Bourgeois, Louise (1911—)

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Bourgeois, Louise (1911—)

French-born American sculptor and painter whose recognition as a major artist came late in her career. Born in Paris, France, on December 25, 1911; daughter of Louis Bourgeois and Josephine (Fauriaux) Bourgeois; sister of Henriette Bourgeois and Pierre Bourgeois; studied mathematics at Lycée Fénelon and the Sorbonne, 1932–35; married Robert Goldwater, in 1938; children: three sons, Michel, Jean-Louis, Alain.

Worked in the atelier of Fernand Léger, then mostly interested in painting and drawing; first became aware of surrealism (mid-1930s); married and moved to U.S. (1938); concentrated on printmaking, painting and drawing, but also began work in sculpture, developing a highly subjective style of expression; presented first one-person show, New York (1945); remained relatively undiscovered as a major artist until the 1970s; her sculptural depictions of human sexuality and her own emotions and memories were widely praised and analyzed by critics; a retrospective exhibition of her work at New York's Museum of Modern Art was an honor rarely accorded a living artist and signaled her acceptance into the highest echelons of American art celebrities (1982); presented with the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton (1997).

Born in Paris on December 25, 1911, Louise Bourgeois is a sculptor whose reputation as a major artist came late in her career, after many decades of dedication. Her parents, Louis and Josephine Bourgeois , were owners of a tapestry restoration business, and by age ten, at her mother's urging, Louise began making drawings that were used for the reconstruction of lost sections of tapestry. Hers was an emotionally turbulent childhood. Her father, a womanizer, carried on an affair with his children's foreign-language tutor, deliberately provocative behavior which caused Louise great suffering. Many decades later, she would recall the resentment, rage, and jealousy she felt as the intermediary in the liaison, drawing on these feelings as a source for her artistic statements. In a 1994 interview, the pain was still palpable: "He abandoned us. He left us stranded." Some of the spiral configurations in her sculptures refer back to this difficult and formative period of her life: "Twisting is very important for me. When I dreamt of getting rid of the mistress, it was by twisting her neck." Twisting also reminded her of the washing of tapestries, one of the essential chores associated with her parents' business.

As a student at the Lycée Fénelon, Bourgeois was fascinated with mathematics. She excelled particularly at geometry, the world of which did not permit the arbitrariness and confusion that were representative of an often unhappy family life. As a student at the Sorbonne, she continued to study mathematics, also investigating major ideas in philosophy. By 1935, however, she knew that she would have to create a career for herself in the art world. For the next several years, she studied at some of the most important art schools in Paris. The strongest impact was made on her by the noted artist Fernand Léger, who aroused her latent interest in sculpture. Even at this early stage of her career, she began to exhibit a notable independence of thought. During these years, her drawings and paintings were strongly influenced by the dominant Parisian school of surrealism.

In 1938, Bourgeois met and married the American art historian Robert Goldwater, who had gone to Paris to complete his doctoral dissertation on the relationships between primitivism and modern art. Bourgeois arrived in New York in October and soon became part of the vibrant local art scene, studying painting at the Art Students League. She produced an impressive range of paintings, drawings and prints, influenced by cubism, which expressed her continuing love of geometry. In 1939, she exhibited for the first time in her adopted home at a group show at the Brooklyn Museum. As a result of the war in Europe, a number of major artists appeared in New York during the next few years and stimulated Bourgeois to explore her own artistic styles and intellectual assumptions. The work of Max Ernst, whom she had already met in Paris, brought her closer to the surrealist school.

By 1940, Bourgeois spent much of her time sculpting, and by the end of that year 17 of her wooden sculptures went on view at a New York gallery. Wood was to be her primary medium for the next several decades, and the pieces she produced were customarily columnar figural abstractions. By the early 1960s, she began experimenting with other materials, including stone, plaster, plastics, marble, rubber latex and bronze. Although she conceded that her compositions had became considerably more complex and varied—a change she would describe as a "change from rigidity to pliability"—Bourgeois explained to interviewers that the medium always remained secondary to the ideas or emotions she hoped to convey. "I am," she said, "completely free from allegiance to material." As her confidence increased, the works often took on a strongly personal character. In some instances, the autobiographical origins of her pieces were unmistakable. In her 1974 "Destruction of the Father," Bourgeois evoked the scene of a man being devoured by his children. Few critics doubted that here the artist was struggling with the demons of her youth and using her art as a form of personal exorcism.

By the late 1960s, Bourgeois was rapidly being recognized as a major artist. Feminists somewhat belatedly designated her as a significant voice of their Weltanschauung (world view). Although in some cases her discovery represented a long period of neglect, her new celebrity represented an exciting reassessment of the expressive possibilities of sculpture. In a 1993 interview, Bourgeois asserted, "I am interested in the forbidden!!! All my work is about it." Her retrospective exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art, which opened in November 1982, made clear her status as a strong voice in 20th-century art.


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John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Bourgeois, Louise (1911—)

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