On May 29th 2010 it was announced that Louise Bourgeois, world-renowned sculptor and artist had passed away aged 98 from a heart attack. Well into her tenth decade, Bourgeois had been helping to organise a retrospective of her own work in Venice, due to open the following week. Speaking exclusively to Nouse, the managing director of the Louise Bourgeois studio Wendy Williams stated “Louise was making art until about one week before she died.”
My own and many of my own generations’ first encounter with Bourgeois was her nine-metre tall spider sculpture Maman, which went on display at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2000. It returned to the gallery in 2004 and again in 2008, looming ominously over visitors on its spindly steel legs, cage of white marble eggs clutched protectively to its underbelly. It is an image of maternity that is both nurturing and terrifying, a typical Bourgeois piece exploring the binary conditions present throughout her oeuvre.
Bourgeois has been described by York’s Dr James Boaden, a lecturer in History of Art as ‘the singularly most important female artist of the last century’, and is highly regarded as a pioneer of autobiographical and confessional art, translating her traumatic childhood into visceral, stimulating pieces. Born in Paris to antique tapestry dealers Louis and Joséphine Bourgeois on Christmas Day 1911, the young Bourgeois’ life was far from idyllic. As a child she was well aware of the long term affair her father continued with the English governess he employed to teach her. It was the chagrin of her long-suffering mother, Bourgeois stated as the influence behind Maman, telling Tate “the spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend.” After the death of her beloved mother in 1932, Bourgeois began to study art full time, met her husband the American art historian Robert Goldwater and immigrated to America, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Channeling the frustrations and tensions of her childhood into tangible, physical form, Bourgeois created work which should have inspired revulsion, yet instead fascinated and bewitched generation after generation. She rigorously explored sexuality and the intrinsic power relations and differences between genders in a sensitive yet bold manner without ever veering into misandronistic territory. The body and its physical confines were the driving inspiration behind her hundreds of sculptures, creating active and passive forms that are unashamedly sexual, remaining as powerfully erotic now as at the time of their creation, despite the seismic changes in how feminism and gender are now navigated within art.
Bourgeois was a true pioneer, liberating and redefining how female artists and their ‘feminine’ art is received and defined. On hearing of her death celebrated artist Jenny Holzer wrote to Williams remarking “I orbited Bourgeois. My artist friends and I are crying today.”
Her legacy is one of transformation, charting the unfolding and blurring of boundaries between child and adult, male and female, human and animal. “It’s still hard to believe that she is no longer with us.” added Williams. “We thought she would live forever.”
Selected pieces from Bourgeois’ collection are currently on display in the Barbican Gallery’s The Surreal House, June 10 till September 12.