Louise Bourgeois' middle work – performance, sculptures and installations

Catharsis incarnate

Three works from the middle of her life tell of Louise Bourgeois' process of reappraisal: Janus Fleuri (1968), The Destruction of the Father (1974), and A Banquet/A Fashion Show of Body Parts (1978) deconstruct gender, the body, and one's own father. They bespeak the story of how Bourgeois therapized herself in mid-life and the pleasure she gained from destroying everything.

by Bettina Röhl, September 17, 2022

Therapy halfway through

The Cells combined with the spider-shaped works to form her life's work. Before Louise Bourgeois solidified her modus operandi, however, she created predecessor models of her small rooms, the Cells, lots of sculptures, and performance art. Bourgeois produced three significant works in the middle of her life: Janus Fleuri (1968), The Destruction of the Father (1974), and A Banquet/A Fashion Show of Body Parts (1978). They illustrate that she created art to find shelter and come to terms with the profound conflicts of her childhood. The New Yorker described in 2002, shortly after her 90th birthday, that fear was the main theme of her work, but anger was a close second. The paper references an older interview in which Bourgeois is reported to have said that she takes a »fantastic pleasure in destroying everything.«

Auction results of Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois - Untitled, from Anatomy (MoMA 1043)
Auction
Editions & Works on Paper
April 2024
Phillips, New York Auction
Est.: 1.500 - 2.500 USD
Realised: 1.905 USD
Details
Louise Bourgeois - Reaching (MoMA 597)
Auction
Editions & Works on Paper
April 2024
Phillips, New York Auction
Est.: 3.000 - 5.000 USD
Realised: 2.540 USD
Details
Louise Bourgeois - Ambition (MoMA 1056)
Auction
Editions & Works on Paper
April 2024
Phillips, New York Auction
Est.: 3.000 - 5.000 USD
Realised: not available
Details
Louise Bourgeois - Seated Woman
Auction
Prints and Multiples
April 2024
Christies, New York
Est.: 20.000 - 30.000 USD
Realised: not available
Details
Louise Bourgeois - The Olive Branch (from L\'Art pour la paix (Art for Peace) portfolio)
Auction
20th/21st Century: Amsterdam
April 2024
Christies, Amsterdam (Online Auction)
Est.: 2.500 - 3.500 EUR
Realised: 7.560 EUR
Details
Louise Bourgeois - merci. mercy., from Documenta IX (MoMA 730/III)
Auction
Editions & Works on Paper
April 2024
Phillips, New York Auction
Est.: 8.000 - 12.000 USD
Realised: 6.350 USD
Details
Louise Bourgeois - Silence
Auction
Editions & Works on Paper
April 2024
Phillips, New York Auction
Est.: 25.000 - 35.000 USD
Realised: 27.940 USD
Details
Louise Bourgeois - 11 Drypoints (set of 11)
Auction
Contemporary Edition: London
March 2024
Christies, London (Online Auction)
Est.: 15.000 - 25.000 GBP
Realised: not available
Details
Louise Bourgeois - Autobiographical Series (set of 14)
Auction
Contemporary Edition: London
March 2024
Christies, London (Online Auction)
Est.: 20.000 - 30.000 GBP
Realised: not available
Details
Louise Bourgeois - Topiary (MoMA 691/III)
Auction
Editions & Works on Paper
February 2024
Phillips, New York Auction
Est.: 2.500 - 3.500 USD
Realised: 8.890 USD
Details

She deconstructs something in all three of the selected works: the gender, her father, and the body itself. Bourgeois treated herself with her work. She suffered from her gender, even reportedly saying that women were losers, despite the influential women's movement that was becoming. She suffered just as much from her relentlessly domineering father. With her art, she walked a path between therapy and catharsis, which was only halfway done with her middle work. With her late work, she seems to have come to terms, or at least made peace, with this process. In 1994, she answered a question about her past in an interview: »I'm no longer interested in that.«

Biomorphic objects

To outside world, Bourgeois' work at the time often was understood as a provocation. Perhaps this was exactly what made her become an outspoken, flamboyant artist in the middle of her life. Before Louise Bourgeois ensured that the spiders and installations arranged into small showcases, called Cells from 1991 onwards, would forever be associated with her name, she allowed gender and bodily forms to become the main players. At this stage of her life, biomorphic objects evoke genitals, feces, intestines - and echoes. Andrea Jahn, who wrote her dissertation on Louise Bourgeois, wrote in a 1997 special issue of Frauen Kunst Wissenschaft: »The taboo subjects and motifs that Louise Bourgeois has taken up in her works since the 1960s deal with hybrid and biomorphic objects that can be read as allusions to body parts and orifices, as genital or fecal forms.«

The art, sometimes considered »offensive«, communicates Bourgeoi's life story: the artist never made a secret of her parental background, which she tried to come to terms with through her art. Her father, the tyrant who entered into an affair with the nanny – an open secret. Her mother, the protector who died far too soon, and who could never really save her daughter from the situation. After her death, the 21-year-old Bourgeois tries to commit suicide. Her sculptures do not hide how she tries to »destroy« that past with them.

The associative sculpture

In the middle of her life, around the 1970s, the artist shows a morbid, surreal and, above all, consistent inclination towards biology. She packages it in a Kafkaesque way and in the same breath offers psychoanalysts a projection surface by unmistakably suggesting body parts and fluids and experimenting with biomorphic forms. She also connects her own psyche to her artistic roots in Surrealism.

Janus in Leather Jacket

Louise Bourgeois

Janus in Leather Jacket

Found at Christies, London
20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale, Lot 81
28. Jun - 28. Jun 2022
Estimate: 280.000 - 350.000 GBP
Price realised: 352.800 GBP
Details

Jahn characterizes these sculptures as associative: they break down a taboo without actually naming it. She also draws on the famous sculpture Janus Fleuri (1968) as an example: »Thus in Bourgeois' Janus Fleuri we find the motif of a vulva framed by breast- or testicle-like formations, whereby the ambiguity of the depicted limbs is of crucial importance. The sculpture already implies an ambiguity in its title (Janus Fleuri = French: blooming Janus), which refers to the object's proximity to vegetal forms and the associated analogy vagina = flower/flower. At the same time, this designation underscores its Janus-headed form and thus the ambivalence of its appearance. The sculpture arouses the most diverse associations because it is a representation of female and male genitals detached from their physical context and fused together, thus isolating them from their conventional context of meaning as sexual characteristics.«

»I should forgive myself for being a girl.«

Femme

Louise Bourgeois

Femme

Found at Phillips, New York Auction
20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session, Lot 162
19. May - 19. May 2022
Estimate: 150.000 - 200.000 USD
Price realised: 352.800 USD
Details

The two-headed Janus is a Roman god who today is emblematic of the two faces, as both the back and front of the head contain one. The front one looks to the future, while the other is stuck in the past. Bourgeois sculptures from this period often play with this ambiguity – in the form of the androgynous genitalia. Their own struggle with their femininity and its dissolution, or as Jahn would say, subversion, burdens. Bourgeois herself was the third child and daughter of her parents. She argues that her mother must have been afraid of losing her husband because by then she had given birth exclusively to daughters, and must therefore have named her, the youngest, Louis after her father. The resemblance to her father had also been striking, she said. »I should forgive myself for being a girl,« were her words on the matter. Playing with dual gender – an attempt to escape her father's dominant attempts to raise her and her own apology for her sex and gender.

Half theater, half crime scene

During Bourgeoisꞌ middle creative phase, her first Cell was born, which she did not call that at the time: The Destruction of the Father dissects the father figure into his individual parts, revealing the inside of the body. The family, seated around the piece of flesh that emerges, eats his remains.

Bourgeois completes the »destruction« in 1974, a year after her husband's death – resulting in a »cannibal feast,« according to Gail Worley on her blog The Worley Gig, composed of »soft landscapes, the cast forms, and the sexually explicit partial objects,« laid out on a kind of long table. Placed is this »dining table« in a red-lit small room, just like her later Cells. Bourgeois presents the viewer with objects that are reminiscent of bodily remains. Breast-shaped round forms arch into the showcase from the ceiling and floor, which can be interpreted as table guests. The artist bathes the scenery in a red light and stages it against a velvety background from which it literally leaps into the eyes. Together with the title, Bourgeois brings to life the father's downright dismemberment. She herself calls it an »oral drama.« Worley puts it very appropriately, »half atrocity theater and half crime scene.«

Bourgeois formulates her own fantasy about the work in her usual blunt way: »At the dinner table, my father talked on and on, bragging and adulating. And the more he showed off, the smaller we felt. Suddenly there was a terrible tension, and we grabbed him.... And pulled him up on the table and tore his legs and arms apart - he was emasculated. And we were so successful in defeating him that we ate him up.«

»The more he showed off, the smaller we felt.«

In psychoanalysis, the incorporation of a person is representative of an identification mechanism of the final Oedipal phase. In Bourgeois' case, there is no question that The Destruction of the Father grew out of a lifelong conflict with her father. Worley describes Bourgeois' first installative work as »cathartic« – an act somewhere between psychic liberation and a daughter's simple fantasy of revenge on her father. Perhaps the destruction of her father was also one of her most important steps in coming to terms with herself – after his death in 1951, she is said to have presented no new works for eleven years.

Louise Bourgeois, The Destruction of the Father, 1974, Archival polyurethane resin, wood, fabric and red light
Photo: Johee Kim
Louise Bourgeois, The Destruction of the Father, 1974, Archival polyurethane resin, wood, fabric and red light

The Denaturalization of the Body

In contrast to Destruction of the Father, in 1978 Bourgeois took issue with a form of expression that was new to her – a performance that at first glance seems to be more critical of society than a personal reckoning with her past: A Banquet / A Fashion Show of Body Parts. It took place at New York's Hamilton Gallery of Contemporary Art, and the artist invited renowned representatives of the art scene. The fashion show revolved around the installation Confrontation, which is composed of boxes, also paraphrased as coffins. These, in turn, line up like a fence around a stretcher covered with a fabric cover and latex objects. Said objects, according to the artist, represent the male and female sexes.

This bier houses lots of hemispherical bulges. In the center, two oversized mounds embodying a pair of testicles, between them a phallic projection that Bourgeois dubbed old creature – the pair splitting the gurney in two. On the right side, which opens up, are plenty of wrinkly collapsed bumps, while the right is littered with plump, erect spherical bulges. The installation became a performance when Bourgeois had art models and art historian colleagues of her husband strut down a catwalk.

Critics consider the work a parody, which the artist herself is said to have been most amused by. It's hard to deny that this work, unlike The Destruction often the Father, turns out less brutal, less intimate. Nevertheless, it deconstructs in equal measure – and indeed society's view of gendered bodies. This was received in a deeply provocative way. Art critic Paul Gardner tore the performance apart at the time, saying it was »a wild, surreal theater of the ridiculous with punk models [.... ] [who], barely clad in form-fitting latex, insult each other, display some enormous private parts in public (designed by Bourgeois, who grins cheekily the whole time), and then remain silent while a red-haired punk named Suzan Cooper, a creature with blood-red fingernails from another planet, sings about her loneliness. The audience – collectors, critics, curators and the curious – huddle in the wooden coffins

»Body language is very important to me, and it's true that beauty lies in distortion.«

Again, the artist plays with ending something, truly burying it, while allowing something new to grow from it. She denaturalizes the body, shifts and confuses gender definitions, »parodying the 'age-old drama' of love, passion and death,« Jahn says. On the runway, she puts the father figure in the costume of a pregnant woman – a parody of her own dominant father figure. She settles scores with the eternal battle of gender identity in the show, in which she adds indefinable sex parts to the latex disguises, and exposes the binary system. According to Jahn, it is the parodic treatment of the body that underscores Bourgeois' desire for deconstruction: she does not present new models of femininity, but dissolves everything that exists. Considering that the work was created some 45 years ago by a 76-year-old, it is all the more astonishing how current it still is today. The site Wallpaper.com quotes her very aptly as saying, »Body language is very important to me, and it's true that beauty lies in distortion.«Art.Salon

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Louise Bourgeois' early work

Louise Bourgeois is one of the most famous artists of the 20th century. Her large-format spider sculptures are particularly associated with her. However, the artist's early works are primarily drawings. These were psychologically and artistically essential for Bourgeois, which is why she drew them daily until the end of her life.

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