“A woman has no peace as an artist until she proves over and over that she won’t be eliminated,” Louise Bourgeois once said. Born December 25, 1911, Bourgeois turned the tables and did the eliminating in The Destruction of the Father (above, 1974). As a young girl, Bourgeois witnessed the psychic toll her father’s affairs had on her mother and dramatized the lasting effect it had on her in this piece. Closing in on a century of life, Bourgeois remains one of the most confrontational and psychologically interesting artists of either gender. Whereas Frida Kahlo illustrated the tumult of her mind in the hot medium of color and paint, Bourgeois reshapes the formative influences of her life into large sculptures that address her personal struggles against depression, agoraphobia, and other illnesses as well as her professional struggles against the male-dominated art world, including her art historian husband, Robert Goldwater. Frankly Freudian, Bourgeois sets up her father as a monster to be slain and as a symbol of the other figures standing in the way of her fulfillment as an artist and a woman.
Bourgeois strikes back at her mother as well. In a series of giant spider sculptures, including Maman (above, from 1999), Bourgeois takes an unconventional, complex look at motherhood. “My best friend was my mother,” Bourgeois once said, “and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and as useful as a spider… I shall never tire of representing her.” Sadly, Bourgeois neglects to include warm, loving, or nurturing in her list of adjectives to describe her mother, which leads to the cold efficiency of the spider as a symbol for the woman who enabled her father’s infidelity and its destructive influence over their family life. Maman rises thirty feet into the air and carries a sac filled with marble eggs beneath it—a slightly terrifying and repulsive image of motherhood. Bourgeois herself raised three young boys with Goldwater and came away with a harsh view of the woman’s role as mother. Bourgeois never convinced herself that life as a wife and mother was her destiny. Instead, she developed a conviction that art was her true path. “To convince others, you have to convince yourself,” Bourgeois told a friend in 1939, “and a conciliatory or even an unduly understanding attitude—in that it is inevitably superficial—is not helpful to creativity.” Bourgeois self analysis allowed her to develop a self faith that carried her through the tough times.
While raising her sons and longing to be part of the art world, Bourgeois’ home must have felt like a prison. Years later, she created a series of “Cell” sculpture installations, including Cell (Eyes and Mirrors) (above, from 1989-1993), that tried to recapture that feeling of entrapment. The flip side of that entrapment was Bourgeois’ agoraphobia, a fear of the world at large and the pressure of unknown possibilities, including failure. By placing eyes and mirrors in this particular “cell,” Bourgeois expresses her feelings of always being watched and judged by others and by herself—the face in the mirror. With great courage, Bourgeois broke free of her prison and convinced the face in the mirror that she had the strength within to face the world outside the confines of the home. Several international exhibitions in recent years have celebrated Bourgeois’ coming out party as it reaches its centennial as a step forward not just for the sculptress as an individual but for all women artists fighting for a room of their own.