Louise Bourgeois: her long way to the top
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.
The gigantic spider in front of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, whose eight fine-limbed legs hang down from the elongated bronze body like the branches of a weeping willow from a height of nine meters, is something of a trademark. For the museum and the artist. Perhaps it will even prompt a visit or two. The originator: Louise Bourgeois, born in 1911. The art scene associates her primarily with her giant spider Maman (1999) and classifies her as a historian of installation art. The giant bronze spider sculpture for which she is so well known today springs only from her late work. Textile works, performance, paintings, and especially her Cells complete her unusual, highly fluctuating oeuvre.
When Bourgeois was born in Paris shortly before the First World War, educational opportunities for young women in Europe were still distributed quite differently than they are today. In the young 20th century, social feminism is just beginning to make its first gains. In the 1930s, some radical currents also disappear again. Women's suffrage is not introduced in France until 1944. During this time, Bourgeois first studied mathematics and philosophy at the Sorbonne Université and, when her mother died in 1932, art as well: between 1934 and 1938, she was enrolled at various art schools such as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Academie Ranson. Her path led her, in keeping with the times, towards Surrealism. More than 70 years passed before her death in 2010. In her almost hundred-year existence, she somehow managed to assert herself in the male domain. Both the male and female sex were later among her favorite subjects. Today, her art is still considered unique, innovative, »indomitable,« as author Alexandra Matzner describes it on the artinwords.de platform.
The open letter
By the time Bourgeois is in her mid-thirties, World War II has ended. She moved to the United States in 1938, but returned briefly to France in 1940 to adopt her first son, Michel. In the same year, her biological son Jean-Louis was born, and in 1941 her third son Alain. Her adopted country remained the USA, and in 1951 she even became a US citizen.
Around this time, she was already known to the American art scene: Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, two New York Abstract Expressionist painters, asked her to co-sign an open letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1950. The letter was about the boycott of traditional »machinations« arising from a tacit agreement between the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Met Museum. In 1943, the two exhibition houses had agreed to continue their collections, each with its own focus, but still together. Juliana Force, the director of the Whitney, in particular, harbored early misgivings about this coalition, so that the Whitney Trustees soon dissolved the collaboration-they felt that the Met's presentation of modern art movements, their own focus, was a thorn in their side.
The Metropolitan Museum took a different path: in 1949, it established its own department for American art, which had previously been collected by the Whitney Museum. In July 1949, it brought in Roland J. McKinney, former director of the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as a consultant. On his advice, the Met decided to hold a series of open national competitive exhibitions with five regional juries. The first of these exhibitions, American Painting Today - 1950, was announced on January 1, 1950, as part of a policy statement. The open letter, the petition by Adolph Gottlieb's group, sought to prevent this competitive pressure and spoke primarily against the composition of the jury. After the letter was signed by 18 advanced Artists of America and ten Sculptors, the Times gratefully accepted this info for media coverage. The reason: the typical summer slump. Life magazine then published the story, including a group photo of all the participants - the media labeled the group The Irascibles. The public appearance made the group famous and spread the term Abstract Expressionism - it established them as the so-called first generation of the movement. Bourgeois was not present for the photo accompanying the story, now considered iconic.
It is said that the letter influenced her notoriety. However, she must have belonged to the more rebellious art faction even then - and already had a name in the New York art center: Barnett and Gottlieb obviously knew they had a real chance of gaining support from her. But it was to take some time before their unusual art would be recognized internationally.
On the pulse of the time
Louise Bourgeois is listed as a »sculptor« in this period, at the beginning of the 1950s, when she is around 40, although it was actually her drawings that were the focus first: 12 of them are the subject of her first solo show in 1945 at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York. In 1950, the same year that she signs a petition as a sculptor, she exhibits for the first time as a sculptor. It was not until 1979, however, that her sculptures, created between 1941 and 1953, could be seen in public spaces. In 1980, thirty years after her first sculpture exhibition, she buys a studio in Brooklyn, where she creates works of dissolute dimensions for the first time.
In the 1970s, she began to add perfomance to her art. With A Banquet/A Fashion Show of Body Parts (1978), she is on the pulse of the times, striking a chord with the new pluralism and widespread feminism. In the perfomance show, art historians and students wear white scarves with sewn-on, three-dimensional shapes reminiscent of breasts and present them on a catwalk. With her affection for »spicy« subjects, Bourgeois likes to draw attention to herself. Probably the most famous example: the black-and-white photo of the sneering 70-year-old artist with giant phallus, one of her sculptures, under her arm. It was taken by an equally famous photographer: Robert Mapplethorpe. A rather unusual sight for a woman of that age. The photograph is said to have made great waves, both because of the subject and the author, and thus made Bourgeois even more famous.
In the U.S., she is considered a star at this point. She is so important that the Museum of Modern Art in New York dedicates its first major exhibition of her work to her in 1983, when she is 72 years old. However, it was not until later that she achieved great international success. In 1992 she participated as an artist in documenta IX in Kassel, and in 1993 she represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. From then on, the story takes its course: in 1996 a large retrospective at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, and in the spring of 1999 the solo exhibition Spinnen, Einzelgänger, Paare at the Kunsthalle Bielefeld. Her works have been part of the Melbourne International Biennial in 1999, Documenta 11 (2002), and exhibitions in Berlin (Akademie der Künste, 2003), Dublin (Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2003/04), Augsburg (Neue Galerie im Höhmannhaus, 2005), Kunsthalle Bielefeld (2006), Kunsthalle Wien (2006), and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others. Just a few years before her death, she is also a highly sought-after figure on the European art market. The year before she dies, she even accompanies her last exhibition at the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection (National Gallery) in Berlin, Double Sexus. Bellmer - Bourgeois (April 24 to August 25, 2010).
Posthumously, her fame really takes off once again: in 2011 and 2012, the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen exhibited her works in À L'Infini on the occasion of her 100th birthday and then passed them on to the Kunsthalle Hamburg. In 2015/2016, 32 of her Cells travel from Munich's Haus der Kunst to Moscow (Garage Museum of Contemporary Art) and Bilbao (Guggenheim) to Humlebæk in Denmark (Louisiana Museum of Modern Art). Just this year, the exhibition the Woven Child will be on view first at the Southbank Centre London (February 9 to May 15, 2022) and finally at the Gropius Bau Berlin (July 22 to October 23, 2022). Almost simultaneously, the Kunstmuseum Basel (February 19-May 15, 2022) will present Bourgeois in Louise Bourgeois x Jenny Holzer. The Violence of Handwriting Across a Page to meet a contemporary artist. Meanwhile, the Met Museum presents her paintings. Swiss gallery group Hauser & Wirth is auctioning off one of her Spider sculptures this May for around $40 million. Bourgeois, like so many others, only became a top international artist shortly before and after her death.
Dive deeper into the art world
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.
In 1999, Louise Bourgeois received the Golden Lion for her life's work at the Venice Biennale − yet she had not even created her most famous work. She devoted an entire decade to researching the mother figure, culminating in the monumental spider sculpture Maman. This and its six casts fascinate viewers worldwide.