Louise Bourgeois Learning Resource

Louise Joséphine Bourgeois was born on the 25th of December 1911 in Paris to Joséphine Fauriaux and Louis Bourgeois. She was the second of three children and her parents ran a tapestry restoration workshop and gallery, where Louise assisted from an early age. She first studied Philosophy at the University of Paris and had enrolled to study Geometry and Mathematics, before deciding instead to embark on a career as an artist. She undertook her artistic training at a number of the principal artists' studios and academies in Paris from the mid to late 1930s. During this period she studied with Fernand Léger, among others, developing three-dimensional work, as well as paintings and drawings. In 1938 she opened her own gallery where she met her husband, the eminent art historian, Robert Goldwater. Goldwater and Bourgeois married and moved to New York the same year.

Bourgeois's first solo exhibition, which consisted of twelve paintings, was held at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery, New York, 1945; that same year her work was also included in the Whitney Annual (later the Whitney Biennial). Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, while raising three sons, she exhibited in both group and solo exhibitions and her work was acquired by major museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York. She was associated with the New York School, befriending the likes of Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning and later joined the American Abstract Artist Group. Her first three-dimensional works like her totem-like figures were collectively known as Personages 1946-55. These sculptures were made from wood, and were installed as environmental installations. Bourgeois often used her roof as a studio and the Personages recall the skyscrapers and rooftops that surrounded her. The Personages depict individuals, and Bourgeois's relationship with them, often reflecting her homesickness and the people she left behind in Paris.

Following the death of her father in 1951 Bourgeois suffered from serious bouts of depression and agoraphobia. In the early 1950s Bourgeois began to engage in psychoanalysis, and would continue to do so for thirty years. She only had one major solo exhibition between 1953 and 1964 . In her sculptural works of the 1960s, she moved away from the rigid Personages and towards biomorphic forms and cavities which saw her working in bronze, plaster, latex and marble. The materials became inconsequential; they were primarily a means to express a psychological or emotional state. Despite her relatively low profile during 1950s, 60s and 70s she was recognised in important exhibitions such as 'Eccentric Abstraction', curated by Lucy Lippard, where Bourgeois's work was shown with a younger generation of artists such as Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman. Bourgeois's organic and bodily forms often combined male and female elements.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Louise Bourgeois, 1982 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Following the death of her husband in 1973, Bourgeois continued to make art and teach, and she also became associated with the New York feminist movement. In 1982 she had a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the first ever at MoMA for a female artist, which introduced her to a broader audience. It was during this period that Bourgeois began to speak publicly about her childhood traumas and how this informed her work. The artistic climate during the Postmodern era celebrated personal and narrative based artistic practice further raising Bourgeois's profile.

Bourgeois's first European retrospective in 1989 was organised by the Kunstverein in Frankfurt; the same year she began to make her Cells. The Cells, typically constructed from a mixture of salvaged architectural materials such as old doors, windows, wire mesh and glass panes combined with found objects and sculptural fragments, would become an important part of her artistic production during the remainder of her life. In the mid 1990s Bourgeois began to work with textiles, including old garments, primarily her own and those of her mother, that she had saved for many years. Imagery relating to spools of thread, sewing and mending maintained a central place in her practice until her death.

In 1993, at the age of eighty-one, Bourgeois was chosen to represent the USA at the Venice Biennale and in 2000 she became the first artist to create a commission for Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, for which she made Maman 1999, a giant Spider. Although her work has been associated with several different art historical movements, including Surrealism and Minimalism, Bourgeois always created works on her own terms. Louise Bourgeois died in 2010 at the age of ninety-eight.

Childhood Trauma

From an early age Louise Bourgeois's drawing skills were put to use as she worked in the family business repairing and restoring medieval and Renaissance tapestries. Her drawing skills made her indispensible to her parents (Bernadac and Obrist 1998, p.67). Bourgeois would draw and keep diaries throughout her life but her prolific artistic output was never dedicated to a single material or process. She worked in a variety of mediums, creating sculptures and environments in bronze, wood, glass, metal, fabric, plaster among other materials. Her selection of materials — as well as the processes used and the environments they were created in — are inextricably linked to our understanding of the work. Whatever the mode of expression employed, however, the driving force behind her art remained the exorcism of her childhood traumas. 

Bourgeois's childhood traumas relate  to her fear of abandonment, which stems from her mother's illness and death, her father's philandering and the horrors of the First World War. Bourgeois's highly complex work should not just be read in relation to one memory. However, her relationship with her parents and her memories of childhood would inform her work throughout her life. She later spoke of her mother's logical and intellectual approach to life, in contrast to the emotive and passionate character of her father, opposing forces that would later occupy her artistic practice. 

Bourgeois described her Spider sculptures as 'her most successful subject' (quoted in Cajori and Wallach 2008). She created a series of steel and bronze Spider sculptures in the second half of the 1990s, picking up a motif that she first depicted in two small ink and charcoal drawings in 1947. The spider, both predator (a sinister threat) and protector (an industrious repairer), is an eloquent representation of the mother. The spinning and weaving of the spider's web links to Bourgeois's own mother, Joséphine, who also worked in the family's tapestry restoration business, and who encouraged her to participate in their tapestry business. Joséphine was a woman of delicate health and Bourgeois cared for her over an extended period of time until her death in 1932 when Bourgeois was twenty-two.

Louise Bourgeois, Spider I, 1995 © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by DACS

Discussion

Identify the different materials used in Bourgeois's work. Discuss the types of materials used and what aesthetic and tactile effect they give the artwork. Think about what emotions the materials might reflect and how you interpret the work.

Activity

Identify works by Bourgeois that you think have opposing forces or themes. Create your own work, thinking about these opposing forces, and think about ways to relate them to an imaginary or personal narrative.

Artist Link

The British artist Tracey Emin (born 1963), who collaborated with Bourgeois on a series of prints in 2009-10, also has an autobiographical element to her work. The Family Suite 1994 in the National Galleries of Scotland’s collection is a deeply personal series of prints recalling Emin’s childhood in Margate.

Home

Louise Bourgeois left Paris for New York in 1938 soon after marrying Robert Goldwater and just prior to the breakout of the Second World War. Her early paintings in New York such as Runaway Girl c.1938 depict Bourgeois leaving behind her childhood home while Fallen Woman (Femme Maison) 1946-7 depicts a female figure with her head and torso covered in a house. Bourgeois wrote 'She does not know that she is half naked, and she does not know that she is trying to hide. That is to say, she is totally self-defeating because she shows herself at the very moment that she thinks she's hiding' (quoted in Asbaghi and Gorovoy 1997, p.98). The artist's longtime assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, compares Bourgeois from this period with Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz: 'Like the young runaway Dorothy Gale from Kansas, Bourgeois has been on a journey to alleviate a core experience of abandonment' (quoted in Gorovoy and Tilkin 1999, p.15).

Bourgeois revisited the theme in the drawing Home for Runaway Girls 1994. In this work the words 'HOME FOR RUNAWAY GIRLS: EMPTY HOUSES. LES FILLE MERE D'ANTHONY.' – which refers to a real girls' home – are painted in gouache on sandpaper. Bourgeois here reminds us of her ongoing feelings of displacement and her belief in art as form of therapy and escape. The piece is ellipse shaped, reminiscent of a door plaque and the rough textured surface is at odds with the comforts associated with the 'home'.

The theme of the Fallen Woman would be revisited by Bourgeois in Fallen Woman 1981, a small bronze sculpture, with a woman's head attached to a phallic shaped handle in place of her body. This sculpture can be seen as relating to the experience of abandonment, she is sad and pathetic, unable to Utilise the power suggested by her phallic extension. Bourgeois said that her early work could be related to 'a fear of falling' and 'later a fear of failing’ (quoted in Meyer-Thoss 1992, p.177).

Louise Bourgeois, Home for Runaway Girls, 1994 © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by DACS

Themes of the domestic and the home reoccur throughout Louise Bourgeois's work. Early works on canvas and paper of the mid-1990s show the female figure trapped inside a small-scale house, while her room-like Cell structures often contain objects associated with the domestic. Bourgeois explores the role of female identity throughout her work, often challenging the conventional role of women throughout the twentieth century.

Louise Bourgeois, Fallen Woman, 1981 © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by DACS.

Discussion

Fallen Woman and Home for Runaway Girls are artworks full of contradictions. Discuss in groups what these contradictions are and why the artist might convey themes of isolation, displacement and ideas of freedom in such a way.

Activity

Create an artwork based upon a journey you, a friend or a family member has taken. Incorporate positive and negative elements into the work.

Artist Link

The American photography Francesca Woodman (1958-81) often depicted herself in contained and claustraphobic settings, which allude to the domestic. Like Bourgeois, Woodman's work is often also discussed in relation to Surrealism.

Fear and Anxieties

Louise Bourgeois began to make her self-enclosed structures known as Cells in 1989 and they would become an important part of her practice for many years. The Cells are typically constructed from a mixture of salvaged architectural materials such as old doors, windows, wire mesh and glass panes, combined with found objects and sculptural fragments. The word 'Cell' is used to refer to both an enclosed room, as in a prison, and the most basic elements of plant or animal life, like the cells in a human body.

Cell XIV (Portrait) 2000 houses a metal table on which a red fabric sculpture sits on a small pedestal. The fabric sculpture is a trio of screaming heads, which are fused together. The three fused heads are reminiscent of Cerberus in Greek mythology where each head often represents birth, youth, and old age; the cycle of life which preoccupied Bourgeois. Fabric head sculptures appear in much of Bourgeois's late practice, either as single frontal heads, or in double, or in triple headed sculptures, such as Cell XIV (Portrait). Here, Bourgeois revisits themes of confinement, anguish and fear.

Louise Bourgeois, Cell XIV (Portrait), 2000 © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by DACS

Cell (Eyes and Mirrors) 1989-93, one of Bourgeois's first Cells, has at its centre a large rough marble stone elevated by steel girders with carved and polished black eyes, which look up at a 90-degree angle towards a large circular mirror. Other mirrors contained within the Cell are reminiscent of those found at a dressing table or an oversized vanity mirror, suggesting the sense of the domestic. In the ceiling the large round mirror is attached to a hinged circular panel cut out of the centre of the wire mesh ceiling, which can rotate to reflect different aspects of the interior. Walking around the sculpture can have an unnerving effect on the spectator as the eyes and mirrors confront and reflect the viewer. Bourgeois wrote: 'It is the quality of your eyes and the strength of your eyes that are expressed here. Nobody is going to keep me from seeing what is instead of what I would like' (quoted in Finch 1994). Through Cells (Eyes and Mirrors) Bourgeois invites new perspectives on reality.

The use of found objects by Bourgeois in her Cells signals the influence of Marcel Duchamp –who she once referred to as a father figure – and his 'readymade'. However, Bourgeois's selection of objects is rooted in memory and biography whereas Duchamp's selections are more conceptually based.

Discussion

Many of Louise Bourgeois's Cells contain found objects as well as hand-made sculptural fragments. Although the physical process of making was important to Bourgeois she also included these found objects. Identify what these found objects might be and discuss why you think she included them

Activity

Think about a room you spend a lot of time in at home. How would you change it into a Lousie Bourgeois type of Cell? What colour scheme would you adopt? What materials would you use to change your room? What is the title of your new room or Cell? Find samples and swatches of lots of different materials to support this activity and to build up a picture of your Cell.

Artist Link

The American artist Bruce Nauman (b.1941) has also worked in a vast range of media. Like Bourgeois he also studied mathematics prior to art and his practice can be seen as a open-ended inquiry into the stuff of the world, its materials, the body, language and emotions.

Body Parts

The human body looms large throughout Bourgeois's oeuvre; from her earliest paintings to her Cells and her fabric works, the human body is referenced and explored. In the 1960s, her sculptures referencing bodily forms and body parts became more suggestive of organic matter, distinctively different from earlier sculptures in both shape and their materials. Working in materials such as latex, plaster, marble and bronze, these works, such as Janus Fleuri 1968, used and repeated rounded forms, often suggestive of male and female genitalia and breasts.

Tits 1967 is a small sculpture cast in bronze. The sculpture, as the title indicates, can be seen to represent two breasts, fused together to create a single bulbous form. This double, mirrored image was a technique that Bourgeois employed in other works, drawn from the example of Surrealism. The form of Tits can be related to Janus Fleuri where two stunted phalluses are joined back to back to create a sexualised form that has connotations of both male and female organs. Both Tits and Janus Fleuri point in opposite directions the past and the future — referencing memory.

Louise Bourgeois, Tits, 1967 © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by DACS

Bourgeois more explicitly combines what resembles organic matter with the human form in Nature Study 1986. This small bronze sculpture takes the form of a hand, with a likeness to the root of a small tree, holding a small naked female figure. These small sculptures are typical of Bourgeois's investigation of complex emotional states through imagery of fragmented bodies or severed and dislocated limbs, which appear regularly in Bourgeois's work and are often referred to as 'part-objects'.

The term 'part-object' was first used by the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in her theoretical writings on infant development. In Klein's view, the primary 'part-object' is the mother's breast. Art historians have since taken up the psychoanalytic concept of the 'part-object' to describe sculptural works by modern and contemporary artists that take the form of body parts, often with a particular reference to sexuality, desire or questions of gender.

Discussion

By isolating a body part the artist is drawing attention to it and playing with notions of its connotations and representation. The body parts that Bourgeois isolates often reference sexuality, desire and gender. In groups, discuss the role of gender in Bourgeois's work and how she sometimes questions or plays with its conventions.

Activity

Play the drawing game in which you draw just a head and neck, fold the paper to leave a few marks visible and pass to the next person who draws the torso, folds and passes on again to draw the legs, then the feet. Unfold the drawing to find a hybrid body. Change the activity by drawing in some objects, such as a shoe or table to see what can evolve.

Artist Link

The American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) created a number of highly sculptural photographs of fragmented body parts. He once stated: 'I zero in on the body part that I consider the most perfect part in that particular model'.

Spirals

Certain forms and shapes reoccur throughout Louise Bourgeois's work, perhaps none more so than the spiral, since it represents 'an attempt at controlling the chaos'. She likened the spiral to the twisting of tapestries in the River Bièvre near the family business as a child and young woman. The spiral first emerged in Bourgeois's practice in two wooden sculptures of the early 1950s and the artist returned to it many times.

In the hanging bronze sculpture Spiral Woman 1984 the figure is bound by a thick coil, with only her limbs visible. Trapped by the spiral she hangs in midair, suspended and spinning in a constant state of her own fragility. Although the spiral has the capacity to control chaos, there is always the underlying threat that the spiral will unravel.

Louise Bourgeois, Spiral Woman, 1984 © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by DACS

In A l'infini 2008-9 spirals are present again. Here, the spiralling lines flow freely around representations of falling female bodies, disembodied limbs, a couple and childbirth. Interlocking etched, ribbon-like lines at the basis of the multipart work allude to the fibres that bind a single thread or a double helix, the building block of DNA or life itself. Bourgeois's A l'infini refers to the endlessness of life. The suite abstractly conveys life as a journey, moving from birth, to youth, to coupling, and ultimately, to death. Birth, love, sexuality and death are an endless loop in the cycle of life. 

Louise Bourgeois, detail from A l'infini, 2008-09 © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by DACS

The spiral can also be seen in a suite of twelve woodcuts named Spirals from 2005. Nine of the prints use red ink, two black, and one blue. Some of the spirals are loose and sketchy while others are more tightly wound and uniform. In the sculpture Nature Study 1986 a tightly coiled spiral morphs into a hand holding a human figure.

Louise Bourgeois, Nature Study, 1986 © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by DACS

Discussion

For Bourgeois the spiral is an attempt to control chaos but it was always in danger of unravelling and spiralling out of control. In groups identify different spirals in Bourgeois's work and why you think the spiral relates to chaos. How are spirals different from one another?

Activity

Bourgeois described how she had less control over the spiral if she was drawing from the outside to the centre as opposed to the reverse. Create your own spirals using both the outside and centre as the starting point. Complete each drawing in a single continuous line.

Artist Link

Robert Therrien (born 1947) continuously builds upon ideas and motifs. Many of the shapes that reoccur in his work are not confined by their reference to a single item and potentially relate to multiple objects. Find out more about Robert Therrien.

Friendship

Jerry Gorovoy met Louise Bourgeois in the late 1970s and he was her assistant, confidant and best friend for over thirty years. Bourgeois made many drawings and sculptures of Jerry Gorovoy's and her own hands and would refer to them as intimate 'portraits'. Among the intimate portraits Bourgeois made was The Welcoming Hands 1996, a bronze sculpture of her hands clutching those of Jerry's, which sits in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris.

Bourgeois also depicted a representation of her friendship with Gorovoy in the multipart work 10 am is When you Come To Me 2006, which consists of twenty hand-painted sheets that depict the artist's hands and those of Gorovoy. The hands are mostly painted over printed musical score paper in red gouache, and the artist's hands can be identified by the wedding ring she wore. The title relates to the time Gorovoy would arrive at Bourgeois's studio or home to begin their daily routine together.

Louise Bourgeois, 10 am is When you Come to Me, 2006 © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by DACS

Hands reoccur in many of Bourgeois's works, often as a symbol of support or dependence. The use of the colour red is also significant since it represents heightened emotional states for Bourgeois. 10 am Is When you Come to Me relates to a personal narrative and its images convey the sense of reliance and bond of trust characteristic of the closest friendships. 

The body of Gorovoy would also be used by Bourgeois in some of her sculptures including Arch of Hysteria 1993 and Cell (Arch of Hysteria) 1992-3, in which Bourgeois presents a male counterpart to the classic nineteenth century stereotype of the psychologically distressed female. 

Give or Take 2002 can be read as a commentary on the sometimes conflicted reliance of friendship. This sculpture presents a two-handed limb – one open, the other clasped – an object that is simultaneously gentle and cold. 

Discussion

Colour is very important in the work of Louise Bourgeois; the colours red, white and blue - the colours of her adopted and home country - are particularly important to her. Discuss the meaning of colour for you; do particular colours have significant meanings for you, and why might that be?

Activity

Pay homage to a friendship be creating a work inspired by 10 am is When You Come to MeDraw around you and a friends arms and hands, thinking about the type of paper you might use, the positioning of the arms on the paper, the colours you might use and how you might distinguish your hands and arms from your friends.

Artist Link

Bill Viola (born 1951) explores universal human experiences such as birth, death and the unfolding of consciousness. In the work Four Hands 2001 the hands of three generations are seen in this work - a young boy, father, mother and grandmother - using hand gestures that accompany emotional states.

Writing and Recording

Early in her career, Bourgeois produced a portfolio titled He Disappeared into Complete Silence 1947, combining poetic text with a sequence of engravings. In later years she would incorporate words, phrases and drawing, and occasionally also embroider them onto cloth. The text sometimes addresses the viewer with a challenge or an exhortation: didactic, ironic and sometimes moralising statements are presented with a sense of playfulness, or, as critic Robert Storr says, 'with jarring psychological candour' (Storr, Herkenhoff and Schwartzman 2003).

In Repairs in the Sky 1999, one of a series of lead wall reliefs, the typescript text of the title is engraved into the surface in uppercase. Around the text are five cavities, which resemble bullet holes that pierce into the lead, 'repaired' with fabric and thread. Here, Bourgeois again combines opposing elements; the soft lead, thread and fabric are contrasted against steel, which has been hammered and distorted with the cavities and the text engraving. 

Louise Bourgeois, Repairs in the Sky, 1999 Lent on behalf of the Artist Rooms Foundation Photo: Christopher Burke, © The Easton Foundation

In the woven fabric piece I Am Afraid 2009, Bourgeois lists her fears as silence, the darkness, falling down, insomnia and emptiness, revisiting the themes and anxieties that reoccur throughout her oeuvre. Bourgeois was an obsessive list-maker with a fascination for dictionaries and encyclopedias, perhaps because of their sense of completeness and certainty. Her early love of geometry can be related to order, stability and lack of chaos. 

Bourgeois also kept three types of diaries: 'the written, the spoken (into a tape recorder), and my drawing diary, which is the most important. Having these diaries means that I keep my house in order' (Bourgeois 1995, p.108). Like drawing, writing was a compulsion for Bourgeois; her writings are a collection deeply personal thoughts and memories like her sculptures and drawings. 

Discussion

In groups discuss the quotes above by Louise Bourgeois and how they relate to her work. Think about uses of language in the work of Louise Bourgeois and when it might be didactic, ironic or moralising.

Activity

Looking at Bourgeois's work, make a list of words and motifs that reoccur throughout. Use the words to create your own phrase or narrative.

Artist Link

The American artist Jenny Holzer (born 1950) uses text in her sculptures and installations. Her text-based works present and call into question the rhetorical strategies of different forms of speech and writing, from philosophical tracts to fundamentalist preaching.

References

Lynne Cooke and Mark Francis, Carnegie International 21, exhibition catalogue, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh 1991.

Christine Meyer-Thoss, Louise Bourgeois: Designing for Free Fall, Zurich 1992.

Nigel Finch (dir.), Louise Bourgeois: No Trespassing, Arena Films, BBC. 1994.

Paul Gardner, Louise Bourgeois, New York 1994.

Louise Bourgeois, 'Tender Compulsion', World Art, no.2, February 1995.

Marie-Laure Bernadac and Hans-Ulrich Obrist (eds.), Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father, Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews 1923-1997, London 1998.

Pandora Tabatabai Asbaghi and Jerry Gorovy, Louise Bourgeois: Blue Days and Pink Days, Milan 1997.

Jerry Gorovoy and Danielle Tilkin, 'There is No Place Like Home', in Louise Bourgeois: Memory and Architecture, exhibition catalogue, Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sophia, Madrid 1999.

Robert Storr, Paulo Herkenhoff, Allan Schwartzman, Louise Bourgeois, London, 2003.

Thomas Kellein, Louise Bourgeois: La Famille, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Bielefield, Beilefield 2006.

Francis Morris (ed.), Louise Bourgeois, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2007.

Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach (dir.), Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine, Zeitgeist Films Ltd. 2008.

Ann Coxon, Louise Bourgeois (Modern Artists Series), London 2010.