Louise Bourgeois' early work

»Drawings are thought feathers«

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.

by Marius Meyer, July 26, 2022

When Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) began to create her bronze spider sculptures, some of which were up to 9 metres high, in the mid-1990s, she was actually returning to her roots: a drawing of a spider, now privately owned, proves that Bourgeois used the animal as a symbol for her protective mother as early as 1947. She continues to fascinate the art world today with these deeply personal works: in June 2022, one of the large sculptures from 1996 was sold at Art Basel for 40 million US dollars. Louise Bourgeois explained the basis of her artistic work thus: »I do not forgive and I do not forget. That is the motto that feeds my work.«

Life in Paris

Louise Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911 and was able to shine at an early age with her talent for drawing: Her parents ran a workshop for restoring old fabrics, for which Bourgeois made drawings as a child to fill in missing parts. Her life is marked by the humiliations inflicted by her father, contrasted by the close relationship with her protective mother. When her mother died in 1932, Bourgeois attempted suicide. She subsequently gave up her mathematics studies and turned to studying art instead.

There, she discovered surrealism and created drawings that were influenced by personal experiences. Throughout her life, Bourgeois will remain true to this process across all artistic media: » My works are the reconstruction of past events. The past has become tangible in them; but at the same time they are created in order to forget the past, to defeat it, to relive it and to make it possible for the past to be forgotten.«

During her student days, Fernand Léger is said to have taken notice of Bourgeois and told her that she was a sculptor, not a painter. Bourgeois initially embarked on a career as an art dealer and met the art historian and her future husband Robert Goldwater. After their marriage in 1938, they moved to New York. Bourgeois' coming years were filled with raising her three sons and trying to establish herself as a painter in the metropolis, against Léger's advice.

Louise Bourgeois

„Femme Maison“.

Found at Grisebach
Auktionen 237-246 - Third Floor. Schätzwerte bis EUR 3.000, Lot 1369
Estimate: 2.500 - 3.000 EUR
Price realised: 3.625 EUR

Early paintings in New York

»What surprised me was that people, even her supporters and friends of many years, weren’t familiar with the paintings in any great depth «, said curator Clare Davies of the exhibition Louise Bourgeois: Paintings 2022 at the Metropolitan Museum. It is the first presentation to focus on Bourgeois' paintings. They were created in the 1940s, before the artist finally became active as a sculptor from around 1950.

In the paintings, Bourgeois primarily thematised her move to New York and her new everyday life as a mother. The gloomy pictures of the series Femme Maison (1946/47) stand out in particular, where buildings merge with the arms, legs and genitals of women and become partly tortured living beings. Bourgeois expresses here her mixed feelings of perceiving her own home as a place of retreat and as a prison.

She felt similarly about the move, which put her at a distance from her father but also lost her contact with the rest of her family, who were now living in Nazi-occupied France. In a mixture of pencil drawing and oil painting, Bourgeois recorded this drastic experience in the self-portrait The Runaway Girl. This picture is one of 12 paintings that were shown in her first solo exhibition in 1945 at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York. Bourgeois used a rather uncompromising visual language and dealt with psychological themes, which made her stand out in the scene, but she was unable to establish herself permanently. Later, the artist described it as fortunate for her creative work that she was able to work for herself at first and only later became known for what she saw as more artistically valuable sculptures. She discovered that with sculptural works she achieved a greater closeness to reality and better visualised emotions: »I could express much deeper things in three dimensions.«

Louise Bourgeois

Ode à Ma Mère (Ode to My Mother) (MoMA 4b-12b)

Found at Phillips, New York Auction
Editions & Works on Paper, Lot 19
20. Apr - 22. Apr 2021
Estimate: 30.000 - 50.000 USD
Price realised: 68.040 USD

Drawings as a mirror of life

Despite the break in her oeuvre, Bourgeois drew daily throughout her life. The immediate recording of her thoughts and feelings, the connection to the unconscious drew her to this medium: »Drawings are thought feathers, they are ideas that I seize in mid-flight and put down on paper«, explained Bourgeois, whose work is marked by strong emotions such as loneliness, anger and fear.

Most of her drawings from the 1940s are untitled, the aforementioned Spider (1947) in ink and charcoal being one of a few exceptions. It manifests Bourgeois' constant, intense examination of the past and the search for the perfect form, which, as is evident in this case, also only comes to an end 50 years later. Before the first bronze sculpture came into being, Bourgeois drew numerous other spiders in the 1990s, exploring the animal as a symbol for her mother in all possible guises − some with a human face or upper body.

Louise Bourgeois

Sainte Sébastienne (MoMA 504.2)

Found at Sothebys, New York
Important Prints & Multiples: Part I, Lot 9
15. Oct - 21. Oct 2021
Estimate: 15.000 - 25.000 USD
Price realised: 18.900 USD

At the end of the 20th century, at the height of her career, Louise Bourgeois returned to further themes from her early days. The black and white ink and pencil painting Untitled (Woman Giving Birth) from 1941 shows a woman giving birth from a bird's eye view. The child's head, already delivered, is as large as the mother's. An unimaginable effort that is hardly reflected in the woman's face. Only the distorted eyebrows lift the neutrality of her gaze. Nevertheless, love dominates the image, mother and child form a unity, the woman's long hair wraps itself around the child's head like a veil. In The Cross-Eyed Woman Giving Birth (2005), Bourgeois repeats the theme in a red drypoint etching: in two long strands, the hair encloses the woman's body in an egg shape. Her bent legs, lying on the ground, protectively surround the child that has been born down to its feet and is already wrapped in a blanket. The woman wears only a pearl necklace around her neck − a multi-layered symbol of femininity and love. Squinting − visible here in the woman giving birth − has a long tradition in art. It is considered an expression of pain, but also of happiness and ecstasy.

In Sainte Sebastienne from the 1940s, Bourgeois took up the theme of Saint Sebastian, a Roman soldier and martyr peppered with arrows, in abstract form. She was interested in depicting pain without showing a writhing human body. It is the basis for this work. Through the title, she drew attention specifically to female pain. Several etchings from the early 90s with the same title and now show female bodies with strong curves and partly without heads, penetrated by arrows. This does not prevent the figures from striding boldly and energetically forward. Since the Renaissance, Sebastian portraits have embodied the image of the handsome, steadfast man. Bourgeois found the modern female archetype of this theme and thus also enriched art history once again.Art.Salon

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Spotlight on: Louise Bourgeois

In 1911 in Paris, a girl is born who would live to be almost 100 years old. In 2010, at the end of her life, she is where many want to be: at the top of the art world. Louise Bourgeois asserted herself, with spiders and phalli, performance and installations - and her »indomitable« nature.

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