Louise Bourgeois

The Renaissance Society at The University of Chicago

With the 1980 exhibitions and the anticipation of the upcoming Museum of Modern Art retrospective, the significance of the work of Louise Bourgeois is again being recognized and documented. Over the years, the artist has furnished a narrative of her childhood near Aubusson, of mathematical and philosophical studies in Paris, of training with Fernand Leger, and finally of adulthood spent on the outer edge of the Surrealist circle and New York school in the ’40s and ’50s; for some, this biography supplied by the artist’s recall (even if somewhat embellished and fictionalized) has become a key to her iconography. But even if one accepts an autobiographical reading of this odd, occasionally repellent body of work, it is still difficult to come to terms with its unsettling force and stylistic evasiveness.

This exhibition of five paintings, a series of etchings, and 25 sculptures, curated by J. Patrice Marandel, was entitled “Femme Maison.” The theme of “woman,” her body fused with “house,” was intended as a thread connecting all these works, in a variety of materials, dating from the ’40s to the present; a surreal depiction of the image appears explicitly in the paintings, all of which are from the ’40s. In the sculpture, ideas of habitat, container, prison, and abstract explorations and erotic reversals of interior and exterior become central. The interpenetration of container and contained is seen in Lair Series (Homage to Bernini), a 1963–67 bronze. The lumpy, bulbous exterior here is both part and whole, as are Bernini’s portrait busts, also anatomical fragments, emerging from their swirling nests of baroque drapery. Through an aperture one sees six fingerlike protrusions that huddle together, like small cowering animals or an inverted udder.

The carved wooden Pregnant Woman, 1941, an androgynous figure with an overall phallic profile, is a consummate fertility fetish. Exposed and bursting with sexual energy, this faceless, limbless figure introduces Bourgeois’ eventual obsession with the duality of form. Dualities of form and meaning reproduce themselves and multiply in Janus Fleuri, 1968–69, a bipartite bronze phallus or breastlike pouch which hangs from a butcher’s hook overhead, its gender equivocal. Perhaps a response to male domination and virility, the piece is displayed like spoils of war. In the etchings series “He Disappeared into Complete Silence,” 1947, the protagonists are often tall buildings or houses on stilts, with flames leaping out of windows toward freedom. One accompanying text tells of a man angry at his wife; he cuts her in small pieces, makes a stew and serves it to his friends, who have a good time. Bourgeois’ work often has these elements of magical transformation and seductive violence, characteristic of myth and fairy tale.

Womb and tomb polarity provides a key to the twin phalluses of Untitled, 1963. Slightly detumescent, in mute monumentality, they are placed on a low base like twin cannons or tombstones. The cold gray marble signifies sepulcher at the same time that the exquisitely sensuous surface and shape invites touch. The 1965 bronze End of Softness again underscores the signifying potential of materials, as breastlike forms seethe, bubble, and protrude from their molten wrappings. Although the anatomical references are generalized by fragmentations and displacement, the piece exists as a molten, visceral landscape trapped in its material and its form. The extreme effort of human beings to stand erect and the attendant precariousness of that stance is described in the most recent pieces in the exhibition, the twin Maison Fragiles, 1978. About six feet tall, these architectural metaphors defy gravity on tall, spindly legs.

Fifteen wooden totemlike characters, dating from 1941 to 1951, are isolated individuals conquering vulnerability to achieve presence through community. These limbless, slender staffs in human scale (52–72 inches tall), minimally carved but sprouting “breasts” and “buttocks” are composites of anthropomorphic and biomorphic forms, clustered together by Bourgeois in a bouquet of humanoids. The same idea of accumulation, of strength in numbers, charges the white marble pieces Chapiteau and Clamart from 1968 (colonies of cylinders nestled together, thrusting out of their bases) and, less successfully, the steel Lair of 5 (1977).

The work’s remarkable originality and boldness is the result of Bourgeois’ 40-year confrontation with primal female nature and the myth of creation. There is an uncanny parallel between the viewer who cannot forget the haunting experience of Bourgeois’ sculpture and the artist herself, her work inspired by highly charged recollections. Are we at last the audience competent to receive Louise Bourgeois? We viewers of the baroque visions of Dressed to Kill, consumers of the polysexuality issue of Semiotext(e) magazine—are we the audience she has been waiting for?

Judith Russi Kirshner