2010 ➤ Spider-woman Bourgeois created her art as meditations on sexuality

◼ LOUISE BOURGEOIS, THE FRENCH-BORN SCULPTOR, who lived in a 15-foot-wide town house on West 20th Street, Manhattan, died today at the age of 98 following a heart attack. She was largely unknown until 1982, aged 71, when she became the first woman to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Time art critic Robert Hughes has called her “the mother of American feminist identity art” and declared that “[Louise’s] influence on young artists has been enormous”.

Raimon Ramis, sculpture, Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois in 1990, behind her marble sculpture Eye to Eye (1970). Photographed © by Raimon Ramis

On the occasion of her 1982 retrospective, Bourgeois published a photo essay in Artforum magazine that revealed the impact of childhood trauma on her art. “Everything I do,” she exclaimed, “was inspired by my early life.” Born in 1911, Bourgeois grew up in provincial France, and aged eleven, she witnessed her father’s betrayal of his wife and three children when he initiated a ten-year affair with their live-in English tutor. Bourgeois also attended to her mother, who had succumbed to the Spanish Flu after the First World War.

Louise Bourgeois, Brassai, 1937

Bourgeois photographed by Brassaï in Paris, 1937, where she studied under Fernand Léger. (Louise Bourgeois Archive)

This familial triangle of sexual infidelity and illness cast the young artist in the most inappropriate of roles — as voyeur, accomplice, and nurturer — the combination of which left her with life-long psychological scars, including insomnia. Bourgeois’s diaries, which she has kept assiduously since 1923, indicate the tensions between rage, fear of abandonment, and guilt that she has suffered since childhood. It is through her art, however, that she has been able to channel and release these tensions.

Many of her works are today instantly recognisable, especially the giant spiders created for the opening of Tate Modern in London in 2000. Only last month she shared the following thoughts with Jonathan Jones for The Guardian on the 10th anniversary of that commission…

From The Guardian, Tuesday May 4, 2010:
“ Bourgeois no longer gives interviews, so the fact she’s even speaking to me proves how much the first Turbine Hall commission meant to her. The twisted steel legs of her giant spider Maman, alongside a sequence of fabulous, hellish towers, gave the brand-new Tate Modern an instant visual signature, and made the then 89-year-old French-born New York artist a household name. Until then, Bourgeois had been revered by a small world of contemporary art fans; did this sudden popularity surprise her? “No,” she says modestly. “The space is so beautiful – anything placed inside it would cause a strong reaction.”

Louise Bourgeois, sculpture, Spider, Maman

Bourgeois’s sculptures: Maman in the turbine hall at Tate Modern in 2000, photographed by Ray Tang. Spider and Maman in the Large Courtyard of the Winter Palace, St Petersburg, 2001

As an artist, Bourgeois dwells on the strange and darkly remembered interiors of her childhood; the intensity of her meditations on sexuality and power easily filled the colossal space. Maman turned the surrealist obsession with the male psyche on its head, creating a haunting image of motherhood — a spider carrying her eggs.

Before this, Bourgeois says, “I made a series of small sculptures with mirrors and chairs. They were about looking and being looked at. To continue these concepts on a large scale was an opportunity I could not pass up.” What mattered to her most about this installation was the audience’s engagement with it. Her towers were designed to be ascended, paving the way for subsequent participatory installations. “The towers were meant to be an experience. If you did not experience all three towers in sequence, then you did not get the piece.”

Did Maman affect future work? She says not, beyond the opportunities afforded by scale. As she points out, her work is relatively immune to outside influences: “It has an internal logic all its own”.

➢ “Need for nurture in a frightening world” – The New York Times obituary
➢ “Known for her primitive, female forms” – The Guardian obituary
➢ “A tension between quintessentially male and female forms” – All you need to know about Louise Bourgeois at Artsy, the website with a mission to make all art accessible

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