|I got peace of mind, only through the study of rules nobody could change.||—Louise Bourgeois, The New York Times|
Louise Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911 on Christmas day.
Her parents owned a gallery that dealt primarily in antique tapestries. A few years after her birth, her family moved out of Paris and set up a workshop for tapestry restoration below their apartment in Choisy-le-Roi, for which Bourgeois filled in the designs where they had become worn.
Her mother died in 1932, while Bourgeois was studying mathematics. Her mother’s death inspired her to abandon mathematics and to begin studying art. Her father thought modern artists were wastrels and refused to support her. She continued to study art by joining classes where translators were needed for English-speaking students, in which those translators were not charged tuition.
Bourgeois graduated from the Sorbonne in 1935, [ where she studied mathematics and geometry ]and continued to study art at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where she studied from 1937 to 1938 and at various other art schools, such as the École du Louvre and the École des Beaux-Arts. During the time in which she was enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, she turned to her father’s infidelities for inspiration. She discovered her creative impulse in her childhood traumas and tensions. In one such class Fernand Léger saw her work and told her she was a sculptor, not a painter.
Bourgeois had a desire for first-hand experience, and frequently visited studios in Paris, learning techniques from the artists and assisting with exhibitions. Bourgeois briefly opened a print store beside her father’s tapestry workshop. Her father helped her on the grounds that she had entered into a commerce-driven profession.
Bourgeois met her husband Robert Goldwater, an American art historian noted for his pioneering work in the field then referred to as primitive art, in 1938 at Bourgeois’ print store. Goldwater had visited the store to purchase a selection of prints by Pablo Picasso, and “in between talks about surrealism and the latest trends, [they] got married.” They migrated to New York City the same year, where Goldwater resumed his career as professor of the arts at New York University Institute of Fine Arts, while Bourgeois attended the Art Students League of New York, studying painting under Vaclav Vytlacil, and also producing sculptures and prints.
At this time she also befriended the artists Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock.Much of her work is created from a constant evaluation of her own past as she finds inspiration from her childhood years. Consequently, there is constant investigation into her past and an abundance of information is readily available. Her middle years, however, are more opaque, which might be due to the fact that she received very little attention from the Art world during this time despite success in her early presentations in 1947. Also the early 40s illustrated the difficulties of a transition to New York City and the fight to enter the exhibition world there. Much of her work during this time was constructed from junkyard scraps and driftwood which she used to carve upright wood sculptures. The impurities of the wood were then camouflaged with paint after which nails were employed to invent holes and scratches in the endeavor to portray some emotion. The Sleeping Figureis one such example which is coined as a war figure that is unable to face the real world due to vulnerability. Her creations during this time bore the likeness of situations, friends and family from her previous years. During this time, she developed much artistic confidence as she shaped her work and audience.
During the early fifties she was found with the American Abstract Artists Group, and made the transitions from wood and upright structures to marble, plaster and bronze as she investigated concerns like fear, vulnerability and loss of control. These transitions are important as she appealed to her art as a series or sequence closely related to days and circumstances. She coined her early work as the fear of falling which later transformed into the art of falling and the final evolution was the art of hanging in there. Her conflicts in real life empowered her to authenticate her experiences and struggles through a unique art form.
In 1958, they moved into a brownstone at West 22nd Street, in Chelsea, Manhattan, where she both worked and lived for the rest of her life. “I am an American artist, not a French one,” she remarked in later life, but although she took US citizenship in 1955, and spent most of her very long life there, nothing about her work is much like the bravura one-off confidence of American artists as far apart as Pollock or Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol, which, in any case, she dismissed as macho art.
Her own work derives from the body, or rather, from her perception of the body: she labelled one distorted torso, with many orifices and breast-like shapes, swollen and distended, a self-portrait because that, she said, was how she felt about her physical self, and by extension, how women generally felt, even while they studied copies of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar.
In 1973, Bourgeois began teaching at the Pratt Institute, Cooper Union, Brooklyn College and the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. She also taught for many years in the public schools in Great Neck, Long Island.
Bourgeois received her first retrospective in 1982, by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Until then, she had been a peripheral figure in art whose work was more admired than acclaimed. In an interview with Artforum, timed to coincide with the opening of her retrospective, she revealed that the imagery in her sculptures was wholly autobiographical. She confided to the world that she obsessively relived through her art the trauma of discovering, as a child, that her English governess was also her father’s mistress.
In 1993, when the Royal Academy of Arts staged its comprehensive survey of American art in the 20th century, the organizers did not consider Bourgeois’ work of significant importance to include in the survey. In 2001, she showed at the Hermitage Museum.
In 2010, in the last year of her life, Bourgeois used her art to speak up for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) equality. She created the piece I Do, depicting two flowers growing from one stem, to benefit the nonprofit organization Freedom to Marry.
Wonderful documentary The Spider, The Mistress, and The Tangerine