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Artists Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois

French-American Sculptor

Movements: Surrealism, Body Art, Installation Art

Born: December 25, 1911 - Paris, France

Died: May 31, 2010 - New York, New York, USA

"Expose a contradiction, that is all you need."


Louise Bourgeois's work, which spanned most of the twentieth century, was heavily influenced by traumatic psychological events from her childhood, particularly her father's infidelity. Bourgeois's often brooding and sexually explicit subject matter and her focus on three-dimensional form were rare for women artists at the time. Beginning in the 1970s, she hosted Sunday salons in her Chelsea apartment, where students and young artists would take their work to be critiqued by Bourgeois, who could be ruthless and referred to the gatherings, with characteristically dry humor, as "Sunday, bloody Sunday". Nevertheless, this accessibility and willingness to advise younger artists was exceptional for an established artist of such standing. Her influence on other artists since the 1970s looms large, but is manifested most strongly in feminist-inspired body art and in the development of installation art.

Key Ideas

Bourgeois's artwork is renowned for its highly personal thematic content involving the unconscious, sexual desire, and the body. These themes draw on events in her childhood for which she considered making art a therapeutic or cathartic process.
Bourgeois transformed her experiences into a highly personal visual language through the use of mythological and archetypal imagery, adopting objects such as spirals, spiders, cages, medical tools, and sewn appendages to symbolize the feminine psyche, beauty, and psychological pain.
Through the use of abstract form and a wide variety of media, Bourgeois dealt with notions of universal balance, playfully juxtaposing materials conventionally considered male or female. She would, for example, use rough or hard materials most strongly associated with masculinity to sculpt soft biomorphic forms suggestive of femininity.

Most Important Art

Femme Maison (1946-47)

This series dealt with the dramatic changes in Bourgeois's private life in the early 1940s: marriage and domesticity, living in a foreign country, and mothering three children. Each drawing or painting in the series depicts a nude female figure whose head has been replaced by architectural forms that resemble houses. Bourgeois struggled to live up to her idealized memory of her own mother. These works suggest that she felt both trapped and exposed by the domestic responsibilities that consumed her life as she wrestled with finding her artistic voice.

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The Blind Leading the Blind (1947-49)

The Blind Leading the Blind, constructed from pointed wooden planks attached to a flat beam, is an early sculpture in which Bourgeois used abstract forms to express personal feelings about her parents. The artist likens this piece to a table under which she spent time watching her parents' legs move across the room. Moreover, she recalls this memory as an unpleasant one, as she felt alienated from her parents and sought refuge under furniture.

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Femme Volage (Fickle Woman) (1951)

Femme Volage is part of Bourgeois's Personnages series, made between 1945 and 1955. The series includes approximately 80 standing sculptures touching on the autobiographical themes that occupied Bourgeois throughout her career. Each piece resembled or recalled a person known to the artist. These abstract totemic figures were shown with no bases and were arranged in clusters that for Bourgeois referenced a reconstruction of the past. Femme Volage is a fractured piece made up of stacked wooden forms on a central rod that resembles a needle or spindle, tools that likely reference her mother's work as a weaver. This work also shows her early interest in the spiral form.

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Forêt (Night Garden) (1953)

This work evolved from Bourgeois's Personnages, but whereas the earlier works were rigid and singular, Forêt shows what Bourgeois referred to as a "softening" in her work stemming "from the softness of my children and of my husband ... I got the nerve to look around me, to let go. Not to be so nervous. Not to be so tense." These less severe, often bulbous and increasingly biomorphic shapes would come to define her work and indicate the enduring influence Surrealism had upon her. In Forêt, unlike in Personnages, the wooden forms are placed together on a single base and suggest human figures or even plant forms huddled together. The artist leaves it to the viewer's imagination to decide if one is being excluded from this group, or if these are figures banding together for protection and intimacy.

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Soft Landscape I (1967)

In the 1960s, Bourgeois shifted from working with wood to other materials such as plaster, cement, aluminum, and latex. In 1967, she created The Landscape series, which consisted of amorphous shapes rather than the stiff, upright forms of the previous decade. Soft Landscape I was made by pouring caramel-colored resin over biomorphic forms that resemble a landscape. Indeed, Bourgeois described the bubbling and sprouting figures in this series as inspired both by the human body and by landscape, saying that the "body could be considered from a topological point of view, a landscape with mounds and valleys and caves and holes, so it seems rather evident . . . that our body is a figuration that appears in Mother Earth." Other pieces in the series play with the disruption of the soft/hard binary. In the End of Softness (1967), for example, gentle biomorphic forms are made of bronze.

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Fillette (1968)

This is one of Bourgeois's most famous works. The piece showcases her use of biomorphic imagery as well as her experiments with and distortions of both male and female anatomy, often to the point that they become indistinguishable. Here, the testicles can also be read as breasts and the erect penis can be seen as a neck. The bizarre juxtaposition of the title, which means little girl in English, and the priapism of the work suggests a girl metamorphosed into that which threatens her. In one version, the piece hangs from a hook and thus references castration; in the second version, the piece is being carried. Bourgeois was photographed doing the latter in a famous photograph of her by Robert Mapplethorpe (1982).

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The Destruction of the Father (1974)

This was Bourgeois's first installation piece at a time when installation art was in its infancy and was being used by feminists such as Judy Chicago. The work was also Bourgeois's first to explicitly reveal her anger over her father's infidelity, which was an underlying motivation for much of her work. Relying on the soft forms of her Landscape series and her often explicit body imagery, the work reenacts a childhood fantasy wherein she takes revenge on her father, who always gloated and bragged at the dinner table. A life-size dining table in a cave or womb-like space is covered with flesh-colored anthropomorphic forms that appear like dismembered body parts as well as actual joints of lamb, which underscore implied violence. The scene is bathed in a soft red light that symbolizes anger, death, and blood, inviting the viewer to witness the aftermath of the killing.

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Maman (1999)

The spider first appears in Bourgeois's work in the 1940s, and had explicit, positive associations for the artist, who saw the spider as a symbol of her mother. Bourgeois is explicit about this connection: "The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. . . Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother." Bourgeois made spiders in a wide variety of media and ranging in size from a four-inch brooch to Maman, a sculpture over 30-foot-tall, which includes a sack containing 17 gray and white marble eggs, and is so large that it can only be installed outdoors. Though the earliest examples of spiders in Bourgeois's work are found in two drawings from 1947, she focused on the theme most consistently in the 1990s, at the end of her life, when she was no doubt consumed with memories of her mother and her childhood.

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Spiral Woman (2003)

Spiral Woman, a hanging doll, showcases Bourgeois's longstanding interest in both dollmaking and the spiral form, as seen in the much earlier Femme Volage (1951). Like Hans Bellmer's poupées, the figures in the Spiral Woman series offer distorted, Surrealist-inspired visions of the human body. The 2003 version pictured here is headless with feminine curves, but its spiral form connotes a masculine form, underscoring the overlap of male and female anatomy in her work. As with so much of Bourgeois's oeuvre, the spiral had autobiographical significance for her, as she stated in the following: "It is a twist. As a child, after washing tapestries in the river, I would turn and twist and ring them. . . Later I would dream of my father's mistress. I would do it in my dreams by ringing her neck. The spiral - I love the spiral - represents control and freedom."

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Louise Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911 and named after her father, Louis, who had wanted a son. During the week, her family lived in the fashionable St. Germain in an apartment above the gallery where her parents sold their tapestries. The family also had a villa and workshop in the countryside where they spent their weekends restoring antique tapestries. Throughout her childhood, Bourgeois was recruited to help in the workshop by washing, mending, sewing, and drawing. The workshop was overseen by Bourgeois's mother, Josephine, with whom she was very close. As an adolescent, Bourgeois attended the elite Lycee Fenelon in Paris. Tensions in the household, particularly the fact that her father's mistress (who was also Bourgeois's tutor) resided with the Bourgeois family, would later come to inform Bourgeois's highly autobiographical artwork.

Louise Bourgeois Biography Continues

Early Training

Louise Bourgeois Biography

Bourgeois had a wide-ranging education. In the early 1930s, she studied math and philosophy at the Sorbonne, where she wrote her thesis on Blaise Pascal and Emmanuel Kant. After the death of her mother in 1932, she began studying art, enrolling in several schools and ateliers between 1934 and 1938, including the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the Academie Ranson, the Academie Julian, and the Academie de la Grande-Chaumiere. Her first Paris apartment was on the rue de Seine in the same building as André Breton's Galerie Gradiva, where she became familiar with the work of the Surrealists. In 1938, she began exhibiting her work at the Salon d'Automne and opened her own gallery in a sectioned-off area of her father's tapestry showroom, exhibiting prints and paintings. Through her short career as an art dealer, she met art historian Robert Goldwater, with whom she married and relocated to New York City in 1938.

Mature Period

Louise Bourgeois Photo

Upon arrival in New York, Bourgeois enrolled at the Art Students League and focused her attention on printmaking and painting, while also having three children in four years. Throughout the 1940s and '50s, Goldwater introduced Bourgeois to a plethora of New York artists, critics, and dealers, including importantly Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, who bought one of her works for the MoMA collection in 1953. In the late '40s and '50s, she had several solo shows in various New York galleries. Her husband received a Fulbright grant and they returned with their children to France for several years in the early 1950s, during which time her father died. Bourgeois began psychoanalysis in 1952, which she continued on and off until 1985. In the 1960s, Bourgeois began experimenting with latex, plaster, and rubber, and also traveled to Italy, where she worked with marble and bronze.

Late Period

Louise Bourgeois Portrait

Bourgeois's husband died in 1973, the same year she began teaching at various institutions in New York City, including the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn College, and Cooper Union. She also participated in several exhibits in the 1970s and '80s and began presenting performance pieces. In the 1970s, Bourgeois also became politically active as a socialist and a feminist. She joined the Fight Censorship Group, which defended the use of sexually explicit imagery in art, and made several of her own sexually explicit works related to the female body, such as Fillette (1968). Marking her prestige in the art world, Bourgeois had her first retrospective in 1982 at MoMA, which was the first given to a female artist at that institution. In 1993, Bourgeois, who became an American citizen in 1955, was chosen to represent the USA in the Venice Biennale. She died in 2010.


Bourgeois's work helped inform the burgeoning feminist art movement and continues to influence feminist-inspired work and installation art. The first assemblages of Louise Nevelson, for example, were produced a few years after Bourgeois had been experimenting with similar environments, such as Blind Leading the Blind (1947-49) and Night Garden (1953). Bourgeois's focus on both male and female gentalia during the 1960s was an important precursor to feminist artists such as Lynda Benglis and Judy Chicago, whose works address similar interests. Bourgeois's work always centered upon the reconstruction of memory, and in her 98 years, she produced an astounding body of sculptures, drawings, books, prints, and installations.


"It is really the anger that makes me work."
Louise Bourgeois
"I am my work. I am not what I am as a person."
Louise Bourgeois
"I love all artists and I understand them (flock of deaf mutes in subway). They are my family and their existence keeps me from being lonely. To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer."
Louise Bourgeois
"My work is obsessive. It doesn't concern the audience. I don't mean that I am not interested in the audience - but it is not my motivation."
Louise Bourgeois
"The only access we have to our volcanic unconscious and to the profound motives for our actions and reactions is through shocks of our encounters with specific people."
Louise Bourgeois
"Every day you have to abandon your past or accept it, and then if you cannot accept it you become a sculptor."
Louise Bourgeois
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