Louise Josephine Bourgeois (1911 – 2010) was a French-American artist — a native of Paris as well as long-time, bonafide Manhattanite — whose most notable work, remains a powerful and unique aesthetic window through which one can view both the darker aspects of life, especially as seen through the lenses of women and children's’ issues as well as the more overt experience of women, of womanhood, and femininity in general. In Bourgeois’ art we observe a strange and distinctive blend of the themes of physicality and sexuality — the joy and shame encompassed by our views of sex, our culture’s treatment of the body — with that of the perennial and worldly womanly experience; the burdens or joys of motherhood, for instance, and a range of difficult, emotional, personal subjects, such as abuse, confinement, conflict, infidelity, neglect, and trauma.
While she was also a painter and printmaker, Bourgeois is, by far, best known for her sculptures and installation pieces. These artworks are some of the most striking and uncanny in her catalogue. Take, for instance, Maman, a bronze, marble, and steel sculpture of a giant, spider-like creature carrying a mangled, caged egg sac, suggesting a motif which recurs in her art and especially her print — pregnancy. Or, her Janus Fleuri, a 1968 hanging bronze piece that seems to tackle androgyny, mythology, and the unconscious mind; that work specifically — and, in fact, much of her work — is hauntingly beautiful.
The appeal of Bourgeois’ art — eerie, longing, bizarre, and morbid as it is — undoubtedly comes from her unique manner of representing vaguely corporeal figures in various states of emotional experience: pains and joys, struggles and fears. Bourgeois’ installations and sculptures are typically dark, warped, and deformed arrangements made from an array of materials — ceramic, fabric, glass, metal, plaster, plastic, stone, and even cardboard or wood — featuring contorted figures, many of which appear tormented or confined, conflicted or yearning, numb and unmoving, and a significant number of which are set against drab, cold, or deteriorating backdrops. These uncanny shapes tend to appear as if they exist in a liminal space between object and being; their bodies fleshly and organic enough to strike the viewer as being somehow representative of a living thing; inviting and engaging — and yet otherworldly enough to be, in some way — repugnant, disturbing, and sometimes even frightening. Amplifying this subtle sense of foreboding, the figures are often juxtaposed with the spaces they exist in. In many cases, Bourgeois’ “creatures” — often minimalistic, and their colors typically muted and simple — are installed into spaces that are wide and blank and bright, making them appear lonely or withdrawn. This evokes a weird sense of pity and compassion for the forms, which can, at times, appear as if they are somehow hopeless or alienated from their surroundings, adding to the unnatural sense, however absurd, that these things — these works of art — are actually pained, either physically or psychologically.
Of course, you can only stare at, say, Bourgeois’ Lady in Waiting — a small, malformed, multi-limbed creature made of fabric, sitting in an old chair, surrounded by ramshackle box-window-thing — for so long. You may start feeling bad for the object, telling yourself, “Hey, that’s messed up! I wish she could get out of there,” before you inevitably realize that the work may actually say more about the artist herself than the world she’s presenting her work to.
It appears that these artworks draw on Bourgeois’ own experiences and memories, difficult as they were to endure. Given that, if one looks beyond the symbolism of her artworks — their outer, universal motifs — one can get a real glimpse of Bourgeois’ psyche. Now, we only have a faint idea of the artist’s biography, but it’s probably a safe bet that her art suggests a tribulating childhood that blossomed into an eager and explorative, albeit somewhat morose, adulthood. Perhaps her work is meant to act as a cure for a broken soul, and a battered life; through her work, in giving her experiences physical representation, she seems to ameliorate her pains, and turn them into tools for growth. Indeed, the “creatures” Bourgeois conjured, with their suggestions of strife in the intimate aspects of life — love, sex, commitment, romance, family, and, ultimately, the toil of accepting one’s own self and circumstances — were cathartic for the artist. After all, she was open about the fact that for her, making art was a therapeutic process.
Her art is also, at least for some outside observers, a revelatory experience. Bourgeois’ transformation of ideas and feelings into visible forms — these distorted bodies — creates a kind of archetypal language; and, her use of symbolism can reveal the deep-seated problems inherent in the human condition, and especially those ordeals particular to the woman’s condition. Hence her work has been repeatedly referred to as a kind of feminist, or proto-feminist, art; and, because of her style of presentation, she has also been called a surrealist. Realistically, it’s impossible to pigeon-hole Bourgeois or place her work in a particular genre or genres; however, it’s not far-fetched to suggest that much of her art embodies both the surrealist and feminist currents.
Though it may sound puffed up, Louise Bourgeois is one of the great treasures of contemporary art, regardless of genre or medium: She molded shapes, wrought forms from metal and plastic and fabric and many other materials, in ways that no one else has. She created figures and installations both ominous and awe-inspiring. She left behind art that reflects deep uncertainties, vulnerabilities, and unspoken insecurities, endemic to the human heart. She made an indelible mark on the art world and, simply put, fashioned art works that bring light the fragility of the human experience, which will continue to speak the public, most likely, well into the future. Louise Bourgeois may be gone, but she won’t be forgotten.
*Note: Image credits are as follows: Louise Bourgeois (2013) by Arturo Espinosa: Pen and graphite on paper; private work. © 2013 Arturo Espinosa. | Maman (1999, cast 2001) by Louise Bourgeois: Bronze, marble, and stainless steel; in permanent collection: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa)—Bilbao, Spain. Photograph by Didier Descouens: © 2011 Didier Descouens; permission for use: Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) | Lady in waiting (2003) by Louise Bourgeois: Glass, stainless steel, steel, tapestry, thread, and wood; in permanent collection: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa)—Bilbao, Spain. Photograph by Christopher Burke/The Easton Foundation/VEGAP, Madrid: © Christopher Burke. (Date unknown.)