Louise Bourgeois: An Existentialist Act of Self-Perception

By Sabatini, Federico | Nebula, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Louise Bourgeois: An Existentialist Act of Self-Perception


Sabatini, Federico, Nebula


"Thank you father.

Father why, why, I said why does the touch of my friend's skin feel so nice?

Well my child that's a very good question, but I simply do not know

Thank you father.

Father, father listening to me who made the day and the night?

Well my child that's a very good question, but I simply do not know.

Thank you father.

I will pass your wisdom unto my children." (L. Bourgeois, The Five W's, 1999)

The life and the work of Louise Bourgeois show, constantly and astonishingly, an incredible mixture of experiences, feelings and settings, as well as the intersection of several temporal layers which she seems to recreate simultaneously within the inspiring tension of a single creative moment. Such a peculiarity poignantly leads to the complexity and to the forceful conceptual meaning of her artworks, which, as I'll suggest in this essay, are infinitely open to discussion and interpretation.

Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911 and moved to New York in 1938, where she soon became an integral part of the intellectual and artistic life of the city. After being involved with the French Surrealist Movement, she participated in the rise of Abstract Expressionism, shared the legacy of the New York School (the informal group of avant-garde artists active in the city from the 50s) and, in her early works, she anticipated the practise of Minimalism and of Process Art, namely that particular movement which didn't focus on the art object as a result, but rather on the creative process itself, conceived as a journey with its own meaning and conceptual power. Bourgeois shared with Process Art artists (such as Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra, amongst others) the inclination to use non-traditional materials (latex, wax, felt) in order to create forms and objects which focussed on the craftsmanship itself, as for example on the process of cutting, hanging, or freezing.

Her art, however, defies any kind of categorization. She has shown a progressive exploration of themes, techniques and materials, ranging from small scale, fetish-like sculptures (from Paddle Woman, dated 1947, to Germinal (1967), Maison Fragile and the Nature Study series in the 80s) to prints and drawings (such as the famous Femme Maison (1947), Spider (1947) and Father and Son (1997)) and room-sized installations (I Do, I Undo, I Redo--Tate Gallery of Modern Art, London, 2000). She has also mastered several techniques, such as carving, assembling, modelling and casting, and a varied range of media, including wood, plaster, latex, bronze, marble, as well as an array of found objects, so as to refer to the tradition of readymades originated by Marcel Duchamp in the early 20th century. (1)

It has been argued in different contexts, that in all her work she explores her own past experience in an ongoing quest to exorcise the painful memories of childhood and adolescence. Bourgeois herself has said that all her work in the past fifty years, all her subjects, have found their inspiration in her childhood, which "has never lost its magic, its mistery and its drama." (2) The childhood myths are often recreated in terms of loss and tragic cuttings off, especially the ones related to the house, another recurrent motif in Bourgeois's art, most notably in her drawings, but often evoked in her sculptures as well:

   The house represents the past. I go there, it's demolished. It was
   replaced by the Paul Eluard theater. The mayor of the little city
   said, Louise, I am going to put your piece in a park near the town
   hall; the French government placed a commission with me. It is a
   tiny place, but at least nobody's going to come and replace it with
   a high-rise. The demolition of the house means that the present
   destroys the past--cuts it, breaks with it. Oh yes, the idea of
   cutting is terrible. The guillotine appears all the time in my
   work--remember that poor guy the hysteric; he had no more arms,
   nothing. … 

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