge to modernism which arose in the sixties and seventies that people started to notice her. Most crucial was the feminist challenge. Why did art have to be abstract? the feminists asked. Why wasn't it about the real story, about people's lives and emotions? Like many older female artists, women who had made it in a man's world and were proud of that, Bourgeois had mixed feelings about feminism. Her biographer Robert Storr, a senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art, says that she associates feminism with victimization. Nevertheless, it was the newly energized female critics and curators of the sixties and seventies who, unafraid of rotting penises and peekaboo clams, paid her the respect she had not received before. In 1966, the art critic Lucy Lippard included her in a famous show, "Eccentric Abstraction," that was a harbinger of postmodernism. There she stood, alongside artists such as Bruce Nauman and Eva Hesse, and though she was old enough to be their mother, she looked as young and crazy as they did.

In the late sixties, she went to Italy and began making large marble figures. The work was still abstract, but it was "symbolic abstraction" (her term), and what it symbolized was often clear. Her 1967 "Sleep II," for example, was a great stone totem worthy of the Toltecs. At the same time, it looked a lot like the head of a penis. In 1973, Goldwater died, and, as sometimes happens with women artists when they are widowed, she did not wither; she flowered. "The Destruction of the Father" was made the following year. I have wondered whether it might not have to do with Goldwater as well as with her father.

Now the world caught up with her. She was given cover stories, honorary degrees, commissions for public works. In 1982, at the urging of a young female curator, Deborah Wye, Bourgeois was accorded a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, the first large retrospective that the institution had ever devoted to a woman. At the age of seventy, she became world famous.

On the occasion of the retrospective, Bourgeois did something that has affected her career ever since. Before, no matter how unbuttoned her work, she tended to give reticent interviews. In 1969, when the MOMA curator William Rubin asked her about "Sleep II," she replied, "I am not particularly aware or interested in the erotic of my work, in spite of its supposed presence." To a journalist who dared to ask her about the "Personages," she responded, "Do you want me to talk about my personal life? . . . I don't like to do that."

Then, with the MOMA retrospective, the lid blew off. In putting together an autobiographical slide show to accompany that exhibition—and a photo essay, based on the slide show, that was published in Artforum—she told a story she had never gone public with before. Her English governess, it turned out, had had other duties besides teaching the children. Sadie Gordon Richmond, who seems to have been in her late teens when she moved into the Bourgeois household, was Louis Bourgeois's live-in mistress—an arrangement that his wife tolerated for ten years. The Artforum piece presented charming snapshots of the Bourgeois ménage—Louise and Sadie boating, Louise and Papa hiking—accompanied by a cold, angry text. Sadie, Bourgeois wrote, "was engaged to teach me English. I thought she was going to like me. Instead of which she betrayed me." Her mother, too, betrayed her, used her as a pawn, a duenna for Sadie and the father. As for the father, one of the photos shows "Fillette," the disembodied penis, looming over a flight of stairs, presumably the stairs to Sadie's bedroom. Bourgeois has described the Sadie business as formative to her work: "The motivation for the work is a negative reaction against her." Or, as she put it in the photo essay, "Every day you have to abandon your past or accept it and then if you cannot accept it you become a sculptor." Though she may have deplored the feminists' claims of victimization, here she took a page out of their book. The title of the photo essay was "Child Abuse."

If Bourgeois, earlier, had been almost perversely tight-lipped, now she became almost perversely confessional. She published her diaries, offering us, for example, a childhood memory of seeing her older sister Henriette making love with the boy from across the street. (There was blood all over. She didn't know that Henriette had her period—she thought the boy was killing her.) When journalists asked her polite questions about form and technique, she countered with statements about life and grief. "Presumably the dangling leg relates to a difficulty in articulation," an interviewer commented about one piece, in 1988. "It is about the control of pain," she replied. "This is turning into a private conversation," he said at one juncture. "I don't mind," she answered. Standing in front of her work, she would give interviewers point-for-point explications: "The three hands are a metaphor for psychological dependency," "The transparent glass represents a sickness," etc.

In the past two decades, Bourgeois's reputation has grown and grown. In 1992, the Guggenheim inaugurated its new SoHo branch with a show entitled "From Brancusi to Bourgeois." The next year, Bourgeois was chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. When the Tate Modern opened in London, in 2000, its first exhibition was by Bourgeois. This past summer, a trio of her monumental spider sculptures was displayed in Rockefeller Plaza. Then the biggest of the spiders was shipped off to Russia and installed in front of the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, where Bourgeois was given a three-month retrospective. Some people I have spoken to feel that Bourgeois, as a female artist long neglected by a male-dominated art world, and a woman with an abuse story to tell, fit a little too neatly with the politics of the eighties and nineties for us to believe that her rise to fame was due to artistic considerations alone. This is certainly true. Bourgeois made a good story. People enjoy reading about "dysfunctional families," and if the dysfunction is posited as explanatory—which in Bourgeois's case it sometimes was—so much the better. Modern art is hard to explain.

Actually, Bourgeois's childhood difficulties tell us very little. The more she talks about her traumas and fears, the less we seem to understand her bold, unfrightened work. On some of her sculptures she has inscribed a text, such as "Do you love me?" or "Do not abandon me." These are the pieces I understand the least, because the words get in the way. The same is true of the Sadie story. As Robert Storr has protested, it has become a kind of creation myth for her work, restricting interpretations to "narrowly personal or archetypally Freudian sources." Bourgeois's closet contains other things besides skeletons. She had a solid lycée education, and she knows the history of Western art cold. She is not just a suffering female but a French classicist. In "Sleep II" the dome of the Pantheon figures as strongly as the male genitals, and if it didn't the piece wouldn't be half as interesting.

It is unlikely that Bourgeois used her childhood memories to jack up her reputation. She is the furthest thing from a publicity hound. Since the mid-nineties, she has not even attended her own openings. As for interviews, she gave them for years, but she clearly feared them, and her latter-day confessionalism, like her earlier reticence, may well have been a shield against that fear. "I tell stories to keep questions at bay," she has said. Recently, at a panel on Bourgeois at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York, I asked why she bothered, so late, to come out with the abuse story. The artist Kiki Smith said she thought that, in telling that story, Bourgeois was not so much explaining her work as putting on a sort of drama, however factual. The editor and curator Louise Neri said the same: the story was a form of "personal theatre." Many public figures come up with a persona that they show to the world. This helps them preserve their privacy. But it can also foster a certain fetishism, and that has happened with Bourgeois. People who don't know her refer to her as Louise. She is often treated as a character, the art world's favorite naughty old lady. She has colluded in this. At her most recent show, her voice, croakily singing French children's songs—"Frère Jacques" and others—was piped into one of the rooms.

But that is play, or public relations. It is not art, and Bourgeois's art deserves its fame. After the MOMA show, she burst into a new period, creating what she has called "cells." These are installations, the size of small rooms, in which she assembles various objects that tell a kind of story. In "Cell (Choisy)" we see a replica of one of her childhood homes—it was in the town of Choisy-le-Roi—exquisitely carved in pink marble. Hanging over it is a huge guillotine blade. With the cells, as with other pieces, Bourgeois has obligingly filled in the "facts." ("The big coat is a metaphor for the unconscious.") Again, however, her explanations seem inadequate, even intrusive. We all know these words, and use them to account for our lives. The cells are something else: hallucinations, the meat locker of the mind.

In recent years, Bourgeois has tired of autobiography. When Storr, in a 1994 interview, put to her a question about her past, she replied, "I'm not interested in that anymore." When he asked her whether the antagonism in her work was in some measure sexual, she answered, "I wouldn't admit that, but you can always propose it." This was more than a decade after she had told everyone within shouting distance that the engine of her art was anger over her governess's affair with her father. Never mind. As she wrote in 1988, in an essay on her piece "The Sail," the work speaks for itself: "Whatever the artist says about it is like an apology, it is not necessary." (Then she went on to discuss the motivations behind "The Sail" for four pages.)

Today Bourgeois is less concerned with anger than with repair. This is an important subject for her, because it is what her mother did for a living, and also because there are things in her life that she would like to repair. This winter, she had a show in New York which featured a roomful of large rag dolls, hanging from the ceiling and copulating. This image goes back not just to her father and Sadie but to Henriette with the boy from across the street. But whereas Bourgeois's earlier representations of that scene were disturbing—the female figure wore a leg brace (Henriette had water on the knee)—these couples were allowed to go about their business unharmed. They were a strange sight, both toylike and grave, tender and lurid. (The male genitals were sewn on, tiny and precise.) The stitch marks running up and down their bodies made them more strange. Their skin had been pierced; we felt it. At the same time, the stitching seemed restorative. Bourgeois was bringing them together, letting them live.

The same ambivalence can be seen in the series of bronze and steel spiders that Bourgeois has been making since the early nineties—for example, the thirty-foot-tall spider that now stands in front of the Hermitage. The figure is frightening, and when you find out its name—"Maman" ("Mommy")—it is more frightening. Bourgeois told me that the spider is a positive metaphor. It is a weaver, and her mother was a weaver: "She always protected me. She was my best friend. She was a monument to me." Nevertheless, there is something peculiar going on here. Remember that in "Child Abuse" the mother also betrayed the child. And consider Bourgeois's poem "Ode to My Mother":

It is Papa's fault

It is Nanny's fault . . .

Maman, who's lying? . . .

Forgive me, Maman, who lies, who lies. . . .

Wait for me, don't run, I'm coming.

The mother's lies, the child's desperation—and that's not the end of it. Bourgeois's giant spider is not just dangerous; she is endangered. "Maman" has an egg sac, full of white marble eggs, hanging from her nether parts, and the sac has a big dent in it, as if it had been violently punched. Down this road we can scarcely go in words. But we can accept an image, a metaphor. I have seen photographs of Russian children, in front of the Hermitage, staring up at "Maman" in wonder. They like it, presumably because it says something true. ♦

This article is about the artist. For the midwife, see Louise Bourgeois Boursier.

Louise Bourgeois
BornLouise Joséphine Bourgeois
(1911-12-25)25 December 1911
Paris, France
Died31 May 2010(2010-05-31) (aged 98)
Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
EducationSorbonne, Académie de la Grande Chaumière, École du Louvre, École des Beaux-Arts
Known forsculpture, installation art, painting, printmaking
Notable workCells, Maman, The Destruction of the Father
MovementSurrealism, Feminist art
AwardsPraemium Imperiale

Louise Joséphine Bourgeois (French: [lwiz buʁʒwa] ( listen); 25 December 1911 – 31 May 2010)[1] was a French-Americanartist. Best known for her large-scale sculpture and installation art, Bourgeois was also a prolific painter and printmaker. She explored a variety of themes over the course of her long career including domesticity and the family, sexuality and the body, as well as death and the subconscious. Although Bourgeois exhibited with the Abstract Expressionists and her work has much in common with Surrealism and Feminist art, she was not formally affiliated with a particular artistic movement.


Early life[edit]

Bourgeois was born on 25 December 1911 in Paris, France.[2] She was the second child of three born to parents Josephine Fauriaux and Louis Bourgeois. She had an older sister and a younger brother.[3] Her parents owned a gallery that dealt primarily in antique tapestries. A few years after her birth, her family moved out of Paris and set up a workshop for tapestry restoration below their apartment in Choisy-le-Roi, for which Bourgeois filled in the designs where they had become worn.[2][4] The lower part of the tapestries were always damaged which was usually the characters’ feet and animals’ paws. Many of Bourgeois’s works have extremely fragile and frail feet which could be a result of the former.

By 1924 her father, a tyrannical philanderer, was indulging in an extended affair with her English teacher and nanny.[5] According to Bourgeois, her mother, Josephine, “an intelligent, patient and enduring, if not calculating, person,” was aware of her husband's infidelity, but found it easier to turn a blind eye. Bourgeois, an alert little girl, hoarded her memories in her diaries.[6] As a result, she wished to execute manipulation in a similar manner; the medium became sculpture. Her father’s affair became the weapon in this revenge. Sculpture enables one to overcome the problem by displacing it; which finally allows the freedom to do what good manners forbade the child to do.[7]

As a child, Bourgeois did not meet her father's expectations due to her lack of ability. Eventually, he came to adore her for her talent and spirit, but she continued to hate him for his explosive temper, domination of the household, and for teasing her in front of others.[5]

In 1930, Bourgeois entered the Sorbonne to study mathematics and geometry, subjects that she valued for their stability,[5][8] saying "I got peace of mind, only through the study of rules nobody could change."[8]

Her mother died in 1932, while Bourgeois was studying mathematics. Her mother's death inspired her to abandon mathematics and to begin studying art. Her father thought modern artists were wastrels and refused to support her. She continued to study art by joining classes where translators were needed for English-speaking students, in which those translators were not charged tuition. In one such class Fernand Léger saw her work and told her she was a sculptor, not a painter.[5]

Bourgeois graduated from the Sorbonne 1935, she began studying art in Paris, first at the École des Beaux-Arts and École du Louvre, and after 1932 in the independent academies of Montparnasse and Montmartre such as Académie Colarossi, Académie Ranson, Académie Julian, Académie de la Grande Chaumière and with André Lhote, Fernand Léger, Paul Colin and Cassandre.[9] During the time in which she was enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, she turned to her father's infidelities for inspiration. She discovered her creative impulse in her childhood traumas and tensions.[6]

Bourgeois had a desire for first-hand experience, and frequently visited studios in Paris, learning techniques from the artists and assisting with exhibitions.[10]

Bourgeois briefly opened a print store beside her father's tapestry workshop. Her father helped her on the grounds that she had entered into a commerce-driven profession.[5]

Bourgeois met her husband Robert Goldwater, an American art historian noted for his pioneering work in the field then referred to as primitive art, in 1938 at Bourgeois's print store. Goldwater had visited the store to purchase a selection of prints by Pablo Picasso, and "in between talks about surrealism and the latest trends, [they] got married." They emigrated to New York City the same year, where Goldwater resumed his career as professor of the arts at New York University Institute of Fine Arts,[5] while Bourgeois attended the Art Students League of New York, studying painting under Vaclav Vytlacil, and also producing sculptures and prints.[8] The first painting had a grid: the grid is a very peaceful thing because nothing can go wrong… everything is complete. There is no room for anxiety… everything has a place, everything is welcome.[7]

Bourgeois had been unable to conceive by 1939, so she and Goldwater briefly returned to France to adopt a French child, Michel. However, in 1940, she gave birth to another son, Jean-Louis, and in 1941, she gave birth to Alain.[5]

Middle years[edit]

For Bourgeois the early 1940s represented the difficulties of a transition to a new country and the struggle to enter the exhibition world of New York City. Her work during this time was constructed from junkyard scraps and driftwood which she used to carve upright wood sculptures. The impurities of the wood were then camouflaged with paint, after which nails were employed to invent holes and scratches in the endeavor to portray some emotion. The Sleeping Figure is one such example which depicts a war figure that is unable to face the real world due to vulnerability. Throughout her life, Bourgeois's work was created from revisiting of her own troubled past as she found inspiration and temporary catharsis from her childhood years and the abuse she suffered from her father. Slowly she developed more artistic confidence, although her middle years are more opaque, which might be due to the fact that she received very little attention from the art world despite having her first solo show in 1945.[11]

In 1954, Bourgeois joined the American Abstract Artists Group, with several contemporaries, among them Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. At this time she also befriended the artists Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock.[10] As part of the American Abstract Artists Group, Bourgeois made the transition from wood and upright structures to marble, plaster and bronze as she investigated concerns like fear, vulnerability and loss of control. This transition was a turning point. She referred to her art as a series or sequence closely related to days and circumstances, describing her early work as the fear of falling which later transformed into the art of falling and the final evolution as the art of hanging in there. Her conflicts in real life empowered her to authenticate her experiences and struggles through a unique art form. In 1958, Bourgeois and her husband moved into a terraced house at West 20th Street, in Chelsea, Manhattan, where she lived and worked for the rest of her life.[5]

Despite the fact that she rejected the idea that her art was feminist, Borgeois’s subject was the feminine. Works such as Femme Maison (1946-1947), Torso self-portrait (1963-1964), Arch of Hysteria (1993), all depict the feminine body. Sexually explicit sculptures such as Janus Fleuri, (1968) show she was not afraid to use the female form in new ways.[12] She has been quoted to say “My work deals with problems that are pre-gender," she wrote. "For example, jealousy is not male or female."[13] Despite this assertion, in 1976 Femme Maison was featured on the cover of Lucy Lippard's book From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art and became an icon of the feminist art movement.[14]

Later life[edit]

In 1973, Bourgeois started teaching at the Pratt Institute, Cooper Union, Brooklyn College and the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. From 1974 until 1977, Bourgeois worked at the School of Visual Arts in New York where she taught printmaking and sculpture.[15] She also taught for many years in the public schools in Great Neck, Long Island.

In the early 1970s, Bourgeois would hold gatherings called “Sunday, bloody Sundays” at her home in Chelsea. These salons would be filled with young artists and students whose work would be critiqued by Bourgeois. Bourgeois ruthlessness in critique and her dry sense of humor lead to the naming of these meetings. Bourgeois inspired many young students to make art that was feminist in nature.[16]

Bourgeois aligned herself with activists and became a member of the Fight Censorship Group, a feminist anti-censorship collective founded by fellow artist Anita Steckel. In the 1970s, the group defended the use of sexual imagery in artwork.[17] Steckel argued, “If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums, it should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women.”[18]

In 1978 Bourgeoise was commissioned by the General Services Administration to create Facets of the Sun, her first public sculpture.[19] The work was installed outside of a federal building in Manchester, New Hampshire.[20]

Bourgeois received her first retrospective in 1982, by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Until then, she had been a peripheral figure in art whose work was more admired than acclaimed. In an interview with Artforum, timed to coincide with the opening of her retrospective, she revealed that the imagery in her sculptures was wholly autobiographical. She shared with the world that she obsessively relived through her art the trauma of discovering, as a child, that her English governess was also her father’s mistress.[21][22]

Bourgeois had another retrospective in 1989 at Documenta 9 in Kassel, Germany.[11] In 1993, when the Royal Academy of Arts staged its comprehensive survey of American art in the 20th century, the organizers did not consider Bourgeois's work of significant importance to include in the survey.[21] However, this survey was criticized for many omissions, with one critic writing that "whole sections of the best American art have been wiped out" and pointing out that very few women were included.[23] In 2000 her works were selected to be shown at the opening of the Tate Modern in London.[11] In 2001, she showed at the Hermitage Museum.[24]

In 2010, in the last year of her life, Bourgeois used her art to speak up for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) equality. She created the piece I Do, depicting two flowers growing from one stem, to benefit the nonprofit organization Freedom to Marry. Bourgeois has said "Everyone should have the right to marry. To make a commitment to love someone forever is a beautiful thing."[25] Bourgeois had a history of activism on behalf of LGBT equality, having created artwork for the AIDS activist organization ACT UP in 1993.[26]


Bourgeois died of heart failure on 31 May 2010, at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan. [27][28] Wendy Williams, the managing director of the Louise Bourgeois Studio, announced her death.[28] She had continued to create artwork until her death, her last pieces being finished the week before.[29]

The New York Times said that her work "shared a set of repeated themes, centered on the human body and its need for nurture and protection in a frightening world."[30]

Her husband, Robert Goldwater, died in 1973. She had two sons, Alain Bourgeois and Jean-Louis Bourgeois. Her first son, Michel, died in 1990.[31]


See also: List of artworks by Louise Bourgeois

Femme Maison[edit]

Main article: Femme Maison

Femme Maison (1946–47) is a series of paintings in which Bourgeois explores the relationship of a woman and the home. In the works, women's heads have been replaced with houses, isolating their bodies from the outside world and keeping their minds domestic. This theme goes along with the dehumanization of modern art.[32]

Destruction of the Father[edit]

Destruction of the Father (1974) is a biographical and a psychological exploration of the power dominance of father and his offspring. The piece is a flesh-toned installation in a soft and womb-like room. Made of plaster, latex, wood, fabric, and red light, Destruction of the Father was the first piece in which she used soft materials on a large scale. Upon entering the installation, the viewer stands in the aftermath of a crime. Set in a stylized dining room (with the dual impact of a bedroom), the abstract blob-like children of an overbearing father have rebelled, murdered, and eaten him.[33]

…telling the captive audience how great he is, all the wonderful things he did, all the bad people he put down today. But this goes on day after day. There is tragedy in the air. Once too often he has said his piece. He is unbearably dominating although probably he does not realize it himself. A kind of resentment grows and one day my brother and I decided, 'the time has come!' We grabbed him, laid him on the table and with our knives dissected him. We took him apart and dismembered him, we cut off his penis. And he became food. We ate him up… he was liquidated the same way he liquidated the children.[34][not in citation given]

Exorcism in Art[edit]

In 1982, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City featured unknown artist, Louise Bourgeois's work. She was 70 years old and a mixed media artist who worked on paper, with metal, marble and animal skeletal bones. Childhood family traumas "bred an exorcism in art" and she desperately attempted to purge her unrest with her work. She felt she could get in touch with issues of female identity, the body, the fractured family, long before the art world and society considered them expressed subjects in art. This was Bourgeous's way to find her center and stabilize her emotional unrest. The New York Times said at the time that "her work is charged with tenderness and violence, acceptance and defiance, ambivalence and conviction." [35]


While in her eighties, Bourgeois produced two series of enclosed installation works she referred to as Cells. Many are small enclosures into which the viewer is prompted to peer inward at arrangements of symbolic objects; others are small rooms into which the viewer is invited to enter. In the cell pieces, Bourgeois uses earlier sculptural forms, found objects as well as personal items that carried strong personal emotional charge for the artist.

The cells enclose psychological and intellectual states, primarily feelings of fear and pain. Bourgeois stated that the Cells represent “different types of pain; physical, emotional and psychological, mental and intellectual… Each Cell deals with a fear. Fear is pain… Each Cell deals with the pleasure of the voyeur, the thrill of looking and being looked at.”[36]


Main article: Maman (sculpture)

In the late 1990s, Bourgeois began using the spider as a central image in her art. Maman, which stands more than nine metres high, is a steel and marble sculpture from which an edition of six bronzes were subsequently cast. It first made an appearance as part of Bourgeois’s commission for The Unilever Series for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2000, and recently, the sculpture was installed at the Qatar National Convention Centre in Doha, Qatar.[37] Her largest spider sculpture titled Maman stands at over 30 feet (9.1 m) and has been installed in numerous locations around the world.[38] It is the largest Spider sculpture ever made by Bourgeois.[34] Moreover, Maman alludes to the strength of her mother, with metaphors of spinning, weaving, nurture and protection.[34] The prevalence of the spider motif in her work has given rise to her nickname as Spiderwoman.[39]

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. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.

— Louise Bourgeois[34]

Maisons fragiles / Empty Houses[edit]

Bourgeois’s Maisons fragiles / Empty Houses sculptures are parallel, high metallic structures supporting a simple tray. One must see them in person to feel their impact. They are not threatening or protecting, but bring out the depths of anxiety within you. Bachelard’s findings from psychologists’ tests show that an anxious child will draw a tall narrow house with no base. Bourgeois had a rocky/traumatic childhood and this could support the reason behind why these pieces were constructed.[7]


Bourgeois’s printmaking flourished during the early and late phases of her career: in the 1930s and 1940s, when she first came to New York from Paris, and then again starting in the 1980s, when her work began to receive wide recognition. Early on, she made prints at home on a small press, or at the renowned workshop Atelier 17. That period was followed by a long hiatus, as Bourgeois turned her attention fully to sculpture. It was not until she was in her seventies that she began to make prints again, encouraged first by print publishers. She set up her old press, and added a second, while also working closely with printers who came to her house to collaborate. A very active phase of printmaking followed, lasting until the artist’s death. Over the course of her life, Bourgeois created approximately 1,500 printed compositions.

In 1990, Bourgeois decided to donate the complete archive of her printed work to The Museum of Modern Art. In 2013, The Museum launched the online catalogue raisonné, "Louise Bourgeois: The Complete Prints & Books." The site focuses on the artist’s creative process and places Bourgeois’s prints and illustrated books within the context of her overall production by including related works in other mediums that deal with the same themes and imagery.

Pervasive themes[edit]

One theme of Bourgeois's work is that of childhood trauma and hidden emotion. After Louise's mother became sick with influenza Louise's father began having affairs with other women, most notably with Sadie, Louise's English tutor. Louise was extremely watchful and aware of the situation. This was the beginning of the artist's engagement with double standards related to gender and sexuality, which was expressed in much of her work. She recalls her father saying "I love you" repeatedly to her mother, despite infidelity. "He was the wolf, and she was the rational hare, forgiving and accepting him as he was."[40] Her 1993 work "Cell: You Better Grow Up", part of her "Cell" series, speaks directly to Louise's childhood trauma and the insecurity that surrounded her. 2002's "Give or Take" is defined by hidden emotion, representing the intense dilemma that people face throughout their lives as they attempt to balance the actions of giving and taking. This dilemma is not only represented by the shape of the sculpture, but also the heaviness of the material this piece is made of.

Architecture and memory are important components of Bourgeois's work. In numerous interviews, Louise describes architecture as a visual expression of memory, or memory as a type of architecture. The memory which is featured in much of her work is an invented memory - about the death or exorcism of her father. The imagined memory is interwoven with her real memories including living across from a slaughterhouse and her father's affair. To Louise her father represented injury and war, aggrandizement of himself and belittlement of others and most importantly a man who represented betrayal.[40] Her 1993 work "Cell (Three White Marble Spheres)" speaks to fear and captivity. The mirrors within the present an altered and distorted reality.

Sexuality is undoubtedly one of the most important themes in the work of Louise Bourgeois. The link between sexuality and fragility or insecurity is also powerful. It has been argued that this stems from her childhood memories and her father's affairs. 1952's "Spiral Woman" combines Louise's focus on female sexuality and torture. The flexing leg and arm muscles indicate that the Spiral Woman is still above though she is being suffocated and hung. 1995's "In and Out" uses cold metal materials to link sexuality with anger and perhaps even captivity.

The spiral in her work demonstrates the dangerous search for precarious equilibrium, accident-free permanent change, disarray, vertigo, whirlwind. There lies the simultaneously positive and negative, both future and past, breakup and return, hope and vanity, plan and memory.

Louise Bourgeois’s work is powered by confessions, self-portraits, memories, fantasies of a restless being who is seeking through her sculpture a peace and an order which were missing throughout her childhood.[7]


Do Not Abandon Me[edit]

This collaboration took place over a span of two years with British artist Tracey Emin. The work was exhibited in London months after Bourgeois’s death in 2010. The subject matter consists of male and female images. Although they appear sexual, it portrays a tiny female figure paying homage to a giant male figure, like a God. Louise Bourgeois did the water colors and Tracey Emin did the drawing on top. It took Emin two years to decide how to figure out what she would contribute in the collaboration. When she knew what to do, she finished all of the drawings in a day and believes every single one worked out perfectly. “I Lost You” is about losing children, losing life. Bourgeois had to bury her son as a parent. Abandonment for her is not only about losing her mother but her son as well. Despite the age gap between the two artists and differences in their work, the collaboration worked out gently and easily.[41]

Selected works[edit]


  • 1982 – Louise Bourgeois. The Museum of Modern Art. p. 123. ISBN 0-87070-257-2. 
  • 1994 – The Prints of Louise Bourgeois. The Museum of Modern Art. p. 254. ISBN 0-8109-6141-5. 
  • 1994 – Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory Works 1982-1993. Harry N. Abrams. p. 144. ISBN 0-8109-3127-3. 
  • 1996 – Louise Bourgeois: Drawings and Observations. Bulfinch. p. 192. ISBN 0-8212-2299-6. 
  • 1998 – Louise Bourgeois Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father. MIT Press in association with Violette Editions. p. 384. ISBN 0-262-52246-2. 
  • 2000 – Louise Bourgeois: Memory and Architecture. Actar. p. 316. ISBN 84-8003-188-3. 
  • 2001 – Louise Bourgeois: The Insomnia Drawings. Scalo Publishers. p. 580. ISBN 3-908247-39-X. 
  • 2001 – Louise Bourgeois's Spider: The Architecture of Art-Writing. University of Chicago Press. p. 88. ISBN 0-226-03575-1. 
  • 2008 – Louise Bourgeois: The Secret of the Cells. Prestel USA. p. 168. ISBN 3-7913-4007-7. 
  • 2011 – To Whom it May Concern. Violette Editions. p. 76. ISBN 978-1-900828-36-9. 
  • 2012 – The Return of the Repressed. Violette Editions. p. 500. ISBN 978-1-900828-37-6. 



  • 1947 – Persistent Antagonism at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.
  • 1949 – Untitled at Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
  • 1967 – Untitled at National Academy of Design, New York City.
  • 1972 – Number Seventy-Two at Storm King Art Center, Mountainville.
  • 1982 – Louise Bourgeois, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
  • 1982 – Eyes, marble sculpture, at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
  • 1984 – Nature Study: Eyes at Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.
  • 1992 – Sainte Sebastienne at Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas.
  • 1993 – Loiuse Bourgeois: Recent Work at U.S. Pavilion, 45th Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy.
  • 1993 – Helping Hands in permanent display at Chicago Women's Park & Gardens as of 2011, Chicago.[42]
  • 1994 – The Prints of Louise Bourgeois at The Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
  • 1994 – The Nest at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.
  • 1994 – Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory, Works 1982-1993 at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn and The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
  • 1995 – Louise Bourgeois: The Locus of Memory, Works 1982-1993 at Galerie Rudolfinum, Prague.
  • 1997 – Maman at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City.
  • 1999 – Maman at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao.
  • 2000 – Fallen Woman at Galleria d'arte moderna Palazzo Forti, Verona.
  • 2007 – Maman at Tate Modern, London.
  • 2008 – Louise Bourgeois at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Exhibition date: 5 March 2008 - 2 June 2008.[43]
  • 2008 – Louise Bourgeois Full Career Retrospective at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City.[44]
  • 2008 – Nature Study, at Inverleith House, Edinburgh.
  • 2008 – Louise Bourgeois for Capodimonte, at National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples.
  • 2009 – Louise Bourgeois: Moi, Eugénie Grandet, un processus d'identification, at Maison de Balzac, Paris.
  • 2010 – Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works, at Fondazione Vedova, Venice. Travelling to Hauser & Wirth, London.
  • 2011 – Louise Bourgeois: À L’Infini, at Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, Exhibition date: 3 Sep 2011 - 8 Jan 2012.
  • 2011 – Louise Bourgeois. The Return of the Repressed, at Fundación Proa, Buenos Aires.Travelling to Instituto Tomie Ohtake, São Paulo and Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro.
  • 2011 – Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada, Exhibition date: 21 Apr 2011 - 18 Mar 2012.
  • 2012 – Louise Bourgeois: Conscious and Unconscious at the Qatar Museums Authority Gallery, Katara, Doha, Qatar, Exhibition date: 20 Jan 2012 - 1 Jun 2012.[45]
  • 2012 – Louise Bourgeois: The Return of The Repressed at Freud Museum, Exhibition date: 7 March 2012 - 27 May 2012.[46]
  • 2013 – Louise Bourgeois 1911-2010 at Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Exhibition date: 22 June 2013 - 11 Aug 2013.[47]
  • 2014 – Louise Bourgeois: A Woman Without Secrets at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Exhibition date: 18 Jul 2014 - 12 Oct 2014.[48]
  • 2015 – ARTIST ROOMS: Louise Bourgeois: A Woman Without Secrets at Southampton City Art Gallery, Exhibition date: 16 Jan 2015 - 18 April 2015.[49]
  • 2015 – Louise Bourgeois. Structures of Existence: the Cells at Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany, Exhibition date: 27 Feb 2015 - 2 Aug 2015.[50]
  • 2015 – Louise Bourgeois: I Have Been to Hell and Back at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden, Exhibition date: 14 Feb 2015 - 17 May 2015.[51]
  • 2016 – Louise Bourgeois: Structures of Existence: The Cells at Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, Exhibition date: 18 March 2016 - 4 September 2016.[52]

Honors and awards[edit]

Art market[edit]

In 2011 one of Bourgeois's works, titled Spider, sold for $10.7 million, a new record price for the artist at auction,[58] and the highest price paid for a work by a woman at the time.[59] In late 2015, the piece sold at another Christie's auction for $28.2 million.[60]


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  5. ^ abcdefghMcNay, Michael (31 May 2010). "Louise Bourgeois obituary". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 12 June 2010. 
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  7. ^ abcdBouregois, Louise (1985). Louise Bourgeois: Retrospective 1947-1984. Paris: Galerie Maeght Lelong. ISBN 285587131X. 
  8. ^ abcCotter, Holland (31 May 2010). "Louise Bourgeois, Influential Sculptor, Dies at 98". The New York Times. p. 2. Retrieved 1 June 2010. 
  9. ^(fr) Xavier Girard, Louise Bourgeois face à face, Seuil, 2016, p 27
  10. ^ ab"Biography – Louise Bourgeois". Cybermuse. Archived from the original on 16 August 2007. Retrieved 12 June 2010. 
  11. ^ abc
  12. ^Larratt-Smith, Phillip (March 19 – June 19, 2011). "Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed". Art Tattler. Archived from the original on 14 March 2015. 
  13. ^"Louise Bourgeois Passes Away – RIP". Pop Cultured. May 31, 2010. Retrieved 7 March 2015. 
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  15. ^Deborah,, Wye,. Louise Bourgeois : an unfolding portrait : prints, books, and the creative process. Lowry, Glenn D.,, Gorovoy, Jerry,, Harlan, Felix,, Shiff, Ben,, Kang, Sewon,, Bourgeois, Louise, 1911-2010,. New York, New York. ISBN 1633450414. OCLC 973157279. 
  16. ^The Art Story Foundation. "Loise Bourgeois". The Art Story Foundation. 
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  26. ^Wagner, James (31 May 2010). "Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)". Retrieved 9 June 2010.
Sculpture by Bourgeois in the Domestic Incidents group exhibit at London's Tate Modern Turbine Hall, 2006

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