From Paris to New York: The Life and Art of Louise Bourgeois

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From Paris to New York: The Life and Art of Louise Bourgeois
“I have been to hell and back, and let me tell you, it was wonderful.” Louise Bourgeois’s quote perfectly captures her droll insightfulness about the vicissitudes of life. She considered her artwork, which spanned most of the 20th century, the end result of a deeply personal therapeutic process that transformed her traumatic childhood experiences into a visual language. Her oeuvre is renowned for its feminine and often sexually explicit archetypal imagery, though she never considered herself a feminist. Among the most familiar sculptures are the much-exhibited “Nature Study,” a headless sphinx with powerful claws and multiple breasts, and the provocative “Fillette”, a large, detached latex phallus. Bourgeois can be seen carrying this object, nonchalantly tucked under one arm, in a portrait by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Louise Joséphine Bourgeois was born on December 25, 1911 in Paris, France. She was the second of three children born to Joséphine Fauriaux and Louis Bourgeois. Her parents owned and maintained an antique tapestry gallery and restoration workshop below their apartment in the fashionable St. Germain district. The family also had a villa in the countryside where they spent their weekends. As a young child Louise often helped in the workshop by washing, mending, sewing, drawing and recreating designs faded by wear and time. The workshop was overseen by Bourgeois’s invalid mother with whom she was very close. Her domineering father was a serial philanderer. He carried on an extended affair with her live-in nanny, who was also her English teacher. Her mother was aware of her husband’s infidelities, but found it easier to turn a blind eye. The sexual tensions in her household simmered in young Louise’s psyche and became part of her autobiographical artistic signature. World War I also had a profound effect on her formative years. A beloved uncle died on the Western front and her father was wounded twice. One of her earliest memories was of traveling as a very small child with her mother and seeing, “…whole trains filled with wounded men with their arms and legs gone.” Bourgeois had a broad education. As a teenager she attended the elite Lycée Fenelon in Paris. In the early 1930s she studied mathematics at the Sorbonne, a subject she valued for its stability. She found peace of mind only through, “…the study of rules nobody could change.” She also studied philosophy, writing her graduate thesis on the philosophers Blaise Pascal and Emmanuel Kant. It wasn’t until the death of her mother in 1932 that she changed directions and focused on art, first at the École des Beaux-Arts and École du Louvre, then in the independent academies of Montparnasse and Montmartre, and privately with André Lhote, Fernand Léger and Charles Despiau, former assistant to Auguste Rodin. She describes learning from Fernand Léger, the brilliant interpreter of cubism, the way to express human emotions with minimal use of line. He recognized her interest in three-dimensional form and urged her to take up sculpture. She would later explain, “I could not be a painter. The two dimensions do not satisfy me. I have to have the reality given by the third dimension.” Her father refused to support her, considering modern artists to be ne’er-do-wells. Despite this she earnestly managed to continue her education by joining classes where translators were needed for English-speaking students because translators were not charged tuition. After several years devoted to intense study, she gained confidence in her own artistic gifts and began exhibiting her work. Around this time, she moved out of the family home into her first apartment on the rue de Seine in the same building as the Surrealist poet André Breton’s Galerie Gradiva. It was in this literary and artistic milieu she met the American art historian, Robert Goldwater, noted for his pioneering work in the field of primitive art (later becoming the first director of New York City’s Museum of Primitive Art) and the assistance he provided to many significant artists driven into exile by the Nazis, such as André Breton, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico. Bourgeois and Goldwater married in 1938 and moved to New York City. She enrolled in the Art Students League where she continued her studies with the Abstract Expressionist Vaclav Vytlacil, befriending fellow artists who later became famous, including Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, all of whom comprised the American Abstract Artists’ Group which she joined in 1954. For Bourgeois the early 1940s represented the difficulties of moving to a new country, raising a family (she had three children in four years) and struggling to enter the exhibition world of New York City. Throughout the late 1940s and 50s, her husband introduced her to an influential group of New York artists, critics, and dealers, including Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art. In 1947 she had her first solo exhibition of drawings using the Surrealist technique of juxtaposing objects. Also in 1947, Bourgeois created her series of wooden and metal sculptures “Personages,” depicting totem-like structures that taper down to a delicate unstable point, appearing to lean on one another for support. According to Bourgeois they are images of friends and family, particularly her brother, whom she had left behind in France, explaining them as “a recreation of people I missed… even though the shapes are abstract they represent people. At the same time, they could also be survivors of the Holocaust emerging from the camps, or the traumatized civilians emerging from the rubble of European cities destroyed by nearly six years of war. They are not only an indictment of the war, but also the ability of humanity to resist its impact. I think they are truly noble figures.” Bourgeois tried to defend artistic freedom under the difficult conditions of the anti-communist witch-hunts of McCarthyism. After applying for citizenship in 1950,…

Lead photo credit : "Maman" by Louis Bourgeois at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Photo: Didier Descouens / Wiki commons

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Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.


  • Jean-Claude Deguine
    2018-08-09 12:30:42
    Jean-Claude Deguine
    Excellent article to discover or re-discover this exceptional artist. Her long life (98 years) is covered in a clear and articulated manner illustrated with two short vdo. One feels to go to see her work which has been awarded by the greatest prices and honours. Thank you again for your article which inspires me to go and admire her oeuvres.