Louise Bourgeois, 1911-2010
“I believe that if you work enough, the world is going to get better”
By Anna Somers Cocks. Web only
Published online: 04 June 2010
Louise Bourgeois, the Franco-American artist, died in New York of a heart attack on 31 May, aged 98. She is one of the most famous artists of the 20th century but this fame only arrived in her 70s. Over the last 20 years, her installation-sculptures about the traumas of her childhood and the anguish of being a woman in a woman’s body have fitted well with the confessional work by much younger artists (think of Tracy Emin), combined with an obsession with the darker secrets of the body. Although she never described herself as a feminist artist, feminists claimed her as their own and certainly contributed to her fame. Guerrilla Girls campaigned successfully for her to be included in the opening show of the Guggenheim Museum SoHo in 1992, which had been going to represent only male artists.
She was born in 1911 to a bourgeois family on the outskirts of Paris. The pain of family life, which was to become the grist to her artistic mill, her form of lifelong therapy, derived from the death of her mother when she was eight, the tyrannical and humiliating ways of her father and his love affair with her governess. She said, “My childhood has never lost its magic, my childhood has never lost mystery, my childhood has never lost its drama.” Something that remained painful all her life was a trick of her father’s. He would fashion a “model daughter” out of a tangerine skin and then make disparaging comments when a phallus emerged from inside. A famous photograph of Louise Bourgeois by Robert Mapplethorpe shows her in a funky furry coat cradling a giant phallus, one of the many she made and called “fillettes” (little girls). Another recurrent element in her work is fabric, the family business having been the restoration of embroidery and tapestries. Her mother she represented again and again as a huge spider, a busy worker with threads.
She studied art at the École du Louvre, knew the surrealists and Marcel Duchamp without joining any movement, opened a gallery in 1938 showing Matisse and Bonnard and married the American art historian Robert Goldwater. Although she did not become a US citizen until 1955, her life was American from then onwards. Her husband belonged to the elite of the New York art world and her friends included people like Alfred Barr, first director of the Museum of Modern Art, the collector Peggy Guggenheim, and the great Abstract Expressionists. Her husband’s profound involvement in primitive art (he became the director of the Museum of Primitive Art whose collection was absorbed into the Metropolitan Museum) certainly influenced her in the making of her shamanistic, agglomerated works, which never belonged to any of the dominant art movements. He died in 1973, and while it would be facile to say that this liberated her as an artist, the fact is that her career took off thereafter.
In 1982 MoMA gave her a retrospective, the first for a woman artist. Another first in her life was her 2001 show at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the first ever to be dedicated to an American artist. France waited until 1995 to give her a major exhibition, at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris.
In 1993 she represented the US at the Venice Biennale with Cells, little rooms containing beds, body parts, fragments of cloth, bottles, all metaphors for her past life, which are some of her most celebrated work. From then until her death, Bourgeois was continually producing for the major art events around the world and her last show opened on 4 June 2010 at the Fondazione Vedova in Venice with Fabric Works, spiders woven of ribbons. She was represented by energetic and prominent gallerists for the last decade or so of her life: Cheim & Read in New York, Karsten Greve in Cologne and Hauser & Wirth in London and Zurich.
She held open house once a week for artists, where she would criticise their work with sometimes brutal frankness. Her sharpness, non-conformism, mysterious, uncomfortable work and great age made her the embodiment of the artist as rebel and wise-woman combined. Of herself she said: "Art comes from life. Art comes from the problem you have in seducing birds, men, snakes—anything you want. It is like a Corneille tragedy where everybody is pursuing somebody else: you like A, A likes D, and D likes… Being a daughter of Voltaire and having an education in the 18th-century rationalists, I believe that if you work enough, the world is going to get better. If I work like a dog on all these…contraptions, I am going to get the bird I want… [Yet] the end result is rather negative. That's why I keep going. The resolution never appears; it's like a mirage. I do not get the satisfaction
— otherwise I would stop and be happy”…
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