Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois

She was born 25 December 1911 died 31 May 2010

A French American artist and sculptor, she became known as Spiderwoman for her huge sculptures of spider-figures, cast in bronze.

The first ten yeras of her career were dedicated to paintings and works on paper. Between 1945 and 1947 she created a series of paintings known as Femme-Maison which have a surreal and tragi-comic quality, depicting the oversize figure of a woman trapped inside a house. These have come to represent the situation of being female, jostling the conflicting demands of motherhood, domestic responsibility and life as an artist trying to make her way. She explored the links between one’s physical home and psychological habitat through much of her working life.

Her parents owned a company which restored and sold medieval and rennaisance tapestries, and Louise developed skills in drawing which were put to use in the family business. She started to study mathematics, physics and chemistry, but later moved to study art in the studis of various artists in Paris. In 1938 she met and married Robert Goldwater, and art critic, and moved with him to New York, where she started to develop further as an artist.

Her early paintings are personal and emotional, but by the mid-forties, she was clearly influenced by her Cubist teachers and was painting grid-like, boxed compositions, with heavy use of line, strong shapes and blocked colours. her work was exhibited alongside other American painters such as Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Although their work reflected the influence of surrealism from Erope, Bourgeois rejected the label and considered herself an Existentialist.

As a mother to three children, she was, in this time, balancing the demands of three children with her wish to make her art. There was no major legacy of feminist art practice upon which to draw, and in her representation of the physical and psychological pressures of domestic life, she found ways to question the validity of the experience of female artists, and provided a lead for others to follow.

Not only was she struggling to find her voice as a female artist at this time, she was also struggling to find the medium which best suited her expressive drives. She gave up painting and moved into sculpture.

Her early sculptures were figure-like totemic, rigid forms made,  from wood, sometimes salvaged redwood, which were known as Personages. She stated that they were a kind of memorial to those she had left behind in France. The approach she used became known as Assemblage, the most basic definition for which is an artistic process whereby found or “readymade” objects are brought together to make a sculptural composition (Coxon, A 2010:28). It is therefore a three-dimensional form of collage, with its roots in the Cubist compositions of Picasso, Braque and Gris.

In 1966, a writer and curator Lucy Lippard showed some of Bourgeois’ works of the time, which were suggestive of organic primitive life-forms such as amoebae. The exhibition was entitled Eccentric Abstraction, and incorporated Bourgeois’ amorphous plaster and latex pieces with a parrallel to the trend of cool hard-edged Minimalism and its use of industrial materials. However, Bourgeois was always driven to say something, rather than simply to explore the materials, which for her were only interesting insofar as they could be used to express certain emotional or psychological states.

In 1968 Bourgeois created her phallic sculpture, Fillette, which combines the male and female genitalia, and shines a light on the concept of male vulnerability and female protectiveness. The form was made in different versions and materilas and was sometimes hung from the ceiling, on a meathook, or a twisted wire. According to Bourgeois, “hanging and floating are states of ambivalence” (Meyer Thoss 1992:69, cited in Coxon 2010).

In the 1970’s Bourgeois became more closely involved with feminism. These were extremely active years for her, and one of her most important works of the period was a tableau arrangement of bulbous latex forms set within a dark, cloth-lined box, lit so that it emits an eerie red glow. It’s title is The Destruction of the Father and she made a direct link back to her childhood and the tyrannical treatment she experienced from her father at mealtimes.

In the 1990, she moved again to another format, this time using textiles, found in trunks that she had accumulated and kept for decades. She made figurative and abstract sculptures from fabrics that were not previously associated with sculpture and were simultaneously soft and hard.

Bourgeois kept three types of diary, a writing diary, a spoken diary (into a tape recorder) and a drawing diary. She once said: “Drawings are thought feathers, they are ideas that I seize in mid-flight and put down on paper” (Bernadac 1995, cited in Coxon 2010).

She drew on whatever she had to hand, and the resulting images are sometimes figurative and sometimes abstract, and drawn from her imagination.

Throughout her lengthy artistic career, Bourgeois repeatedly explored the theme of gravity, motherhood and maternal loss. This has been linked by her and others, such as Kristeva and Bernadac, to her personal experiences of these life events and her psychological responses. She is quoted as saying: ‘Fear of abandonment has stayed with me my whole life. It began when my father left for the war. It continued when my mother died in 1932. People ask me to “be their mother”. I can’t because I am looking for a mother myself.” (Stoops, S.L 2006:26, cited in Coxon 2010).


Coxon, A. (2010) Louise Bourgeois. London: Tate Publishing

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