Louise Bourgeois died recently at the age of 98. I don’t know her work well; I mostly want to call attention to it because she was someone who worked and worked well to an advanced age—her last pieces were finished in the week before her death. She’s fascinating also because her achievements weren’t widely applauded until she was almost 70.
For many years after her husband’s death she held salons in her New York City home. A visitor to one of those events was evidently awed by her age: “It is indeed a privilege to be present as she teeters into the salon with the help of her walker.” I don’t think this reveals much about Bourgeois, but I loved the picture of her teetering with the help of a walker: I hope it would have amused her as much as it did me.
Bourgeois was born into a middle class family in Paris. Her childhood wasn’t one she ever put behind her: in fact most of her work is about her mother, her father and her governess. Her father was apparently a big personality: she loved him dearly but never forgave him for the humiliations he perpetuated against her, teasing her in front of others, and serially betraying her mother: she was still very young when she discovered that her father and her governess were having an affair. It was evidently a long-lived one and her hatred for him and the governess festered until she engaged it and turned it into her art at a late age.
One of her early sculptures (1974) was a piece entitled Destruction of the Father, composed largely of body parts. She described it as a kind of dream in which the children turn on the father over the dining table and dismember him.
Body parts were at the heart of much of her work where they gave shape to memories and emotions. Looking at her work is like being set loose in a dream where physical parts, processes and events are organized in ways that make us remember things about ourselves and our lives that we would rather forget, very fundamental things, often things of childhood. “An artist,” she said, “can show things that other people are terrified of expressing.”
In the ’90s, Bourgeois began creating mammoth spiders at the Tate in Great Britain, Rockefeller Plaza in New York, Havana, Bilbao, St. Petersburg, Seoul…. They are called Maman (mother). Spiders spin like her mother (a weaver of tapestries); they are, she said, like her mother, “helpful and protective.”
There’s ambiguity here — isn’t there? Spiders of this size are also menacing. To my knowledge, she never said that. I did. Perhaps I will someday stand under Maman and find her body a sheltering experience, and not at all an eerie one. Until then….
I also wonder about Maman who, after all, was created by Louise Bourgeois who said of herself in relation to her mother: “My mother was a restorer, she repaired broken things. I don’t do that. I destroy things. I cannot go the straight line. I must destroy, rebuild, destroy again. My rhythm is not the same. My mother moved in a straight line: I go from one extreme to the other.”
If you’re intrigued, there’s a wealth of video of Bourgeois and her work on Youtube!!!