PRINT November 1998


Louise Bourgeois

A WINSOME EPIGRAPH cues the overriding theme of a richly illustrated compilation of statements and writings by this formidable, fascinating artist: “My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama.” Included in the trove are parables, letters, catalogue essays, poetic texts, notes prompted by insomnia or scribbled in the margins or on the backs of drawings, even pages from a daybook lost on a train when Louise Bourgeois was twelve and only recently recovered from a Paris market stall.

Bourgeois is exceedingly intelligent and droll, and her sly, seemingly inexhaustible candor is a flexible instrument for exploring the incidents, scenes, and conversations that have been central to her art for more than fifty years. “I need my memories,” she writes. “They are my documents. . . . They are my privacy and I am intensely jealous of them.” However, in the most admirably ungrudging manner—given how painfully guarded it’s clear she is—Bourgeois divulges her secrets of survival and her emphatic need to prevail. And beyond the pleasure of this beguiling self-portrait is the inherent interest of so much of what she has to say about the art and artists of our century. Her testimony is always personal, tart, and precise.

“A child is just what the parents poured into the little vessel,” she says, and over and over she returns to the “indispensable past,” beginning with her birth on Christmas Day, 1911, when her arrival sabotages the festivities and the traditional treats of oysters and champagne. A diary entry dated January 1993, written when she was eighty-one, demonstrates how abiding is the pain of abandonment she instinctively felt: “When I was born my father and mother were fighting like cats and dogs. And the country was preparing for war, and my father who wanted a son got me, and my sister had just died. Please let me breathe.”

She summons up the spacious home outside Paris, the seat of her family’s prosperous tapestry restoration business; her debonair, philandering father (“There was always a moral aspect to the issue of authenticity for my father, since one of his sublimated urges was to be a moral man”) and her hardworking, too-forbearing mother, whose curiosity, tenacity, and strength in the face of her husband’s “escapades” bewitch her daughter and instill in her forever a “ferocious mother-love” and a fury that will fuel her art.

She evokes this past full of wonder and cruelty against a backdrop of bourgeois elegance—trips to the Auvergne, to Nice, to England by plane, her clothes designed by Sonia Delaunay or Coco Chanel—in brilliantly succinct vignettes. In one, she chides her “incurably idle” father for burying the family dog in a dung heap. (“It rained for a whole week, and the dog reappeared. That was the fate of Pyrame.”) She tells the story of her escape from this “nest of nuts” to the studios of Montparnasse: “I went to every one of them, with an iron will that I was going to understand something that I couldn’t understand.” Because she could speak English to the rich American students who provided many artists their only dependable income, she was able to make her way on her own, finally securing an apprenticeship with the first of her favorite teachers, Fernand Léger.

With her marriage to the American art historian Robert Goldwater, she embarked at age twenty-seven for New York, and between the two art capitals, she managed to get acquainted (and exhibit) with most of the major artists around, from Lachaise, Vuillard, Matisse, and Bonnard to Picasso, Tanguy, Dalí, and Breton. Her impressions of these and other artists have an easygoing intimacy and authority. She refers to Duchamp (knowledgeably, one infers) as “a sexually destroyed person” and portrays Giacometti’s tremendous anxieties: “He was afraid . . . to come out of the kitchen, at Pierre Matisse’s. He was afraid to go to bed, and therefore spent the entire night with his head in his arms.” And her reflections tend to shed light on several people at once: “There is a type of artist who wants to appear naive—Alfonso Ossorio, for example, or Jean Dubuffet, or even Philip Guston. Whereas the genuine naive, though truly talented, is helpless, the faux naive is a crafty one. . . . Miró was a true naive, trusting, unable to take two steps without his supporting family. When I knew him he always replied to every question, ’I’ll have to ask Pilar,’ his wife.”

For Bourgeois, the making of art begins with a sense of alienation, terror, or defeat: “What interests me is the conquering of the fear, the hiding, the cunning away from it, facing it, exorcising it, being ashamed of it, and, finally, being afraid of being afraid.” She has said, “I would be a very, very mean and wild person if I didn’t work,” and in one particularly unforgettable statement describes the criminal liberation she experiences: “In real life, I identify with the victim. . . . In my art, I am the murderer. I feel for the ordeal of the murderer, the man who has to live with his conscience.” When the work is completed, the anxiety has been transcended and—miraculously, to her—“these horrible feelings turn out to make work which people find very happy.” The reward is self-knowledge and a sense of control: “In my art, I live in a world of my own making. I make decisions. I have power. In the real world, I don’t want power.”

The title of this new book, Destruction of the Father/Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews, 1923–1997 (MlT Press, 1998), derives from that of a massive, turning-point sculpture from 1974. Her analysis of the scene it depicts has an air of convulsive hilarity—revenge so naturally arousing gleeful satisfaction—and yet at the close, what she writes is thoroughly moving:

There is a dinner table and you can see all kinds of things are happening. The father is sounding off, telling the captive audience how great he is, all the wonderful things he did, all the bad people he put down today. But this goes on day after day. A kind of resentment grows in the children. There comes a day they get angry. Tragedy is in the air. Once too often, he has said his piece.

The children grabbed him and put him on the table. And he became the food. They took him apart, dismembered him. Ate him up. And so he was liquidated . . . the same way he had liquidated his children.

The sculpture represents both a table and a bed. . . . The table where your parents made you suffer. And the bed where you lie with your husband, where your children were born and you will die.

In a photograph reproduced in Louise Bourgeois, the handsome monograph prepared on the occasion of her 1997 exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, the artist appears grimly intent and almost diminutive amid the imposing, amorphous forms of this piece assembled from hugely enlarged latex casts of animal limbs she procured at the Washington Meat Market. The Greek note this strikes is crystal clear.

Though Bourgeois is today vastly appreciated, she endured a long stretch of relative obscurity before her reemergence in the ’80s and veneration in the ’90s. During those years of critical neglect, she never stopped working. In fact, in some ways she felt protected by the privacy: “Not to be successful in a strange way is hype, if you believe in yourself. When you are successful people imitate you, and this is terrible and very disturbing.” But she withdrew, a condition that renders her 1986 piece Articulated Lair a special poignancy: “It looks like a trap, but if you were clever even though it is deserted and terribly lonely you could get in and out. Inside, there is just one tiny stool. Nobody’s around. It is a place to face the fact that there is nothing—nothing to expect.”

The more one looks into the books published about her art over the last few years, the more apparent is the effect of the care taken—the marvelous printing and design, the instructive sequencing of material, the excellent reproductions. This new volume, though, is the one I plan to stockpile for Christmas. Radiant here are her energy and drive, her breadth of reference, from Montaigne and Bachelard to T.S. Eliot and Thomas Pynchon (she even quotes Ross Perot to brilliant effect), the “inner consistency” that she believes and demonstrates is the hallmark of a significant vision, and the principles she’s lived by:

You are made, you are forged by what you can resist. . . . My style, the way I work comes from all the failures, all the temptations I have resisted, all the fun I didn’t have, all the regrets. Style is made like a statue that you hack away at—and it’s made by all the things you have given up. All the things that you intensely desire to which you say, “No.”

This disciplined path has led to victory.

Alice Quinn