MOMA New York celebrates the brilliance and the aesthetic knots and threads that unraveled in the life of Louise Bourgeois the French artist and sculptor who made her home in New York, writes Uma Nair.
"The subject of pain is the business I am in. To give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering. The existence of pain cannot be denied. I propose no remedies or excuses."
– Louise Bourgeois
MOMA New York celebrates the brilliance and the aesthetic knots and threads that unraveled in the life of Louise Bourgeois the French artist and sculptor who made her home in New York.
Unfolding Portrait is an ode to the artist, a tribute to the thinker, and a paean to the beauty of art that is born out of a catharsis.
Born in Paris in 1911, Bourgeois was the daughter of parents who ran a business repairing and restoring antique tapestries. After studying Mathematics at the Sorbonne, in the '30s she became an artist, moving on the fringes of Surrealist circles and not much enjoying the experience.
Bourgeois is known for her spiders, her giant spiders, when put into public places, have the power to stun you and make you stand and stare. In interviews, she revealed that the imagery in her sculptures was almost wholly autobiographical. She often confided to the world that she obsessively relived through her art the trauma of discovering at the age of eleven that her English governess was also her father's mistress.
Her writings reflected her symbolism as much as her materials. "I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn't get mad. She weaves and repairs it."
Among her many sculptures, it is the spider that is surreal splendour. Her materials were steel, tapestry, wood, glass, fabric, rubber, silver, gold, and bone. The body of the spider supports a rounded cage-like structure inside which is held a large white egg. The cage hangs below a cylindrical form, to which are attached eight thin legs stretching out to the floor. Each of the legs is articulated in three sections made of straight rods of bronze, with the exception of one of the legs, where the two sections are bent, creating a semi-circle. The lower parts of seven of the legs end in needle points where the sculpture meets the floor, while the eighth terminates in a small coil. The angularity of the thin legs and their different heights give the impression that the spider is crawling.
Modern art is expression
Everything for her was about expression and experience. Her tapestries refer to the family business, cages to imprisonment; marble houses to the security of her early childhood, guillotines to its brutal end. This quaint and curious symbolism turned each new work into a fragment of a psychoanalytical case history seething with oedipal angst.
"What modern art means is that you have to keep finding new ways to express yourself, to express the problems, that there are no settled ways, no fixed approach. This is a painful situation, and modern art is about this painful situation of having no absolutely definite way of expressing yourself," said Bourgeois. Scholars state that she took Surrealism into unexplored realms of psychic pain, sexual frankness, physical cruelty and aesthetic nullity. Where other artists explore a range of feelings and emotions, her art was about one thing only: her fantasies of sex, violence, and revenge. In many ways, her art translated her pain into commentaries on men and their wayward ways.
Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait explores the prints, books, and creative process of the celebrated sculptor Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). Bourgeois's printed oeuvre, a little-known aspect of her work, is vast in scope and comprises some 1,200 printed compositions, created primarily in the last two decades of her life but also at the beginning of her career, in the 1940s. The Museum of Modern Art has a prized archive of this material, and the exhibition will highlight works from the collection along with rarely seen loans. A special installation fills the Museum's Marron Atrium.
The artist's creative process is the organising principle behind the exhibition. Over the course of her career, Bourgeois constantly revisited the themes of her art, all of which emerged from emotions she struggled with for a lifetime. Also, she said there was no "rivalry" between the mediums in which she worked, noting that "they say the same thing in different ways." Here, her prints and illustrated books will be seen in the context of related sculptures, drawings, and paintings, and within thematic groupings that explore motifs of architecture, the body, and nature, as well as investigations of abstraction and works made from old garments and household fabrics. In addition, the evolving states and variants of her prints will be emphasised in order to reveal Bourgeois's creative thinking as it unfolded.
Mind over matter
Regardless of medium, Bourgeois's work was often performative, a dramatic extension of her inner demons. Her sculptures vibrate like talismans of existential dread. But the artist's paper works and fabric books are something else. They're playful and relatively methodical. Patterns and body parts synchronise and synthesise — manifestations not only of her anxiety, but also of her wit, and her endless inventiveness with form. Yet it was her gift for universalising her interior life as a complex spectrum of sensations that made her art so affecting. She was taught by Fernand Leger and often spoke of him with fervour. She was an insomniac who believed that you had to savour solitude to create art. "I have a religious temperament," Ms Bourgeois, a professed atheist said about the emotional and spiritual energy that she poured into her work. "I have not been educated to use it. I'm afraid of power. It makes me nervous. In real life, I identify with the victim. That's why I went into art."
MOMA Unfolding Portrait peers into the minds of one of the greatest artists who created art through the many facades of pain.