She attempted to commit suicide twice: when her mother passed away and when her father tried to marry her off to one of his friends.
Louise Bourgeois went through these and many other bitter experiences that permeated her dark, bloodcurdling, and shocking art. This is the result of a life subsumed by guilt and fear, overwhelming amounts of horror. Although she repudiated Freud and his work, her art can be seen as a free association that gives clues to her unconscious mind and even better, they give unparalleled insight into her personal creative process.
Bourgeois always lived under the asphyxiating protection of her mother, a sort of spider who built a net around Bourgeois and her brothers. This relationship is reflected in one of her most impressive pieces, Maman (1999), which means ‘mother’ in French. It’s a spider that weighs about 22 tons and is 10 meters high. Its gigantic legs look like prison bars that are meant to protect its offspring. The sculpture is so detailed that one can even see her offspring under her belly. This overprotection caused a deep impact on the artist’s mind, who often felt overwhelmed and saw her mother as a scary being willing to create a fence of sinister love around her.
It was her mother the one who drove her to study maths. When she passed away, Louise Bourgeois cut the thread that once united them and pursued a career in art. That’s the moment when she began distancing herself from the figure of her mother, although her mother’s shadow was always present in her life, as Maman shows.
Besides that, her father was also a definitive figure in her life and artistic work. It’s said that she had a love-hate relationship with him and viewed him as an absent man who had abandoned his family during the war. Louise Bourgeois knew what it felt to be apart from a man that had the moral obligation to protect her, not only from the dangers of the outer world, but also from that gigantic spider that asphyxiated her with her excessive nurturing.
The Destruction of the Father (1974) is a great example of that inner desire to destroy a man who not only abandoned her, but also had extramarital sex with the nanny that took care of her and her brothers. He was a promiscuous man, hungry for sex, who would constantly arrived home with his face stained with lipstick. Of course, his wife knew what was going on, yet she never confronted him. She was like a spider who preferred to hide in dark corners, out of fear of the gigantic creature with the power to squash her. That irresponsibility and extreme promiscuity is reflected in the symbolic murder of her father. The piece presents a family dinner where Louise Bourgeois, her mother, and brothers throw themselves over the father to dismember him. Afterwards, they devour his body and reach a peace of mind they have always longed for; they’ve destroyed the man they loved and hated at the same time.
Art critic Philip Larratt-Smith says that “Bourgeois’s art offers unique insight into the linkage between the creative process and its cathartic function. Taken as a whole, her art and writings represent an original contribution to the psychoanalytic inquiry into symbol formation, the unconscious, the talking cure, the family romance, maternal and paternal identifications, and the fragmented body. Through her exploration of materials, forms, and sculptural processes, Bourgeois finds a plastic equivalent for the psychological states and mechanisms of fear, ambivalence, compulsion, guilt, aggression, and withdrawal”.
Her prolific, unsettling, dark, and tormented life pushed her to travel through the paths of writing and poetry, where she also poured all her dark emotions:
April 24, 1952
My mother left me behind two winters.
winter of 26 – 27 when she went to Pau
I wanted to go away and save people from evil. Travail devoir veu
T D V. This lasted for years. I was 16 years old.
My father never belonged to the house.
felt at the hotel des anges with the three girls.
and the mannequin in his bed.
My father never belonged to the house. felt at the hotel des anges with the three girls. and the mannequin in his bed.
The long search for a father who would belong to the house. In St Sulpice and St-Germain-des-Prés. I feel at peace.
guilt feeling and need to be punished or atone for. Unable to blame a parent some children accept the guilt as their own, and want to pay for it. If my father had been unsuccessful in his bad behavior the way a foolish drunkard is we would have been glad to help him and like him and feel sorry for him. But my father was not pitiful, he had pleasure, unjustly, and did not pay for his leaving his family. He even put God on his side, at the dame time making fun of the religion and preaching “honesty.”
On top of that, it was my innocent mother who suffered, there was two injustices. My father stood as a figure of success in the family, community. He was rewarded by both pleasure and standing. Pierre never got either.
The cathartic essence of her work and the relief of getting rid of the long emotional load we carry is present in an interview she had with Donald Kusoit, where she states: “Sometimes when I finish working, I see if I managed to give a tangible form to what I wanted to express. Almost, almost, almost, every time I achieve it. There’s a growing tension that emerges from my physical encounter with the concrete material. From that growing tension, that’s always present, comes what I want to express. Suddenly, one interprets that tension and manages to express the desired. Suddenly, a full liberation is produced, just like when you wake up hungry. It’s a sign. If you’re hungry means that you did it.”
She passed away in 2010 when she was 99 years old, and throughout her life she embarked on a journey to return over and over again to her most painful moments. She was never able to fully put them to rest, so she fed on that sorrow and those wretched childhood memories. She lived in a constant creative spiral and her work was an attempt to exorcise this trauma.
These are some fundamental pieces to understand her mind and work:
Fragile Godess (1970)
This sculpture can be interpreted as a female body, yet it also resembles a penis with testicles. The piece represents her obsession with the union of her maternal and paternal figures in one being. Her hatred, yet profound love towards both of them is reflected in this robust sculpture.
Cell (eyes and mirrors) (1989-1993)
This series of installations reflect the artist’s childhood: it’s a confined space, claustrophobic, and limited by the overprotection of her mother. It’s one of her constant themes.
Spiral Woman (2003)
Once again we face a representation of both masculinity and femininity in one single piece. In this case, it represents control and freedom; it’s herself: “It represents Louise. This is the way I feel. It doesn’t mean she is ugly, right? It doesn’t mean that she is bad. It doesn’t mean that she is useless. It just means that she is herself, hanging, waiting for nobody knows what…”.
Is there anyone capable of freeing themselves from the traumas of the past? Louise Bourgeois proves that fears are infinite mirrors condemned to reflect an individual’s inner monsters. These fears can become spiders, words that hurt, sounds that deafen us with their cacophony, landscapes filled with stinking and hungry beings, trying to devour our soul.
Jerry Gorovoy, Bourgeois’ personal assistant for 30 years, stated: “She had psychological issues, of course, a lot of anxiety, awe, fears, depressions, and a great remorse for not being a good mother… but she knew that art helped her survive, all her creative process, not only the cells, were a therapy for her.”
With her father’s death in 1951, the artist found shelter in psychoanalytical texts by Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein,
Heinz Kohut, Susanne Langer, Otto Rank, Wilhelm Reich, and Wilhelm Stekel. Besides that, she attended psychoanalytic therapies with doctor Leonard Cammer, and later on with Henry Lowenfeld.
Louise Bourgeois once said that “art is a guarantee of sanity.” These are words that explain her strong desire to pour her mind in art as a way to heal her past and inner pains. Even though she denounced Freud and his psychoanalytical theories, it’s clear that she was a person who explored and materialized her fears. *** If you are an art lover, take a look at these 51 paintings you must know if you want to be called an art expert and BBC’S guide to understanding art like a pro.
Universidad de Palermo
Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards