Still Life, Louise Bourgeois. (Looking & Learning)

By Chamberlin, John C. | School Arts, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Still Life, Louise Bourgeois. (Looking & Learning)


Chamberlin, John C., School Arts


About the Artist

On Christmas Day, 1911, Louise Bourgeois was born on the Left Bank of Paris, where her parents ran a gallery dealing primarily in historical tapestries. Later, in 1919, when her parents moved to the suburb of Choisy-le-Roi and opened a tapestry restoration studio, it was ten-year-old Louise who was asked to redraw the worn away feet of figures woven into the old fabrics.

Throughout her long career, Bourgeois has turned to the events of her life for inspiration and for the content of her work. Her mother was prone to illness and died when Louise was still young. The mistress of her abusive father became a surrogate mother to Louise and her siblings, Henriette and Pierre. Her grandfather and grandmother were sources of support and consolation. She states that her father wanted her to marry, be a good wife, and have children. She did all that, and much more, attending the Sorbonne and numerous art schools in Paris before moving to New York City and marrying Robert Goldwater, an American art historian.

Louise Bourgeois works with various media: wood, plaster, bronze, glass, drawing materials, and more. She creats discrete objects, room-size installations, and large-scale works for public spaces. She makes significant pieces that exhibit a very personal beauty. She worked continuously, albeit in some obscurity, until the 1980s when a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art brought her to the attention of a wider audience. She still lives and works in New York City.

Still Life in Art

Bourgeois created only a few known still lifes. In simple terms, a still life is an arrangement of objects selected and rendered by an artist to encourage close observation and contemplation by viewers. Still lifes may be laden with symbolic meaning or may draw attention to their aesthetic character.

One finds still life in ancient Pompeian frescoes, but it was not a subject actively pursued by artists until after the Renaissance. Even then, it was not considered as important as history painting or portraiture. Dutch artists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries created some of the most enduring still-life paintings, and in the early twentieth century, Cubist artists and others used the still life for their experiments in abstraction. At the time that Louise Bourgeois made this unusual sculptural Still Life (between 1960 and 1962), the subject was primarily seen in painting.

About this Work

Made of wood and plaster, Bourgeois's Still Life is painted predominantly white with a few discrete areas in black. (In the photograph presented here, only one rounded black shape is visible within the container, but in reality there are two other ambiguous objects with some surfaces painted black.) William S. Rubin called the work easily readable and quasi-naturalistic. The dominant container shape looks as if it might be a boat, an ark, or a deep dish containing smaller rounded forms. The container rests upon a support structure. There are very few straight edges, and while the forms have soft curves, the surfaces tend to be unfinished and unsmooth.

Familiarity with Bourgeois' other work might lead the viewer to read these forms as female body parts. The abstraction of the body is a signature feature of her art. As early as the 1940s, she completed a series of paintings called Femme-Maison. This interest recurred in sculptural form well into the 1980s. In her earlier pieces she depicted women in surreal domestic situations. One recurring image of the Femme-Maison series is a female figure carrying a house on her shoulders: the home a woman creates for her family which becomes her burden, punishment, and prison.

In later years, Bourgeois pursued some of the stylistic concerns of Biomorphic Surrealism. Biomorphic surrealism takes shapes and forms from nature, abstracts them, and encourages viewers to look into their own subconscious for meaning.

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