Louise Bourgeois

By Darwent, Charles | The Independent (London, England), June 2, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Louise Bourgeois

Darwent, Charles, The Independent (London, England)

Inventive and influential sculptor whose difficult childhood informed her life's work

When Tate Modern opened its doors in May 2000, visitors were alarmed to find the gallery's Turbine Hall menaced by a 35-foot spider. It wasn't the creature's size that bothered the public so much as that it was called Maman ("Mummy") and had been made by a little old lady, herself the mother of three. The lady in question was Louise Bourgeois, who was 88 at the time and has died in New York at the age of 98.

Whatever else Maman may have been, it was not a hymn to parenthood. In this, it showed a remarkable consistency. Bourgeois' spider was the latest work in an oeuvre which had, for 70 years, been based almost entirely on her own abusive upbringing. Given to pithy sayings, the artist once remarked that her childhood "never lost its magic, never lost its mystery and never lost its drama." That drama was to be played out from her earliest career as a studio assistant to Fernand Leger in the mid-1930s until her death.

Certainly, life chez Bourgeois offered a rich fund of material for a Freudian-minded artist. Born in Paris on 25 December 1911, the baby Louise annoyed her parents by disrupting their Christmas festivities. It was to set the tone of their relationship: in old age, the artist recalled her parents "fighting like cat and dog, the country preparing for war, my father who wanted a son getting me and my older sister dying."

Affluent tapestry-dealers and restorers, the Bourgeois moved to the suburb of Choisy-le-Roi when Louise was eight years old. Her mother had nearly died of Spanish 'flu the year before, leaving her an invalid. Deprived of sex, her husband began a series of affairs with English governesses imported for the purpose. When, inevitably, these fell pregnant, they were swiftly shipped back to England. Seven decades later, Louise Bourgeois recalled this period of her childhood in a work called Red Room - Parents (1994), an installation piece that includes a pillow embroidered with the words "I love you".

If her upbringing provided the budding artist with psychological material, it also suggested the means for expressing it. Like a character from a Freudian casebook, Bourgeois' father would cut out his daughter's profile in tangerine peel and mock her in front of her younger brother, Pierre, by saying "Look! She has nothing! Nothing between her legs!" In retaliation, Bourgeois modelled her father in bread and spit and cut off the figure's limbs. "It was," she would grimly recall, "my first sculptural solution." As an art student in Paris in the 1930s, she had flirted with Surrealism. These twin experiences would merge in a series of fetish dolls Bourgeois made from the mid-1970s on - works like the aggressively phallic Fillette ("Young Girl"), stitched in black latex. Lest doubt lingered as to their meaning, one work, made in 1974, was called The Destruction of the Father.

Mothers, too, played their part. While the gregarious Monsieur Bourgeois bought and sold tapestries, his sickly wife restored them. This provided their daughter with one of the mainstays of her personal mythology, and of her art. Recruited to help her mother, the child Louise could only reach the knees of the woven figures she was set to repair. In her own telling, this led to a fascination with dismemberment - with seeing humanity as an assembly of body- parts - that would inform her work for the rest of her life. If her father was a destroyer, her mother was a mender. "When I was growing up," Bourgeois later said, "all the women in my house used needles. I have always had a fascination with the magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair the damage. It's a claim to forgiveness." Thread and stitching were to be a dominant theme in her art from the 1960s onwards, culminating in the Tate's silk- spinning spider, Maman.

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