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Louise Bourgeois, “The Unexpected Virtue of Trauma”

Header image: Hands of Louis Bourgeois, ph: Alex Van Gelder

Perhaps, many of us have walked between her thin legs, caged under her, or felt the pressure of her belly loaded on our heads, like one who prowls under a tightrope walker’s rope. We are referring to “Mama”, but not just any mother, but Louise Bourgeois’ and the transgressive bronze sculpture that seems to dominate the outside gardens of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The work of the French artist – who was later nationalized in the United States – can only be defined as the maximum exponent of the term coined by Richard Dorment in 2010: Confessional art. 

Bourgeois’ art is only understandable from the point of view of his life, as a chronological therapy that allows him to advance, and never focused on the production of the piece itself. Thus, sculpture, painting, installations… became tools to overcome a traumatic life marked by his personal pain, from a devastating father figure to his experience with machismo and homophobia.

Bourgeois mama
“Mama” is a bronze sculpture almost 10m high, located outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Ph: Wikimedia

Sculpture as a healing

Born in Paris in 1911, she is part of a family of tapestry merchants, destabilized by the well-known fact of her father’s repeated infidelity with Louise’s nanny and his explosive and dominant attitude. Around 1930, she began her career in Mathematics and Geometry, seeking “the stability that the immovable laws brought her”, although two years later, her mother’s death projected her into a new world as an art student.

During her training at the Sorbonne, the Ecole du Louvre and the École des Beaux-Arts, Louise began to use her repressed hatred of her father as an inspiration for her works, pouring her talent mainly into sculpture with pieces that pointed to the tension and shapeless pain she felt at the breakup of her home.

The installations, writings and figures that the French woman began to generate, although expressionist, provided a microcosm, a point of contact with the artist’s inner self, which shook with its own language: the use of recycled, collected and damaged materials… in relation to her state of mind, or the figure of the spider in its later stages as a figuration of a weaving, protective and at the same time calculating and dangerous mother, are just some of the examples of a personal and healing, yet painful, artistic production.

Sleeping Bourgeois
“Sleeping figure”, 1950, frames the state of vulnerability and uncontrol in the early 1940s. Ph: MoMA

Bourgeois: A sequence of days and experiences

In this journey of personal stages, which she herself defined as “the fear of falling”, “the art of falling” and finally “the art of enduring”, Bourgeois met Robert Goldwater in 1938, who would be her husband until 1973, and with whom she would move to the United States to begin a much more renowned and lasting journey, after being beaten in France by critics, and also by her own father. In this new phase, Louise began to gain confidence in an art that seemed to satisfy her concerns, and she met characters such as Miró, Pollock and Rothko, and became part of the American Abstract Artists Group in 1954. From this point on, he started to deal with issues such as vulnerability or loss of control, using different, colder materials that were alien to his daily life, such as marble or wood.

Throughout her career, Louise’s work received the label of “feminist”, although it was not until the end of her career that she became interested and more aware of the injustices she had suffered as a woman, of the day-to-day life of LGBT society, with which she collaborated in claiming her equality with the work “I do”, or of the tense situation she had experienced due to AIDS in 1993.

In this way, the French artist’s work became more and more international and empathetic until her death in 2010, not because she lost her personal charge, but because of Louise’s ability to internalize feelings and express them through her work, transmitting sensations as pure as the warmth of a mother, strong and immovable, but subtly supported on the plane on eight tangled bronze legs.

Spider Bourgeois
The series “Spider”, of which both “Mamá” and “Mamá” are a part (2003), frames the coexistence with a mother dedicated to sewing, protective with her children and tough, defensive. Ph: MoMA

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