Louise Bourgeois Life and Art Periods

"Expose a contradiction, that is all you need."

LOUISE BOURGEOIS SYNOPSIS

Louise Bourgeois's work, which spanned most of the twentieth century, was heavily influenced by traumatic psychological events from her childhood, particularly her father's infidelity. Bourgeois's often brooding and sexually explicit subject matter and her focus on three-dimensional form were rare for women artists at the time. Beginning in the 1970s, she hosted Sunday salons in her Chelsea apartment, where students and young artists would take their work to be critiqued by Bourgeois, who could be ruthless and referred to the gatherings, with characteristically dry humor, as "Sunday, bloody Sunday". Nevertheless, this accessibility and willingness to advise younger artists was exceptional for an established artist of such standing. Her influence on other artists since the 1970s looms large, but is manifested most strongly in feminist-inspired body art and in the development of installation art.

LOUISE BOURGEOIS KEY IDEAS

Bourgeois's artwork is renowned for its highly personal thematic content involving the unconscious, sexual desire, and the body. These themes draw on events in her childhood for which she considered making art a therapeutic or cathartic process.
Bourgeois transformed her experiences into a highly personal visual language through the use of mythological and archetypal imagery, adopting objects such as spirals, spiders, cages, medical tools, and sewn appendages to symbolize the feminine psyche, beauty, and psychological pain.
Through the use of abstract form and a wide variety of media, Bourgeois dealt with notions of universal balance, playfully juxtaposing materials conventionally considered male or female. She would, for example, use rough or hard materials most strongly associated with masculinity to sculpt soft biomorphic forms suggestive of femininity.
comment to editor

Absolutely no spam, we promise!
Like The Art Story Foundation on Facebook

MOST IMPORTANT ART

TITLE: Femme Maison (1946-47)
Femme Maison(1946-47)
Artwork Description & Analysis: This series dealt with the dramatic changes in Bourgeois's private life in the early 1940s: marriage and domesticity, living in a foreign country, and mothering three children. Each drawing or painting in the series depicts a nude female figure whose head has been replaced by architectural forms that resemble houses. Bourgeois struggled to live up to her idealized memory of her own mother. These works suggest that she felt both trapped and exposed by the domestic responsibilities that consumed her life as she wrestled with finding her artistic voice.

  • Femme Maison(1946-47)
  • The Blind Leading the Blind(1947-49)
  • Femme Volage (Fickle Woman)(1951)
  • Forêt (Night Garden)(1953)
  • Soft Landscape I(1967)
  • Fillette(1968)
  • The Destruction of the Father(1974)
  • Maman(1999)
  • Spiral Woman(2003)
Like TheArtStory
on Facebook

LOUISE BOURGEOIS BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Louise Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911 and named after her father, Louis, who had wanted a son. During the week, her family lived in the fashionable St. Germain in an apartment above the gallery where her parents sold their tapestries. The family also had a villa and workshop in the countryside where they spent their weekends restoring antique tapestries. Throughout her childhood, Bourgeois was recruited to help in the workshop by washing, mending, sewing, and drawing. The workshop was overseen by Bourgeois's mother, Josephine, with whom she was very close. As an adolescent, Bourgeois attended the elite Lycee Fenelon in Paris. Tensions in the household, particularly the fact that her father's mistress (who was also Bourgeois's tutor) resided with the Bourgeois family, would later come to inform Bourgeois's highly autobiographical artwork.

MORE

Early Training

Louise Bourgeois Biography

Bourgeois had a wide-ranging education. In the early 1930s, she studied math and philosophy at the Sorbonne, where she wrote her thesis on Blaise Pascal and Emmanuel Kant. After the death of her mother in 1932, she began studying art, enrolling in several schools and ateliers between 1934 and 1938, including the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the Academie Ranson, the Academie Julian, and the Academie de la Grande-Chaumiere. Her first Paris apartment was on the rue de Seine in the same building as André Breton's Galerie Gradiva, where she became familiar with the work of the Surrealists. In 1938, she began exhibiting her work at the Salon d'Automne and opened her own gallery in a sectioned-off area of her father's tapestry showroom, exhibiting prints and paintings. Through her short career as an art dealer, she met art historian Robert Goldwater, with whom she married and relocated to New York City in 1938.

Mature Period

Louise Bourgeois Photo

Upon arrival in New York, Bourgeois enrolled at the Art Students League and focused her attention on printmaking and painting, while also having three children in four years. Throughout the 1940s and '50s, Goldwater introduced Bourgeois to a plethora of New York artists, critics, and dealers, including importantly Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, who bought one of her works for the MoMA collection in 1953. In the late '40s and '50s, she had several solo shows in various New York galleries. Her husband received a Fulbright grant and they returned with their children to France for several years in the early 1950s, during which time her father died. Bourgeois began psychoanalysis in 1952, which she continued on and off until 1985. In the 1960s, Bourgeois began experimenting with latex, plaster, and rubber, and also traveled to Italy, where she worked with marble and bronze.

Late Period

Louise Bourgeois Portrait

Bourgeois's husband died in 1973, the same year she began teaching at various institutions in New York City, including the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn College, and Cooper Union. She also participated in several exhibits in the 1970s and '80s and began presenting performance pieces. In the 1970s, Bourgeois also became politically active as a socialist and a feminist. She joined the Fight Censorship Group, which defended the use of sexually explicit imagery in art, and made several of her own sexually explicit works related to the female body, such as Fillette (1968). Marking her prestige in the art world, Bourgeois had her first retrospective in 1982 at MoMA, which was the first given to a female artist at that institution. In 1993, Bourgeois, who became an American citizen in 1955, was chosen to represent the USA in the Venice Biennale. She died in 2010.

LOUISE BOURGEOIS LEGACY

Bourgeois's work helped inform the burgeoning feminist art movement and continues to influence feminist-inspired work and installation art. The first assemblages of Louise Nevelson, for example, were produced a few years after Bourgeois had been experimenting with similar environments, such as Blind Leading the Blind (1947-49) and Night Garden (1953). Bourgeois's focus on both male and female gentalia during the 1960s was an important precursor to feminist artists such as Lynda Benglis and Judy Chicago, whose works address similar interests. Bourgeois's work always centered upon the reconstruction of memory, and in her 98 years, she produced an astounding body of sculptures, drawings, books, prints, and installations.

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
. [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org website. Available from:
[Accesed ]
comment to editor

LOUISE BOURGEOIS QUOTES

"It is really the anger that makes me work."

"I am my work. I am not what I am as a person."

"I love all artists and I understand them (flock of deaf mutes in subway). They are my family and their existence keeps me from being lonely. To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer."

"My work is obsessive. It doesn't concern the audience. I don't mean that I am not interested in the audience - but it is not my motivation."

"The only access we have to our volcanic unconscious and to the profound motives for our actions and reactions is through shocks of our encounters with specific people."

"Every day you have to abandon your past or accept it, and then if you cannot accept it you become a sculptor."

Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois Influences

Interactive chart with Louise Bourgeois's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

CLICK TO EXPAND

LEAVE A COMMENT OR SUGGESTION BELOW




We will address your comment shortly.
Error occured while saving commment. Please, try later.
Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon was a French Symbolist artist whose paintings, prints, and pastel works frequently include elements like cyclopses, centaurs, and abstract floral designs in atmospheric settings.

Modern Art Information Odilon Redon
Pierre Bonnard
Pierre Bonnard
The French artist Pierre Bonnard, although dismissed as old-fashioned by some of the avant-garde in his lifetime, was esteemed by contemporary colorists like Matisse. A member of the Nabis group in his youth, his innovative paintings play with light, decorative surfaces, and Impressionist techniques.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pierre Bonnard
Max Ernst
Max Ernst
Max Ernst was a German Dadaist and Surrealist whose paintings and collages combine dream-like realism, automatic techniques, and eerie subject matter.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Max Ernst
Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein was an American writer and supporter of the arts whose Paris salons were key sites for avant-garde art in the early twentieth century. She built one of the earliest collections of modern art, including works by Matisse, Picasso, Braque, and others.

Modern Art Information Gertrude Stein
John Cage
John Cage
John Cage was an American composer and conceptual artist who incorporated chance, silence, and environmental effects into his performances. An important art theorist, he influenced choreographers, musicians, and the Fluxus artists of the 1970s.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information John Cage
Robert Goldwater
Robert Goldwater
Robert Goldwater was an art historian and the first director of the Museum of Primitive Art in New York.

Modern Art Information Robert Goldwater
Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Marcel Duchamp
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim, the neice of Solomon R. Guggenheim, was a collector, patron, and eclectic personality deeply connected to modern art. She gave important exhibitions to many Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist artists at her Art of This Century gallery in New York in the 1940s.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Peggy Guggenheim
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Joan Miró
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Impressionism
Impressionism
A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Impressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse
Eva Hesse was a major New York artist whose sculpture, assemblage, and installation brought issues of feminism and the body into Minimalism's formal vocabulary. She is heralded as one of the quintessential Post-Minimalist artists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Eva Hesse
Louise Nevelson
Louise Nevelson
Louise Nevelson was a Russian-born American artist who worked in the WPA and was a member of the Abstract Expressionist scene. She is best known for her black-painted constructions of assembled crates, boxes, headboards, and other wooden materials.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Louise Nevelson
Lynda Benglis
Lynda Benglis
Lynda Benglis is an American artist associated with process-based and anti-form art. Best known for her floor-based "spills" and latex sculptures, she adds a critical feminist perspective to post-minimalist work.

Modern Art Information Lynda Benglis
Guerilla Girls
Guerilla Girls
The Guerilla Girls are a radical feminist activist group that agitates for women's equality in museums and the art world. Originating in the 1980s, they are famous for their poster designs and the gorilla masks their members wear as disguises.

Modern Art Information Guerilla Girls
Sophie Calle
Sophie Calle
Sophie Calle is a French conceptual artist whose photographs, writing, installations, and events explore voyeurism and the construction of identity.

Modern Art Information Sophie Calle
Lucy Lippard
Lucy Lippard
Lucy Lippard is an American art scholar and curator who has focused on postmodern movements such as conceptual art, feminist theory, and land art.

Modern Art Information Lucy Lippard
Tracey Emin
Tracey Emin
Tracey Emin is a British artist and a member of the famed YBA's (Young British Artists). She is best known for her provocative and sexually-charged works, often in the form of large-scale installation. Most recently she opened the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery, along with Jools Holland, and she remains an active art instructor in her native England.

Modern Art Information Tracey Emin
Feminist Art
Feminist Art
Feminist art emerged in the 1960s and '70s to explore questions of sex, power, the body, and the ways in which gender categories structure how we see and understand the world. Developing at the same time as many new media strategies, feminist art frequently involves text, installation, and performance elements.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Feminist Art
Installation Art
Installation Art
Installation art is a genre of contemporary art-making in which two- and three-dimensional materials are used to transform a particular site. Installations may include sculptural, found, sound-based, and performance elements, and can be permanent or ephemeral.

Modern Art Information Installation Art
Body Art
Body Art
Body art is art form that uses the human body as its canvas. Tattoos and body piercings are the most common form of body art. Other types include branding, scarification, body shaping, full body tattoo and body painting. Body art can take a more extreme form in bodily mutilation and acts of physical endurance.

Modern Art Information Body Art
André Breton
André Breton
André Breton, author of the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, was an influential theorizer of both Dada and Surrealism. Born in France, he emigrated to New York during World War II, where he greatly influenced the Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information André Breton
Art Students League of New York
Art Students League of New York
The League is an artist-founded institution that arose in the post-Civil War years, when many art students became dissatisfied with the lack of quality instruction in the basics of portraiture, sculpture and composition offered by New York art schools. During the Depression years, many young artists who would eventually define the Abstract Expressionist movement spent their formative years studying and teaching at the League.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Art Students League of New York
Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Alfred H. Barr, Jr. was an American art historian, collector, and the first director of The Museum of Modern Art. Barr was very influential in MoMA's early years, arranging seminal exhibitions of works by Van Gogh, Léger, the Post-Impressionists and the Cubists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
The Museum has become the home for some of the greatest works of avant-garde painting, sculpture, film and multi-media art in the world. While MoMA remains true to its roots as a place where new styles of art can circulate, its permanent collection is widely considered the most impressive and diverse assortment of Modern art to ever exist, ranging from late-nineteenth-century van Goghs, Monets and Gauguins to works produced in the present day.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Museum of Modern Art
Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago is an American feminist artist and author. Originally associated with the Minimalist movement of the 1960s, Chicago soon abandoned this in favor of creating content-based art. Her most famous work to date is the installation piece The Dinner Party (1974-79), an homage to women's history.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Judy Chicago
Femme Maison
Femme Maison

Title: Femme Maison (1946-47)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This series dealt with the dramatic changes in Bourgeois's private life in the early 1940s: marriage and domesticity, living in a foreign country, and mothering three children. Each drawing or painting in the series depicts a nude female figure whose head has been replaced by architectural forms that resemble houses. Bourgeois struggled to live up to her idealized memory of her own mother. These works suggest that she felt both trapped and exposed by the domestic responsibilities that consumed her life as she wrestled with finding her artistic voice.


The Blind Leading the Blind
The Blind Leading the Blind

Title: The Blind Leading the Blind (1947-49)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The Blind Leading the Blind, constructed from pointed wooden planks attached to a flat beam, is an early sculpture in which Bourgeois used abstract forms to express personal feelings about her parents. The artist likens this piece to a table under which she spent time watching her parents' legs move across the room. Moreover, she recalls this memory as an unpleasant one, as she felt alienated from her parents and sought refuge under furniture.


Painted wood - Courtesy Cheim & Read, Galerie Karsten Greve, and Hauser & Wirth

Femme Volage (Fickle Woman)
Femme Volage (Fickle Woman)

Title: Femme Volage (Fickle Woman) (1951)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Femme Volage is part of Bourgeois's Personnages series, made between 1945 and 1955. The series includes approximately 80 standing sculptures touching on the autobiographical themes that occupied Bourgeois throughout her career. Each piece resembled or recalled a person known to the artist. These abstract totemic figures were shown with no bases and were arranged in clusters that for Bourgeois referenced a reconstruction of the past. Femme Volage is a fractured piece made up of stacked wooden forms on a central rod that resembles a needle or spindle, tools that likely reference her mother's work as a weaver. This work also shows her early interest in the spiral form.


Painted wood and stainless steel - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Forêt (Night Garden)
Forêt (Night Garden)

Title: Forêt (Night Garden) (1953)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This work evolved from Bourgeois's Personnages, but whereas the earlier works were rigid and singular, Forêt shows what Bourgeois referred to as a "softening" in her work stemming "from the softness of my children and of my husband ... I got the nerve to look around me, to let go. Not to be so nervous. Not to be so tense." These less severe, often bulbous and increasingly biomorphic shapes would come to define her work and indicate the enduring influence Surrealism had upon her. In Forêt, unlike in Personnages, the wooden forms are placed together on a single base and suggest human figures or even plant forms huddled together. The artist leaves it to the viewer's imagination to decide if one is being excluded from this group, or if these are figures banding together for protection and intimacy.


Painted wood - The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Soft Landscape I
Soft Landscape I

Title: Soft Landscape I (1967)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In the 1960s, Bourgeois shifted from working with wood to other materials such as plaster, cement, aluminum, and latex. In 1967, she created The Landscape series, which consisted of amorphous shapes rather than the stiff, upright forms of the previous decade. Soft Landscape I was made by pouring caramel-colored resin over biomorphic forms that resemble a landscape. Indeed, Bourgeois described the bubbling and sprouting figures in this series as inspired both by the human body and by landscape, saying that the "body could be considered from a topological point of view, a landscape with mounds and valleys and caves and holes, so it seems rather evident . . . that our body is a figuration that appears in Mother Earth." Other pieces in the series play with the disruption of the soft/hard binary. In the End of Softness (1967), for example, gentle biomorphic forms are made of bronze.


Plastic - Courtesy Cheim & Read, Galerie Karsten Greve and Hauser & Wirth

Fillette
Fillette

Title: Fillette (1968)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This is one of Bourgeois's most famous works. The piece showcases her use of biomorphic imagery as well as her experiments with and distortions of both male and female anatomy, often to the point that they become indistinguishable. Here, the testicles can also be read as breasts and the erect penis can be seen as a neck. The bizarre juxtaposition of the title, which means little girl in English, and the priapism of the work suggests a girl metamorphosed into that which threatens her. In one version, the piece hangs from a hook and thus references castration; in the second version, the piece is being carried. Bourgeois was photographed doing the latter in a famous photograph of her by Robert Mapplethorpe (1982).


Latex over plaster - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Destruction of the Father
The Destruction of the Father

Title: The Destruction of the Father (1974)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This was Bourgeois's first installation piece at a time when installation art was in its infancy and was being used by feminists such as Judy Chicago. The work was also Bourgeois's first to explicitly reveal her anger over her father's infidelity, which was an underlying motivation for much of her work. Relying on the soft forms of her Landscape series and her often explicit body imagery, the work reenacts a childhood fantasy wherein she takes revenge on her father, who always gloated and bragged at the dinner table. A life-size dining table in a cave or womb-like space is covered with flesh-colored anthropomorphic forms that appear like dismembered body parts as well as actual joints of lamb, which underscore implied violence. The scene is bathed in a soft red light that symbolizes anger, death, and blood, inviting the viewer to witness the aftermath of the killing.


Plaster, latex, wood, fabric

Maman
Maman

Title: Maman (1999)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The spider first appears in Bourgeois's work in the 1940s, and had explicit, positive associations for the artist, who saw the spider as a symbol of her mother. Bourgeois is explicit about this connection: "The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. . . Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother." Bourgeois made spiders in a wide variety of media and ranging in size from a four-inch brooch to Maman, a sculpture over 30-foot-tall, which includes a sack containing 17 gray and white marble eggs, and is so large that it can only be installed outdoors. Though the earliest examples of spiders in Bourgeois's work are found in two drawings from 1947, she focused on the theme most consistently in the 1990s, at the end of her life, when she was no doubt consumed with memories of her mother and her childhood.


Bronze, stainless steel, marble

Spiral Woman
Spiral Woman

Title: Spiral Woman (2003)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Spiral Woman, a hanging doll, showcases Bourgeois's longstanding interest in both dollmaking and the spiral form, as seen in the much earlier Femme Volage (1951). Like Hans Bellmer's poupées, the figures in the Spiral Woman series offer distorted, Surrealist-inspired visions of the human body. The 2003 version pictured here is headless with feminine curves, but its spiral form connotes a masculine form, underscoring the overlap of male and female anatomy in her work. As with so much of Bourgeois's oeuvre, the spiral had autobiographical significance for her, as she stated in the following: "It is a twist. As a child, after washing tapestries in the river, I would turn and twist and ring them. . . Later I would dream of my father's mistress. I would do it in my dreams by ringing her neck. The spiral - I love the spiral - represents control and freedom."


Fabric - Cheim & Read

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.