Louise Joséphine Bourgeois was a French-American artist. Although she is 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. These themes connect to events from her childhood which she considered to be a therapeutic process.
Bourgeois was born on December 25, 1911 in Paris, France. She was named after her father who wanted a boy. 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. 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. 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. 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.
“You have to repeat and repeat; otherwise people don’t understand what you are talking about.”
Her use of repetition also reflects the vividness with which her past informed her adulthood and her need to heal herself by revisiting specific, enduring childhood traumas.
Her return to pregnant bellies, spirals, spiders, and the color blue—a handful of the elements in her lexicon—was always coupled with her embrace of wide-ranging materials and processes.
Bourgeois sculpted in wood, marble, and, most provocatively perhaps, latex, among other materials. She made prints using techniques ranging from lithography to intaglio, experimenting with various papers and sometimes augmenting the compositions with hand-applied gouache, watercolor, and pencil. When she was in her eighties, she culled old clothes from her closets to incorporate into her sculptures and to cut apart and reassemble into expressively patterned pages of fabric books, returning to her roots in a family who made its living from fabrics.
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.
Looking into Louise Bourgeois’s Cell I (1994) reveals this prismatic sentence:
“Pain is the ransom of formalism.”
The words are embroidered with rust-colored thread on one of several burlap mail sacks that cover a metal cot, and they are the punch line of what may be Bourgeois’s most famous and enigmatic artistic statement:
“The subject of pain is the business I am in. To give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering. What happens to my body has to be given a formal abstract shape. So, you might say, pain is the ransom of formalism.”
Looking at the word 'no' repeated again and again, Bourgeois said, 'This is the desire to be clear... it is an attempt... it is a wish. I want to say 'no,' but I am a pushover. Obedience is the big word... sometimes I obey, but I am never convinced. I go through the motions because I have been taught to be obedient... but behind this, I never give in. Never giving in makes it hard to learn to forgive... it does not come naturally.'
LB & Helmut Lang
During a 1973 strike by employees of The Museum of Modern Art, Bourgeois joined in a protest march, carrying a banner on which she had repeatedly painted the word "no." The banner was executed on the back of an untitled painting from 1946-1947 that is now in the collection of the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller in Otterlo, Netherlands.
Around the same time, Bourgeois also executed a 4.5-foot-long collage using cut-out pieces of newsprint and magazine clippings displaying the word "no" in various typefaces and sizes. She created the collage in three separate panels and then glued them down on a single backing. Later, each of the three panels of the collage served as sources for her printed “No” compositions.
Bourgeois began the “No” print project by having photostats made from each source at a commercial print shop. Over time, some collage elements on the source fell off and were lost. After the collage came into MoMA’s Collection, the Conservation Department reattached whatever loose pieces were recovered.
Perhaps foremost among her nature-derived motifs was the spider. “I see the spider as the savior,” she explained. “It saves us from mosquitoes. But if you want to detest spiders, it’s not against the law.”
Spiders appeared in her drawings and prints beginning in the 1940s and, by the 1990s, had become a frequent presence across all of her work—including as monumental sculptures that might make arachnophobes quake. But Bourgeois saw spiders as protective, clever, and inventive, qualities she loved in her mother and wanted to emulate in her own homemaking.
Among Bourgeois’s defining projects was Maman. The title is the familiar French word for Mother. Maman was a bronze, stainless steel, and marble sculpture which depicts a spider and is among the world's largest, measuring over 30 ft high and over 33 ft wide. It includes a sac containing 26 marble eggs and its abdomen and thorax are made of ribbed bronze.
Another sculpture, Fée Couturière, was conceived in 1963 and cast in 1983, there is an edition of 6 plus 1 artist’s proof.
"The choice of nest was obviously not a random one. It was first of all a reference to the nests that, as a child, Louise found in her garden…It would seem, in fact, that after having first tried to exorcise her homesickness by re-creating and transplanting characters from the past into her new environment, Bourgeois then felt the need to create a new home for herself, to take refuge in a nest, to build herself a shelter." —Marie-Laure Bernadac
Sainte Sébastienne is a series Bourgeois started working on in 1990. Sainte Sébastienne was an early Christian martyr and saint, and he is usually depicted with his hands behind his back with arrows. Louise often depicts certain kinds of classical imagery with a feminine perspective.
Louise was interested in the idea of aggression, between passivity and aggression, having enemies, being rejected, having people who want something from you. And she’s very interested in that state of where things are not going well, where one is under siege both physically and psychologically.
In a smaller version of this, you see the same sort of arrows coming at the body. But you see in the large version there is no head, and in the small version she experiments with the head. So at one point the woman's face becomes a cat. In another one there's eggs, which symbolized Louise's children, are hidden in the hair.
Louise was dealing with her emotions, the work is like a diary. Whatever she was feeling, she would say it in the material that best said it. She wasn't trying to hone down any philosophical or conceptual approach. It's all about raw emotions finding a form.
Bourgeois died of heart failure on 31 May 2010, at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan. She had continued to create artwork until her death, her last pieces being finished the week before.