Sex, Spiders, And Feminism: The Art And Life Of Louise Bourgeois

By Bridey Heing

Louise Bourgeois, M is for Mother. All images courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Bourgeois’ art fed a growing desire for women to be recognized for their work.

For admirers of art, there’s a unique fascination and energy to the places where works are made. Visiting the space in which a favorite artist brought their vision to life is, in many cases, the closest we can get to engaging with them directly. It’s like opening a tiny window to their personal world.

Spring, 1949; Paris Review, 1994

Soon, one such window will be open to the world of Louise Bourgeois, a French-American artist whose New York City home will be made accessible to the public this summer. Bourgeois left her home to the Easton Foundation when she died in 2010, and the organization has since maintained a small gallery of her work and allowed small arts groups to view the artist’s townhouse. The impending opening of the house has sparked new interest in Bourgeois’ work, which straddled Existentialism and Surrealism.

Among Bourgeois’ most well-known sculptures is that of a giant spider, simply called Spider. When you walk into the National Gallery of Art’s (NGA) Sculpture Garden in Washington DC, it’s hard to miss. The greater-than-life size work is an eerie, unsettling presence. The legs, though spindly, appear strong and defensive. The body is dense and tightly wound, seemingly caught en route to crouching in the center of the splayed legs.

The greater-than-life size work is an eerie, unsettling presence.
Mortise, 1950; the puritan (2), 1990

Throughout her life, she created multiple works featuring spiders, entitled Maman (mother). “The spiders were an ode to my mother,” Bourgeois told The Guardian in a rare interview. “She was a tapestry woman, and like a spider, was a weaver. She protected me and was my best friend.”

But as is true with many artists, the works that gain mainstream recognition only scratch the surface of her remarkable career. “I think that pegs her as a one-theme artist, and in fact she’s far more than that,” the gallery’s Curator of Modern Prints and Drawings, Judith Brodie, says of the spiders, which are intentionally missing from a special exhibit at the NGA entitled, No Exit.

the puritan(3), 1990

Brodie made a decision that the exhibit was an opportunity to celebrate the NGA’s growing collection of Bourgeois’ work, which has grown from just one print 15 years ago to a considerable array of multi-medium works. “When people think of her they think of her as a sculptor first,” Brodie says. “What makes someone a sculptor? This is someone who did works on paper, textiles, so many different media.”

La tapisserie de mon enfance-Mountain in Aubusson (The Tapestry Of My Childhood), 1947

The French-born Bourgeois defied categorization throughout her illustrious career, which spanned seven decades. She spoke often of her father’s domineering presence over her childhood, and his affairs over 10 years, as a trauma reflected in her work. The loss of her mother when Bourgeois was 21 is another pain that she translated into her work, including the Maman series.

Although Bourgeois started creating works in the 1930s, it wasn’t until the 1970s that she started receiving widespread attention. By then she had married American Robert Goldwater and relocated to New York City, where she had four one-woman exhibits until 1978, when the art world took note of her explicitly sexual and remarkable works.

the puritan (7), 1990

Her influence was at least in part driven by the fact that Bourgeois was nothing short of fascinating herself. Living to almost 100 years old, Bourgeois was a larger-than-life figure who created works that reflected and spoke to her public image.

“There’s a persona there that is very strong,” Brodie says. “The art and the story went together very well . . . She was an eccentric.”

Her work is equally eccentric, but in a decidedly menacing way. The NGA’s No Exit exhibit is housed in just two rooms which dead-end, but even in such a diminutive space, her energy is palpable.

The art and the story went together very well.

“The fact is that she’s a very interesting artist in the way that you might see Ellsworth Kelly as an artist who activates spaces,” Brodie says, of what sets Bourgeois apart. “There are some artists that electrify the space around them. I remember seeing one of her spiders in a room once, a large one, and I like that compression, that sense of being close to these things.”

The first work on view is the multi-panel “He Disappeared Into Complete Silence,” which pairs prints with small passages of text that each tell a story. A rare work due to the loss of the original plates, “Disappeared” is an example of the haunting power Bourgeois’ works have. Simple but striking, the text passages are heartbreaking in their capture of everyday sadnesses.

“They’re creepy; they’re funny in an absurd sort of way,” Brodie says of the work, themes she wanted to highlight in the exhibit. “I think it kind of underscores this idea that, yeah, she looks like a Surrealist, but there’s a lot about her work that speaks to Existentialism.”

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Bourgeois eschewed close alignment with any one movement of the 20th century, although she was perhaps most involved with Surrealism.

“She certainly knew a lot of Surrealists and knew what they were doing,” Brodie says of the association. “She was in Paris when Surrealism was really bubbling and it certainly informed her early understanding of how you make art or what art could be about.”

But even as she referenced Sartre and embraced Surrealism, she didn’t do so without some critique. In the 1930s she wrote in her diary:

“All movements painted by Picasso have been seen and felt; he is never theatrical. The Surrealists are theatrical . . . Theater is the image of life . . . Keep your integrity. You will only count, for yourself and in your art, to the extent that you keep your integrity.”

One label Bourgeois rejected repeatedly, yet is most linked to today, is “feminist.” Bourgeois’ work had a distinctively feminine focus, exposing the female body in a way that many other artists shied away from at the time. She has focused on themes of motherhood, including in her early work Femme Maison, which explored the changes she experienced in the 1940s, moving through marriage and motherhood. As Helen Posner wrote in 2007’s After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art:

“These emotional states and the imagery the artist created from them are based on her difficult experiences growing up in a largely patriarchal society. Fear and pain, anger and aggression, and sexuality and obsession frequently find expression in the artist’s charged representations of the body — or body part — and the home”

But given the context of her work and the time in which she was creating it, drawing a line between Bourgeois and feminism is extremely difficult. Despite the artist’s own statements, her place in the art world fed a growing desire for women to be recognized for their work.

He disappeared into Complete Silence, Plate 3, 1947

“She was a woman being taken seriously in the 1970s when a lot of women were very eager to get the sort of attention that the men were getting,” Brodie says of Bourgeois’ rejection of feminism.

“You have a tough-minded, independent, creative woman who is garnering a lot of attention and I think for a lot of other women that was empowering. In that sense I think she was very important to feminist history, but not because she set out to be a feminist . . . I think she embraced other women, but she always said, ‘I’m not a feminist.’”

Since her death in 2010, Bourgeois has continued to gain attention. The recent announcement that her home will be opened as a museum has driven new interest in her works, and her revolutionary feminine perspective draws praise from the resurgent feminist community. As Brodie sees it, we’re at a point in the art world that can even accommodate Bourgeois’ independence.

“Where will she end up being 50 years from now in the history books?” Brodie asks. “She doesn’t conform to any one movement. But these days, there is no reigning movement. How people will deal with that in the future when you can’t have a chapter on [a specific movement] will be interesting . . . She’ll still be there.”

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