Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois is one of those artists for whom art is not the central concern of their endeavor. Many such artists have little to do with the history of art, with those rhythms by which we define movements and period styles, for they have already stepped outside history, and yet they endure it in various ways. It can touch them, wound them, or pass them by at a distance. They remain subjects, whose objects are bound to their subjectivity. Their efforts do not enjoy that autonomy from their author, which would allow their passage into history, as impersonal, absolute signs, as symbols of a culture, of a collective moral or group ideology: in short as social products.

So, though one can say that Bourgeois endures Surrealism—it’s evident in the graphic works dating from the ’40s that she allows the movement of André Breton & Co. to free her idiopoetics. Bourgeois by no means agrees with Surrealism’s conceptual premises. The affinity is apparently only stylistic. Bourgeois’ poetics remain completely personal, nurtured by opposing and coexisting sentiments and psychic states: the pleasure principle and the death drive, the incommensurable horror and the timorous desire, the attraction of the unknown and the repulsion of the normality of the every day. Through an art that has pulsed with life for a half century Bourgeois has delineated a world, the coordinates of which have the suspended uncertainty of dreams.

Designating a world always involves landscapes and figures. Of Bourgeois’ landscapes, I would single out for mention the houses (from Portrait of Jean Louis, 1947–49, to The Curved House, 1983, including the “female” houses with the narrow doors, and particularly the mysterious and disquieting ventricular interiors). But also more recent works such as Articulated Lair, 1986, and No Exit, 1989, in which the notion of space remains an unresolved problem and a vertigo of doubts.

The figures, for their part, are solitary erected totems, half-oneiric, half-primitive (Dagger Child, 1947–49, Portrait of C. Y., 1947–49); or obelisks, the vertical construction of which suggests internal sentimental instabilities (Figure, 1954). In the case of Sleep II, 1967, or the bronze Hanging Janus, 1968, the figures become large phallic or vaginal forms sometimes polished, in precious marbles and at other times left rough, in latex or plaster (Soft Landscape, 1963 and the horrid Fillette, 1968). Sometimes the sculptures are duplicated, multiplied to the point of crowding each other, (Double Negative, ca. 1963, and Cumul I, 1969); these works suggest landscapes as sensitive as a giant prostrate body.

These are the visible traces of her world; this is what appears to the viewer’s eye. Yet her work is broader and more mysterious than any description suggests: a world made up of details and of losses, an unknown planet made up of lateral, extraterritorial qualities. It is as if next to or beneath ours, another world existed. While our own primacy seems to belong to the res cogitans, in Bourgeois’ world subjectivity consists in the res expansa, the sensitive matter of a nonabsolute existence.

Pier Luigi Tazzi

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.