Louise Bourgeois was a renowned French-American artist and sculptor known for her monumental sculpture and installation art. Born in 1911 in Paris, France, Bourgeois became a prominent figure in the art world with a career spanning many decades. Her works are widely exhibited in many museums and galleries worldwide. Through her art, sculptures and textiles, the artist has explored many vivid themes of identity, sexuality and the human condition. She made many notable contributions to modern and contemporary art where her works were largely autobiographical.
The demonstrations of her artwork involved themes of fear and anxiety, sexuality, insecurity, abandonment and the body. Bourgeois’ works were regarded under the feminist artist movement as they were drawn from her own experiences that echoed the relationships of men and women. Through her art, Bourgeois reiterated concerns about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for Gender Equality.
Bourgeois was born in a family of tapestry weavers where his parents worked in the restoration business of antiques. In her childhood, Bourgeois encountered many traumatic events where it is said that her father had an affair with an English governess. This deeply troubled her, becoming a cause for subsequent tension in the family. At the end of the First World War, Bourgeois’s mother contracted influenza and died when she was still too young and fragile to deal with the lasting void, according to The Guardian. These complex episodes in her life left a scarring impact on her, both mentally and emotionally.
With time, Bourgeois turned to art as a coping method and a form of catharsis surrounding her works of family, motherhood, relationships, fidelity, abandonment, the body, and trust. According to Tate, she also kept journals since she was young and noted all her childhood experiences as a bank of ideas that had traces of the fear, darkness and emptiness she felt during the course.
Throughout her career, Bourgeois exhibited a keen interest in the human body and the subconscious. Her sculptures often incorporated abstractions and the use of archetypal imagery with objects like spiders, spirals, and medical tools, reflecting her exploration of the pain and the attached psyche around the issue. Bourgeois, an artist associated with various art movements including surrealism and abstract expressionism, utilized her expression as a powerful vehicle to contribute to conversations surrounding gender equality and its challenges in terms of psychological aspects of the human experience.
In the 1940s, Bourgeois diverted her attention to sculpture, where in contrast with her previous wood pieces, she produced plaster structures as part of her series of spider sculptures. In 1999, she created her most famous work, Maman meaning “mother” in French. This sculpture of a spider, a symbol of maternal protection and strength, is a large-scale sculpture with long, spindly legs made of bronze, stainless steel and marble. The size of the sculpture contributes to its commanding presence as Bourgeois metaphorically attributes the spider to her mother.
It is also an important motif focusing on Bourgeois’s relationship with her father, making a statement against patriarchy. This powerful symbolism within Maman aligns with Bourgeois's broader scrutiny of gender dynamics and the complexities of familial relationships. The sculpture of Maman has become an iconic representation of Bourgeois's ability to convey the subconscious and psychoanalytic landscape through her art and thus, has been exhibited in prominent locations outside the Tate Modern in London and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
“I transform it. I transform nasty work into good work. I transform hate into love. That’s what makes me tick,” said Bourgeois in an interview with TateShots.
Bourgeois then created a series of works known as Cells, which are immersive, room-sized installations that she began in the late 1980s and continued to develop throughout her career. With the use of enclosed spaces and cages, she challenged the conventional role of women in the twentieth century through her artwork by creating an emotionally charged experience for the visitors and evoking a sense of psychological intensity and the complexities of human relationships.
Installations like Cell (The Last Climb) (2008) and Cell XXVI (2003) are exhibited in major museums and galleries, allowing viewers to gain an insight into her complex and multifaceted artistic practice.
Louise Bourgeois's groundbreaking art, enormous sculptures and immersive installations like Cells, discuss themes that resonate with female identity and sexuality. The iconic spider sculpture Maman, probes patriarchal norms, symbolizing maternal strength. Through her works, she tackles complex human emotions and societal norms. All these years, Louise Bourgeois is known for her ability to transform personal struggles into powerful art that contributes to ongoing dialogues on gender equality and sustainability.