Louis Bourgeois is a feminist art icon, even if she -- in some mythical afterlife populated by giant spiders and contorted, alien figures -- would hate the label. When she was alive, she was aloof on the subject. "Some of my works are, or try to be feminist, and others are not feminist," she proclaimed in an interview with the San Francisco Museum of Art.
"I am lucky to have been brought up by a mother who was a feminist and fortunate enough to have married a husband who was a feminist, and I have raised sons who are feminists," Germaine Greer quoted her as saying in The Guardian, not long after Bourgeois' death in 2010. The artist, famous for her mammoth sculptures of spiders, pointedly leaves herself out of the list, insinuating not a rejection of the -ism, necessarily, but perhaps a bit of condescension toward critics eager to associate her with the term, no matter her opinions.
Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 2003. Collection The Easton Foundation. Photo: Christopher Burke.
Bourgeois does owe a lot to the feminist movement. Born in Paris in 1911, she spent many of her early years known merely as the wife of Robert Goldwater, the American art historian with whom she moved to New York in the late 1930s. Though she drew, painted, sculpted and printed throughout the 1940s and '50s, Bourgeois didn't receive real art world attention until her 50s. She had to wait more than a few years before she moved from the periphery of art critics' minds to somewhere closer to the center. During that time, the feminist movement was blooming.
"The specific agent of change was feminism, the most pervasive and radical of the many 'pluralist' constituencies of the last ten years," Robert Storr wrote in Art in America back in 1983, around eight years after she graced the cover of Artforum and one year after her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. "And more particularly the insistence of feminist artists and critics we look hard at for whatever was formerly considered 'marginal' in art, and hardest of all at the very notion that a 'mainstream' existed."
For a woman who loathed the term "woman artist," it seems to many so important that she was a woman artist at the time she rose to recognition. Amidst the hyper masculine aesthetic of the Abstract Expressionists and the coy fraternity of Surrealism, she quite literally forged ahead, casting "anti-form" creatures from marble and bronze. From her "Femme Maison (Woman House)" paintings created circa 1946-47, in which the bodies of nude women are forcefully squished into the confining spaces of a home, to her 1968 sculpture, "Janus Fleuri," a piece curiously sexualized if not for its inclusion of imagery that resembles both male and female genitalia, themes of femininity and gender roles reared their heads.
Louise Bourgeois, Lady in Waiting, 2003. Collection The Easton Foundation. Photo: Christopher Burke.
A fascination with the body is apparent throughout her career. While men like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman were swimming in color fields, she rendered her self-portrait as a torso, pieced together with bizarre bulges and crevices that seem endlessly out of place. "That, she said, was how she felt about her physical self," Michael McNay wrote, "and by extension, how women generally felt, even while they studied copies of Vogue or Harper's Bazaar."
The list could go on: There's the 1968 piece, "Fillette," which was obviously a massive penis sculpture, one that happened to make its way into a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe. There's the 1974 tableau, "The Destruction of the Father," a gathering of mammary-like objects and penile knobs said to represent the "sacrificial evisceration of a body," more specifically "a pompous father, whose presence deadens the dinner hour night after night." There's the 1984 "Nature Study," appearing like a headless sphinx covered in breasts and equipped with Doberman Pinscher-esque claws.
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 2000. Private Collection, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Christopher Burke.
She might not have been singing the song of feminist sirens, but her work relentlessly juxtaposed male and female forms, revealing hybrid bodies and aggressive amalgamations of phallic and yonic imagery; sexual subject matter from a woman's gaze.
Her vocalized stance on a woman's social position versus that of a man's was at times confusing. She seemed simultaneously angry at the idea that masculinity and its own brand of ego were wrapped up in a penis, and disappointed that feminine beauty often went hand-in-hand with passivity.
"It's a dialogue between a man and a woman," Bourgeois recounted in another interview with SFMOMA, cryptically titled "Louis Bourgeois on Gender Roles." She outlines an interesting, if not depressing scenario attached to a phantom piece of art, a retelling that's almost incomprehensible as a total story, but a strange exchange nonetheless that gives glimpses of her own sentiments toward men and women.
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 2002. Collection The Easton Foundation. Photo: Christopher Burke.
"You know what men are like," she says to an unidentified male companion. "For example, it's about a man who discovers a vaccine. He discovers a vaccine, he's a bigwig. As for her, she stumbles upon a little sofa at the auction rooms. Understand? That's the relationship. If that doesn't convince you, I can give you other examples. For example, when he speaks. Of course, when he speaks the world stops in its tracks. Whereas she, she just chitchats. And when it's time for dinner, he's the chef. He prepares this wonderful meal! Whereas she, she just cooks. Just cooks. And he feels good, he whistles. He whistles like a blackbird. Whereas she whistles to herself. And when he feels good he touches you, right? He touches you. Whereas she, she brushes against you. To no effect... like pissing in the wind."
It wasn't until the 1990s that she went the way of the spider. Sculpting for heights of 35 feet, she created her first arachnid in 1999 and they quickly proliferated, as spiders are wont to do. Titled "Maman," the spindly creatures and their egg sacs, made from stainless steal, marble and bronze, stood as tributes to Bourgeois' mother, Josephine. "The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver... spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother."
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 2001. Collection The Easton Foundation. Photo: Christopher Burke.
Dark, ominous, and absent of the smooth curves of femininity, "Maman" projected a very different female object in places like Bilbao, Tokyo and Ottawa. Frightening yet maternal, sinister yet life-giving, antagonistic yet martyred -- these contradictions seemed Bourgeois' way of breaking through the gender binary, up until her last days at the age of 98. "I have fantastic pleasure in breaking everything," she once said. Yet towards the end of her life, she created, with delicacy, particularly in the realm of tapestry. This was yet another way of honoring her mother, and achieved a sense of "reparation."
Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 2007. Collection The Easton Foundation. Photo: Frédéric Delpech.
Her defiance, her arguably unmatched persistence, her visual tenacity -- these qualities will forever cement Bourgeois' place in feminist art history. Not because she's a woman artist -- a label hardly derogatory -- but because she pushed the boundaries of what it meant to make art.
“Feminist art is not some tiny creek running off the great river of real art," as Andrea Dworkin declared. "It is not some crack in an otherwise flawless stone. It is, quite spectacularly I think, art which is not based on the subjugation of one half of the species." Bourgeois should be proud to count herself amongst those who made feminist art.
"Louise Bourgeois L’araignée et les tapisseries" is currently on view at Hauser & Wirth Zürich until July 26. All images included in this post are courtesy of Hauser & Wirth unless otherwise noted.
Before You Go
Combined, the discernible themes of self, motherhood and domesticity could explain why Bourgeois has become synonymous with the feminist art movement, taking on an almost ambassadorial role.What is the subject of Louise Bourgeois's sculpture? ›
But the works that have come to define the late artist's career are her sculptures of spiders, some of which tower 30 feet into the air and menacingly loom over viewers' heads. Below is a guide to Bourgeois's sculptural practice and why later in her life she chose the spider as the subject of her work.How did Louise Bourgeois influence the world? ›
Bourgeois' 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. Bourgeois' work helped inform the burgeoning feminist art movement and continues to influence feminist-inspired work and Installation Art.What movement was Louise Bourgeois? ›
Louise BourgeoisWhy is meaning important for art? ›
Obviously these messages are strongly connected to cultural and social circumstances and therefore content is most important. All of these messages together make the MEANING of the artwork. Meaning in an artwork is more important than style and skill, because it is the ultimate purpose of creative work.Who was Louise Bourgeois influenced by? ›
"Everything I do is inspired by my early life," Bourgeois wrote in the 1980s, and what inspired her most was her father's affair with little Louise's English tutor, Sadie, whose neck, the artist said, many years later, she would like to wring.What techniques does Louise Bourgeois use? ›
Bourgeois sculpted in wood, marble, and, most provocatively perhaps, latex, among other materials. She made prints using techniques ranging from lithography to intaglio, experimenting with various papers and sometimes augmenting the compositions with hand-applied gouache, watercolor, and pencil.What does Bourgeois mean in art? ›
By 1800, however, the predominant category was what Bürger calls 'bourgeois art'. His use of this term reflects his reliance on a broadly Marxist conceptual framework, which views artistic developments as being driven ultimately by social and economic change (Bürger, 1984, p. 47; Hemingway and Vaughan, 1998).What type of art did the Bourgeois want? ›
Louise BourgeoisWhat do Louise Bourgeois spiders represent? ›
For Bourgeois, the spider embodied an intricate and sometimes contradictory mix of psychological and biographical allusions. Partly a reference to her mother, partly to herself, spiders for her represented cleverness, industriousness, and protectiveness.
In the creative arts, the hand speaks, and one senses the tremendous power of the hand to convey human emotions. The hands are the organs of the body which, except for the face, have been used most often in the various art forms to express human feeling.Why was Louise Bourgeois important? ›
With a career spanning eight decades from the 1930s until 2010, Louise Bourgeois is one of the great figures of modern and contemporary art. She is best known for her large-scale sculptures and installations that are inspired by her own memories and experiences.What mediums does Louise Bourgeois use? ›
Bourgeois would draw and keep diaries throughout her life but her prolific artistic output was never dedicated to a single material or process. She worked in a variety of mediums, creating sculptures and environments in bronze, wood, glass, metal, fabric, plaster among other materials.Which are aspects of form? ›
In addition, to form, they include line, shape, value, color, texture, and space. As an Element of Art, form connotes something that is three-dimensional and encloses volume, having length, width, and height, versus shape, which is two-dimensional, or flat.WHAT descriptions apply to carving? ›
Which descriptions apply to carving? -It is more aggressive than modeling. -It is more direct than casting. -It is a subtractive process.Do you think art plays an important role in your life? ›
Art gives meaning to our lives and helps us understand our world. It is an essential part of our culture because it allows us to have a deeper understanding of our emotions; it increases our self-awareness, and also allows us to be open to new ideas and experiences.What is the message of the artwork? ›
Answer and Explanation: In art (and in the Theory of Communication in general) the message is the statement the artist is trying to make. The message can often be misunderstood if taken out of context. For example, irony is defined as the art of saying one thing while meaning another.How important is art in expressing one's opinion towards a certain situation? ›
It allows self-expression and self-awareness
For others, mental clarity on a particular situation only comes about after indulging in something artistic. Also, art can help you to discover and understand things about yourself that you never recognized before.
Louise Joséphine Bourgeois (French: [lwiz buʁʒwa] (listen); December 25, 1911 – May 31, 2010) was a French-American artist. Although she is best known for her large-scale sculpture and installation art, Bourgeois was also a prolific painter and printmaker.What is a key characteristic of nonrepresentational art? ›
Work that does not depict anything from the real world (figures, landscapes, animals, etc.) is called nonrepresentational. Nonrepresentational art may simply depict shapes, colors, lines, etc., but may also express things that are not visible – emotions or feelings for example.
Maman was created By Louise as an ode to the loving but tumultuous relationship that the artist shared with her mother. Maman was created to express the complexity of the relationship that parents have with their children. The large spider was designed to hold eggs in the belly area, just like a mother expectant does.What is the viewer unable to recognize in a non objective work of art? ›
Non-objectivity implies that NO OBJECT is discernible within the subject matter (i.e., the subject cannot be traced back to a physical thing). Many elements may be present - shape, value, colour, line, mass, texture - but all of these things exist WITHOUT reference to a recognizable person, place or thing.