Louise Bourgeois is probably best known for her spider sculptures. One of the largest graces/guards/threatens (depending on your personal reaction to arachnids) the entrance to the National Gallery of Canada.
From October 2017 to July 2019 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art produced the very engaging exhibition, Spiders. Because of their size, volume and apparent solidity, the sculptures invite interaction with the viewer, albeit tentatively, in some cases.
The exhibition also included more intimate pieces.
This smaller Spider from 2003 is made of stainless steel and antique tapestry. SFMoMA calls it an uncanny combination of materials that is both beautiful and disconcerting. The exhibition’s curator Sarah Roberts wrote about the artwork, referencing Bourgeois’ personal history. She says that Bourgeois laid bare a more fraught and complex psychological landscape–bright with devotion and protection but also darkened with feelings of guilt, rage and fear of abandonment or failure.
In a short video from the Tate Bourgeois says I transform hate into love. That’s what makes me tick.
Louise Bourgeois was born in Paris on Christmas day in 1911. (Yes! She was creating the Spider sculptures as an octogenarian.) She studied mathematics and art in Paris. (Interesting to note: she had a print shop next door to her parents’ tapestry gallery in a suburb of Paris.) In 1938 she moved to the U.S.A. with her American husband.
After they settled in New York City, she created The Personages. I find this series as compelling as the Spiders, but for different reasons.
Hauser & Wirth’s catalogue of her work for Art Basel 2013 is definitely worth a look. It includes images of Bourgeois, the Personages, and background information.
The appeal of Personages is multi faceted. They are made of malleable, natural materials: wood and plaster. (They were eventually cast in bronze.) The scale is more human-sized, as opposed to the intimidating size of the Spiders. She successfully uses the Modernist aesthetic of abstract symbols to evoke the presence of individuals – people to whom she felt connected, but from whom she was physically separated.
In an interview with the New York Times, Bourgeois said this: Suddenly I had this huge sky space to myself, and I began doing these standing figures. A friend asked me what I was doing. I told him ‘I feel so lonely that I am rebuilding these people around me.’
Perhaps the emotion contained in the works – the yearning, the loneliness, the love, the regret – is what I find most appealing. It’s palpable. At this time of year, in the midst of a pandemic, those emotions resonate deeply.