New York

Louise Bourgeois, The Runaway Girl, ca. 1938, oil, charcoal, and pencil on canvas, 24 × 15". © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Photo: Christopher Burke.

Louise Bourgeois, The Runaway Girl, ca. 1938, oil, charcoal, and pencil on canvas, 24 × 15". © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Photo: Christopher Burke.

Louise Bourgeois

I confess that before seeing this breathtaking exhibition, I was unaware that Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) made paintings, more than one hundred of them, all self-portraits. The works are teeming with gorgeous interplays of Cimmerian shadow and light; vivid cadmium reds and cobalt blues; sharp reconfigurations of Renaissance-era imaging techniques, such as illusionistic space creation (via single- and three-point perspective); and heavy underdrawing. After 1949, Bourgeois unceremoniously ceased producing these haunting “nostalgia pictures” and began working in other mediums—drawing, printmaking, sculpture, textiles—which brought her great acclaim, turning her into something of a feminist saint. This first comprehensive gathering of her poignant canvases was a revelation because it demonstrated how she went on to develop her signature arsenal of glyphs and symbols, including eggs, clocks, spirals, and houses. It also made clear that she sensed that these incredible works, which place her own spin on the male-dominated genres of Surrealism and abstraction, would be cruelly and egregiously forgotten: “I had the feeling the art scene belonged to the men, and that I was in some way invading their domain,” she once said. 

Bourgeois moved from Paris to New York in 1938, during World War II and the unfolding of a cultural power struggle between those cities. Leaving behind her relatives and the old center of the art world for the new one became a central theme in her work. One of the first paintings on view, The Runaway Girl, ca. 1938, which was also presented in her first solo show in Manhattan—at Bertha Schaefer Gallery in 1945—aptly depicts the artist through a flat, childlike style as a spectral creature with long blonde hair who stands in front of a house on the horizon that symbolizes her past (her family home outside of Paris, which was also a workshop for tapestry repair). In the 1940s, while raising three young sons, Bourgeois struggled to reconcile her domestic life with her art and the inner turmoil this conflict produced. The emotions that raged in her were exacerbated by the anxiety and guilt she felt from being a parent and for abandoning her kin in Nazi-occupied France: “There I was, a wife and a mother, and I was afraid of my family. . . . I was afraid not to measure up.” One wonders if this terrible distress fueled the making of a series of four paintings that she later titled “Femme Maison” (literally “woman house,” but also a pun on the French phrase for housewife), 1946–47. Each one features a rendering of a home fused into a female’s torso and legs—like a parasite, the dwellings have mercilessly taken over the figure’s brains. These images became a symbol of the women’s movement and graced the cover of Lucy R. Lippard’s iconic book From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (1976).

Architecture or, really, anything that contains and restrains us—clothing, beliefs, power, capitalism—became the subject of the artist’s dark interrogations, which she explored throughout her long career. But these themes and motifs were particularly resonant in her paintings: from Confrérie (Brotherhood), ca. 1940, and The House of My Brothers, 1940–42, which somberly allude to her family home, to Roof Song, ca. 1946–48, which triumphantly presents the independent artist with her mouth in a giant rictus and her hair transformed into outstretched wings, standing atop a cherry-red chimney alongside depictions of her own long narrow sculptures. When Bourgeois needed to work large, she moved to the roof, as her small home studio just wouldn’t do. The totemlike objects in Roof Song are based on Bourgeois’s “Personages” series, 1946–55, two of which were on view here, including the painted-wood and stainless-steel Femme Volage (Fickle Woman), 1951. One of her teachers in Paris was Fernand Léger, who brusquely told Bourgeois she should become a sculptor, not a painter. She ultimately took his advice, though I wish she hadn’t, as her soulful figuration, bright with righteous feminist rage, is a rarity in much postwar American painting and continues to be sorely lacking even today.