Louise Bourgeois Heading to Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art


Louise Joséphine Bourgeois, French American contemporary artist-sculptress, gained recognition late in her artistic career, when her “psychologically charged” artwork had an inspiring effect on the work of younger artists, especially women. Best known for her spiders, her sculptures, mostly organic in form were made of wood, stone, steel and cast rubber. Most often, they were expressively antagonistic and sexually explicit. From the start, her work had a set premise that concentrated on the human body and the necessity to “nurture and protect” in a terrifying world.

The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima) presents Louise Bourgeois from July 18, 2014 through October 12, 2014. Highlighting her later works, the retrospective will survey how Bourgeois worked in a variety of materials and scale to examine the beauty and mystery of human emotion. Most famous for her colossal spiders, her work often drew from her own life experiences, and dissected issues like fear and vulnerability.

Bourgeois wanted to master the fear of the past, of the uncertainty of the future and the loss in the present, in her art. She commented, “the subject of pain is the business I am in.” She felt the compulsion to give meaning and shape to fear for “the existence of pain cannot be denied” and she gave no excuses for it. In her writings from Destruction of the Father/Reconstruction of the Father, she said, “an artist can show things that other people are terrified of expressing.”


Throughout her artistic career, Louise Bourgeois raised universal questions about art and life, and the interplay of opposites such as fear and calm, strength and vulnerability. She also concentrated specifically the roles of womanhood from daughter, wife and mother to lover. Spirals, double forms, the “arch of hysteria” and spiders, which earned her the nickname, Spiderwoman were recurring themes.

Louise Bourgeois was born on Christmas Day, in 1911, on the Left Bank of Paris. As a child, she assisted her parents in tapestry restoration work, drawing missing scenes from the fabric. Her early life was difficult. Her father had a ten-year affair with her nanny, and it instilled insecurity and resentment in her that was never laid to rest. These formative years would later shape her later years and her art.

By the age of 20, Bourgeois entered the Sorbonne to study mathematics, and then enrolled in a succession of art schools including Académie des Beaux-Arts and Ecole du Louvre. In 1938, she married an American art historian, Robert Goldwater and immigrated to New York City where she continued to study at the Art Students League.

Although, she began engraving and painting, and was greatly influenced by the influx of émigré Surrealist artists, Bourgeois felt a connection to the American Independent painters who become known as Abstract Expressionists.

By the 1940s, she concentrated on sculptural work. Her early pieces were composed of groupings of abstract and organic shapes. She created vertical spirals that seemed to twist in space, stirring up childhood memories of the tapestry business and her family. She noted that a tapestry was laundered in the river. Since it was so weighty when wet, it took four people to lift and wring it out. Twisting was an important aspect of her work because when she “dreamt of getting rid of (her father’s) mistress, it was by twisting her neck.”

In 1949, Bourgeois had a solo sculpture exhibit of her Personnages at the Peridot Gallery in New York, and at that juncture, she relinquished painting entirely.  The sculptress also expanded her work, and by the 1960s, sculptures became larger and more referential to what was a central theme in her work, her upbringing. She explored relationships, and the emotional impact of her troubled childhood. With the rise of feminism, her work found a wider audience and she began to do performance pieces and installations.

Her reputation steadily grew. When she had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1982, it secured her place as an influential artist. In 1993, she represented the United States in the Venice Biennale. For a woman who was discouraged from dealing with overtly sexual subject matter, she quickly assumed an emblematic presence. Her career was an example of perseverance in the face of neglect.

The sculptress’ exhibition in 1994, Louise Bourgeois: Locus of Memory Works, 1982-1993 consisted of drawings and an enormous spider, constructed of soldered metal tubing. It overshadowed the observer, yet was delicate enough to shudder and sway. She associated the delicateness and strength, beauty and indifference, of the arachnid with her mother, a woman of fluctuating temperaments.

Bourgeois poured her spiritual and emotional energy into her work. The power of it, she said made her nervous. The sculptress said that she was not “educated to use it” and in real life, she connected with the victim. For, Bourgeois, creating art was a manner for her to battle and face her fears. Louise Bourgeois had an uncanny ability to establish her innermost thoughts as a complicated continuum of awareness that made her art so moving.

By Dawn Levesque

Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art
National Library of Australia