For fans of Louise Bourgeois — of which I am one — this is a “must” exhibition. For those who are not familiar with her oeuvre, this small show, which covers the years 1938 to 1949, when she, her husband and three children left France and began their new lives in New York, is an excellent introduction to her obsessions.
A self-invented feminist, decades before feminism swept America in the 1970s, the French-born Bourgeois struggled to balance and accommodate her roles as wife, mother, daughter and artist.
Knowing something about her background deepens one’s appreciation of her art but, frankly, one doesn’t have to be an analyst to see and experience her vulnerability and fury. Or her metaphors.
Bourgeois was always attuned to her interior voice. She endured a psychologically traumatic childhood. Born in Paris, her father was a domineering patriarch and womanizer. She has said, “My father had a cruel sense of humor and I could not answer it… I could not make myself feel understood.” In addition to belittling his daughter, he was an incessant womanizer who carried on a long affair with Louise’s beloved English governess, while her mother remained mostly bedridden after contracting the Spanish Flu. After her mother died, Louise attempted suicide and continued to experience a range of depressive and psychotic states. She studied art in France, married art historian Robert Goldwater, and in 1938 they moved to a Chelsea townhouse in New York. Art was her way of processing her psychological pain. Though she later underwent Freudian analysis, she ultimately rejected Freud’s theories.
Painting was her first medium, one that she largely discarded in her later years. This exhibition includes one of her most famous early works, a series of four paintings known, collectively as, Femme Maison (1946-47), or Housewife.” It is instantly recognizable to any woman as a complex vision of home as “refuge, trap, shelter and prison.”
Symbols of love, death, fear, and murder are scattered throughout her work. The following images illustrate her simmering moods. Much like Frieda Kahlo, Bourgeois narrates her inner life as if it were an ongoing nightmare .
Bourgeois quote about America
Bourgeois loved her adopted country although, like so many European refugees of her era, she felt enormous guilt at having “abandoned” France at its time of need.
Bourgeois moved on to largely create three-dimensional work of an astounding variety, from her well known “spiders,” to quasi-set designs of her childhood room. In the end, she created a body of work that, in a sense, were a variety of “self-portraits” as well as portraits of 20th century woman, writ large.
It’s a treat to have this exhibition in New York.
LOUISE BOURGEOIS: PAINTINGS
April 12 – August 7, 2022
The Met Fifth Avenue
Text and Images by Eleanor Foa Dienstag