“It is difficult to be a woman and be likeable” So says Louise Bourgeois, subject of a new film opening this month. If you watch it, however, you probably won’t agree

It’s only when you see a picture of Louise Bourgeois aged four, taken in 1916, or a portrait of her as a young woman, taken in 1937 by the photographer Brassaï, that you realise how much of contemporary history her life has spanned. Marion Cajori and Amei Wallachs’ film “Louise Bourgeois: the Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine” is a deeply affecting and compelling portrait of the artist, begun in 1993 and completed by Wallach after Cajori’s untimely death in 2006.

At times Bourgeois looks like a frail little-old lady, Mother Teresa without the habit. At others she’s resplendent in New York art-scene chic, a voluminous, pink teddy-fur coat and funky cap, snarling at any question she doesn’t deem worthy of a considered response.

Curator and academic Robert Storr says: “I call her my French mistress. I think it’s her pain level I get. She can be very wounding if you allow her to be.”

She often speaks in highly quotable aphorisms—a gift to a documentarian—which nevertheless can seem disconnected and impenetrable until, piece by piece, the film’s title is explained and those disparate statements coalesce into a portrait of the forces that drive her, that inform her art, that make her into Louise Bourgeois, artist.

“You have to be very aggressive to be a sculptor…I want it my way,” she says. “It is difficult to be a woman and be likeable. This desire to be likeable is a pain in the neck.” “The purpose of sculpture is self-knowledge.” “The bed is only a bed, unless you want it to be a symbol for something else.” Here she is referring to her “Red Room” sequence of work, a disrupted series of family rooms subtitled “Child” and “Parents”. Why red, she is asked. “Why red? Because red is the colour of blood, it is the colour of pain.”

The “something else” is, of course, the schism in her parents’ marriage. She talks of the ugly faces that emerge when we cry and how parents tell us not to make ourselves ugly by doing so. When children cry in the night, she says, it is so they can bear witness to each other’s ugliness—to their pain.

Her experiences as a child have continued to inform, if not define, her work throughout her life. “My childhood has never lost its magic,

my childhood has never lost its mystery, my childhood has never lost its drama.” A trick that her father would do, making a “model daughter” from an entire tangerine skin—and his disparaging comments when the skin is revealed to have a phallus made from the orange’s core—still wound her into her nineties, reducing her to angry tears. Her family life was ruptured by her father’s long-standing affair with her live-in tutor—the mistress of the film’s title; she felt betrayed by both parents and tutor. Yet she is forgiving towards her mother, whom she symbolises in her spider sculptures—“a message of the temperament I love”.

For her son Jean-Louis, the making of her art is “like another woman’s knitting”, it is just what she feels she must do, intrinsic to her nature. When her father died, in 1951, their relationship still at odds, she despaired, often taking to her bed for days at a time. When her husband, the American academic and curator Robert Goldwater, died in 1973, their house became her studio. She has barely changed the décor since, despite having a separate working space since 1980. According to her long-standing assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, “she is not into decoration”.

Bourgeois’s insecurity about her own work was clearly a factor in her late emergence on to the international scene. She says: “I was able to work for so many years with a complete ignorance of the art market. It is not me who ignored the market, it is the market who ignored me.”

Without doubt that was in part due to the institutionalised sexism that marginalised women artists in the first half and more of the 20th century. But there’s something else. For Bourgeois, it was as much about making—the catharsis of work that she used to exorcise her demons—that drove her phenomenal rate of production. Her friend, the curator Deborah Wye, recalls being taken to the basement at the artist’s house. For a brief moment Bourgeois switches on the light and Wye is staggered at the amount of work she can see. Then the light is abruptly turned off and the viewing is over.

Bourgeois, it is said, doesn’t describe herself as a feminist artist, despite the overwhelmingly obvious fact that her art is a product of her experiences as a woman. It’s as if she has turned the old adage that “the personal is political” on its head. For her the political is deeply personal. Her art may be rooted in her life as a woman, but she is dealing with her own specific experiences. If anyone can make common cause with that, then so be it. If not, then they can go to hell.

For the disguised members of the Guerrilla Girls, who successfully campaigned for Bourgeois to be included in the opening show of the Guggenheim Museum Soho in 1992 (the original plan featured only male artists), she is nevertheless a feminist icon, whether she likes it or not. At the opening of the show, Bourgeois attended wearing a gorilla mask.

Throughout all this, the film features carefully lit and slowly examining shots of her hugely varied work, finishing with a montage of her giant spiders in locations ranging from Cuba to Sweden to Australia.

“My emotions are much too much for me to handle. This is why I transfer the energy of the emotions into sculpture,” she says. That this film can capture and convey both the emotions and the results of their transmutation to such great effect is a considerable achievement.

Iain Millar

o Louise Bourgeois: the Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine opens at the Film Forum in New York on 25 June

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