In today’s lightening-fast age of 15 seconds’ of fame and breaking the internet, it’s difficult to believe that an artist of enormous talent and often provocative tendencies could go virtually unrecognised for as long as Louise Bourgeois did. Born in Paris on Christmas Day in 1911, she started studying art at the Sorbonne in her early 20s (after switching from mathematics and geometry), but only really achieved major acclaim with a retrospective in 1982 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She was 71 at the time and had emigrated to the USA decades earlier with her art-historian husband, Robert Goldwater.
Perhaps it had something to do with Bourgeois’ steadfast determination to go her own way. Although she was often associated with different art movements, she never wholly belonged to any them. She joined the American Abstract Artist Group in 1954, but her work always vacillated between abstraction and figurative forms. Many considered her a champion of feminist art, but she personally refused the categorisation.
If there was one overarching theme through her work, it was her belief that, “Art is not about art. Art is about life, and that sums it up”. Threads of her autobiography were woven through almost every piece, particularly the more challenging aspects of her childhood, including her father’s infidelity and the illness that would eventually claim her mother’s life. “My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama,” she once said. “All my work of the last fifty years, all my subjects, have found their inspiration in my childhood.”
To channel this mystery and drama, she often returned to a series of recurring motifs, depicting them in various ways across prints, drawings, sculpture and even fabric installations made from clothes in her own closet.
Spiders were one of the chief symbols in Bourgeois’ work, featuring regularly from the 1940s to the 90s. Standing an imposing nine metres high, this is one of the largest. The name of the piece (maman is French for mother) sounds quite ominous until you see the arachnid through the artist’s eyes. Bourgeois saw a spider not as something to be loathed but as “the saviour”, because “it saves us from mosquitoes”. The animal, she believed, is also protective, clever and inventive – all qualities she admired in her own mother. With its metal body and sack full of marble eggs, Maman makes quite the tribute.
Sainte Sébastienne (1992)
Bourgeois is far from the only artist to have been inspired by the legend of the Catholic Saint Sebastian, but in her depictions, the saint has morphed into a female form. In some versions of Bourgeois’ Sainte Sébastienne story, the figure has a tall hairstyle that harbours three eggs – representing her three sons – in other versions, she’s lost her head completely. The arrows piercing the subject’s body represent all the criticisms that had been flung at the artist (growing up, her father was notorious for humiliating her in front of others, but she also endured her share from critics).
The Couple (2003)
Lovers’ eternal embrace or codependency gone terribly wrong? Bourgeois’ ongoing interrogation of relationships could really go either way, particularly as her couples are shown locked together and suspended in mid-air (in their own little world, no less). In this version of the motif, the couple is rendered in aluminium and although their torsos are merging into an amorphous blob, they at least still have their own limbs intact. Other Bourgeois couples have almost completely merged, and some have been decapitated. A hint to their meaning might be found in her belief that, “To make a commitment to love someone forever is a beautiful thing." But no matter which way you read it, The Couple makes for a thought-provoking experience.
Written by Michelle Bateman