A long-legged, looming metal spider, nine meters tall, bears, in its belly, a sinister clutch of eggs. In different versions, it frightens museum-goers in Bilbao, St. Petersburg, and, as of this week, The Hague. It looks more like a prop from a horror movie than a work of art. Yet the artist Louise Bourgeois liked to claim that her best-known work was inspired by her mother, a craftswoman who restored antique tapestries. “I come from a family of repairers,” she said. “The spider is a repairer.” The sculpture’s title is Maman.
Bourgeois, who died last May at age 98, was almost as famous for what she said about her art as for the work itself. Her brilliant, abstract sculptures—some of which will be on view in the Gemeentemuseum in “Double Sexus,” a formally and psychologically rich dual exposition with the German artist Hans Bellmer—were often accompanied by deeply personal remarks about her life. It wasn’t just a giant spider, in other words, but an autobiographical statement. Her work was about her body, she said, or her fears, or her difficult relationship with her father.
She was small, and (since her career didn’t really take off until she was 70) very old, and liked to startle people with her work. One way to do this was to draw on her deepest fantasies; and if in doing so she broke another taboo, the one against saying too much about yourself, so much the better. Asked about her lurid installation The Destruction of the Father (1974) a red-lit, womblike cave in which lumps of latex and plaster seem to gather around a table, she replied that it was a cannibalistic fantasy. “At the dinner table my father would go on and on, showing off, aggrandizing himself. And the more he showed off, the smaller we felt. Suddenly, there was a terrific tension, and we grabbed him…and pulled him onto the table and pulled his legs and arms apart—dismembered him, right? And…we ate him up.”
Confessional art, like memoir in literature, is a form we’re still not quite sure about. It’s certainly enjoyable. It can make an artist beloved: Bourgeois’ frankness, humor, and forgivingness in exploring identity and bodies helped her become not only one of the most admired but the most lovable of contemporary artists. (If her work were reproducible in two dimensions, she would be keeping Frida Kahlo company on fridge magnets everywhere.) But it can also be shallow, with sensation taking the place of real insight.
Bourgeois was an artist of great technical skill and formal power. She was no Tracey Emin, exhibiting her unmade bed and dirty knickers in a gallery (although she helped make Emin’s work possible). Still, there were critics who distrusted her autobiographical statements and came to distrust the work itself, asserting that Bourgeois’ admirers were responding more to her biography than to any “intrinsic aesthetic quality of emotional truth [her work] may have had.”
The first ingredient autobiographical work requires is a good story, and that Bourgeois certainly had. She was born in 1911 on the Boulevard Saint Germain in Paris, next door to Café de Flore, and named after her father, Louis. Her parents had a gallery that dealt in antique tapestries: her father traveled the country, buying up hangings from decaying chateaux, while her mother supervised the restoration work. When Louise was a baby the family moved to a large house in the suburbs, with the workshop on the ground floor. Louise soon began helping in the family business, sketching in missing bits of the images for her mother’s needle.
It was a household full of unspoken emotion, and the tension and desire centered around the father. Louis Bourgeois was a vain, self-absorbed charmer with a Rabelaisian sense of humor, an affectionate and dominating parent who loved and bullied his most talented child. He baited and humiliated Louise, the way fathers do, in order to make her better; she felt helpless and furious and worked harder.
When she was about ten, Louis hired an Englishwoman, Sadie, to be the children’s governess. She was also his mistress, and she lived with the family for ten years. Joséphine Bourgeois tolerated her rival, though she also relied on Louise to spy on them and keep them apart. It was her father’s “betrayal,” Louise claimed, that was the great trauma of her life, the source of all the emotional conflicts that she would use in her work. Her mother’s capitulation, of course, may also have played a part, if only by giving her a lesson in what not to become.
After her mother’s death in 1932, when she was 20, Bourgeois studied mathematics at the Sorbonne. Later she switched to painting, studying with, among others, Fernand Léger. In the competitive Paris art world, she met a lot of “ridiculous Don Juan macho father figures”—André Breton, Marcel Duchamp—whom she admired but distrusted: she already knew the type. She said she aimed her art against them. She had a steely determination to hold her own.
But she also knew an escape route when she saw one. In 1938, when she was 26, she married Robert Goldwater, a young American art historian, and moved with him to New York. Goldwater seems to have been a rational, even-tempered man who supported her work. But here there’s a lacuna in her autobiography: Bourgeois said almost nothing in public about her marriage or her children. It’s not entirely surprising, since two of her three sons are still alive.
In New York, for the first time, she began making sculpture. Her early work was reserved and enigmatic. She made slender, abstract figures out of wood and placed them huddled together; she said that they represented her family and friends, and that they were about loneliness. She had her first solo show in 1947, and quickly achieved acclaim; the Museum of Modern Art began acquiring her work.
In 1951, however, the year of her father’s death, she stopped doing solo shows. When she returned to the public eye, it was the early 1960s, the era of Claes Oldenburg and soft sculpture, of reaction against the male bluster of the ‘50s. She turned from the wood of her previous work to more fluid materials, such as plaster and latex. Disinhibition was in, “letting it all hang out,” and that was perfect for Bourgeois, who had a lot to hang. She had the good fortune to have a rich inner life—or, depending on how you wish to judge her, a savvy eye for what might disturb and attract attention.
She began sculpting strange, bumpy objects that looked like, or seemed to be covered in, breasts, vulvas, or other body parts. Avenza (1968-69), in the Gemeentemuseum show, is a mass of latex lumps that could be people huddled together, penis heads, growths, or turds. When critic and curator Lucy Lippard invited Bourgeois into her groundbreaking 1966 group show Eccentric Abstraction, alongside such much younger artists as Bruce Nauman and Eva Hesse, she thought these blobs were “astoundingly ‘ugly’”—but by then, giving aesthetic offense could be a positive qualification.
Then in 1973 Goldwater died—and something snapped in Bourgeois, or perhaps broke loose. A year later she made The Destruction of the Father. With that defiant piece, the 62-year-old widow joined the great social movement of her time: the revolt of women and children against the authority of the fathers. Take that, Dad! And the art world, too! Her work became bigger, more outrageous, even more blatantly, discomfitingly erotic. It also became funnier. She staged a performance in which she dressed up friends, some of them male art critics, in latex aprons covered in breasts. The photographer Robert Mapplethorpe asked to take her portrait, and she posed for him, smiling, with one of her sculptures—a large latex reproduction of an erect penis, titled Fillette, “little girl”—tucked like a baguette under her arm.
It may be that this is where our craving for autobiography starts, with the rebellion against the fathers. Each step the West takes toward more democracy, greater individualism, requires that we tell new stories about ourselves. The Reformation brought forth the domestic scenes of Jan Steen; and in the late 20th century, when white male authority no longer prescribed how women, children, and people of other races should feel, we became fascinated by images of artists’ own inner lives. (Political and ideological art was another path, one Bourgeois didn’t take.) Inevitably, some intimate revelations shock or titillate—think of Steen’s portraits of drunks and prostitutes. But autobiography can also speak to the real uncertainties of the new individuality: Who are we? How do we feel? Once Dad stops talking so much, what will we say?
You could argue that Bourgeois took advantage of this quest for identity, or that it heightened interest in material that was already hers: familial conflict, the intersection of love and power, the nature of the self, the body not as an aesthetic object but as a troubling experience. She herself thought she and her times went well together: “I fit into history like a bug in a rug.” Whatever the case, her star rose and rose. In 1982, she was given a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, one of the New York art world’s highest honors. It was also the museum’s first large-scale retrospective for a woman. It made Bourgeois, at age 71, an art superstar.
Before then, she had said very little about her work. But with the 1982 show, the bombshell burst: she told the world about her father’s mistress and her anger—she published it, in fact, in an article titled “Child Abuse.” And her career flourished. Over the next two decades Bourgeois produced work after work of astonishing power. It’s sometimes implied that she did her greatest work so late because she had grown old and acquired wisdom. (Call it the Yoda theory of artistic endeavor.) What seems more likely is that she had been waiting all those years for recognition, and when it finally came, the work poured forth. To gain confidence, she once told an interviewer, “means that you cannot shut up.”
By the 1990s she had changed media again. She had found a devoted assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, moved to a studio in an abandoned warehouse in Brooklyn, and was combining wood and marble with cast-off building materials—glassless windows, chain-link fencing, battered doors—to construct some of the works for which she is best known, her Cells.
These installations take the form of rooms that suggest abandoned houses or industrial spaces. Inside, a series of sculptures and found objects evoke scenes of emotional tension and family life. Some of the Cells are frightening, some serene. It is impossible not to look at them without being drawn, not into the artist’s childhood, but into your own, into the interior space of memory. They recall the uncanny experience of being a small child in a strange world.
Cell XXXIV (2003), recently acquired by the Gemeentemuseum and on view in “Double Sexus,” consists of a steel cage in which two dresses and a mirror hang, along with a twisted mass of fabric from which a woman’s legs dangle. The cell is both a restful interior space and a prison, and the contorted body seems wrung by unknown anxiety. The dresses might represent the demand to present a false identity to the world, or perhaps the hope of self-transformation. Bourgeois said, “Each Cell deals with fear. Fear is pain. Often it is not perceived as pain, because it is always disguising itself…”
Bourgeois was shrewd in the way she presented herself to the world (and mischievous too: she knew what she was doing when she posed with that oversize penis). She almost certainly used her biography to “sell” her work, to make it more accessible—but when so much of contemporary art is difficult to understand, why not give the lay audience a leg up? She probably also used it to add an illusion of depth to sculptures that needed it. Without the autobiographical references, the giant spiders, as entertaining as they are, can seem merely theatrical.
But overall, her work makes a strong case for the legitimacy of autobiography in art. Autobiography can be gossipy, narcissistic, or literal-minded. But it can also be transformed into art of the greatest power. Bourgeois was able to remake her experience, through strength, craft, and profound psychological insight, into sculptures that move, disturb, and return our own memories to us. Autobiography, in Bourgeois’ best work, is placed at the service of emotional truth. In drawing on her own life, she opens a door for us into the place all that therapeutic talk comes from: the ravaged, half-abandoned house of our own most private thoughts.
Trouw, September 18, 2010. Louise Bourgeois and Hans Bellmer, ’Double Sexus’, through January 16, 2011, in the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague.