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The Massachusetts Review, Inc.

Louise Bourgeois: Sculpture as Happening


Author(s): Rosette C. Lamont
Source: The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 24, No. 1, Woman: The Arts 1 (Spring, 1983), pp. 229-
236
Published by: The Massachusetts Review, Inc.
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LOUISE BOURGEOIS: SCULPTURE AS
HAPPENING
Rosette C. Lamont
at the age of
seventy-one,
Louise
Bourgeois,
who
spent
her entire life
working
as a
sculptor,
has become at last what the French like to call "une
gloire
nationale." She is
not, however,
their
"gloire,"
but ours. Born in Paris
on Christmas
Day 1911,
this Frenchwoman is in the most
profound
sense an
American,
even a New York artist.
Now,
after her first
comprehensive retrospective
at the Museum of Mod
ern Art
(November 6,
1982-February
8, 1983),
it is
compellingly
clear that
Bourgeois, although
rooted in French
tradition, possesses
an
open,
eclectic
approach
which critics do not associate with
today's European
art world.
Although
Louise
grew up
on the banks of the Bi?vre River in which the
weavers who worked for her father and mother washed the Aubusson
tapestries
that were
restoring,
she herself
spent
the
major part
of her mature
life "in a
country
which has convinced itself that the
past
is not a river from
which
everything
flows,
but a
giant supermarket,
from which one can
pick
and
choose,
and even
plunder.
. .
."
If
Bourgeois's extraordinary
freedom,
even
boldness,
can be
ascribed,
in
part,
to her Surrealist
beginnings,
it seems evident
that,
having
settled in New
York
as the result of
marrying
the
distinguished scholar/critic/curator
Robert Gold
water,
Louise benefited from her
uprootedness.
The creative
shock of
displacement
and
estrangement brought
her to the realization of
Albert Camus'
painter-hero,
Jonah
(the protagonist
of one of Camus's finest
short
stories),
that
"solitaire,"
and "solidaire" are not
necessarily
antithetical
states of
existence; that,
in
fact,
there is
great
value in
removing
oneself from
"the art scene" in order to delve
deeply
into one's
psyche.
And delve she did.
Bourgeois
has
indulged
in
public
confession
only recently,
to the
accompan
iment of
projections
of
family pictures.
Not that she tells all?she is essen
tially
a
shy, private person?but,
not unlike Rousseau
(Jean-Jacques,
not Le
Douanier),
she
enjoys teasing
her audience's mind with
outrageous
revela
tions about her father's British
mistress, Sadie,
and her own secret desire to
strangle
this
woman,
her
governess,
and to devour the
pater familias.
These
Note: The
major part
of the interview with Louise
Bourgeois
was
taped
at her home on
Monday,
November
6,
1982.
1
Michael
Brenson,
"New York Vs. Paris: Views of an Art
Reporter,"
The New York Times,
Sunday, January 16,
1983
(Arts
and Leisure
Section), p.
1.
229
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The Massachusetts Review
Freudian
musings
have
crystallized
into
strangely
erotic
pieces
of
sculpture.
As Louise's
private
spaces
went
public,
some of those
pieces
doubled as
props
for bizarre
happenings.
Louise's
gallery
shows are often
pieces
of
performance
art.
What are some of the characteristics of
performance
art? In the Premiere
issue of the short-lived but
fascinating journal, Performance
Art,
we find the
following
statements:
Laurie Anderson:
. . .
theatre tends to be linear and narrative
. . .
Performance is freer to be
disjunctive
and
jagged
and to focus on
incidents,
ideas,
collisions
. . .
Dick
Higgins:
Most of
my
work is "intermedia" as
opposed
to "mixed media."
Joan Jonas:
. . .
Persona is made with
masks, costumes,
and described
by
objects
as
symbols.2
These
descriptions apply
to Louise
Bourgeois's
"Destruction of the
Father,"
and,
even more to her "Confrontation." Both environments dramatize
a
childhood cannibalistic reverie. When Louise
Bourgeois
came to the Gradu
ate Center of the
City University
of New York on
April
30,1979
as one of the
keynote speakers
of a series of
symposia
on
American Women in the
Arts,
she stunned her audience
by
declaring:
This
piece
is
basically
a
table,
the
awful, terrifying family
dinner table headed
by
the father who sits and
gloats.
And the
others,
the
wife,
the
children,
what
can
they
do?
They
sit
there,
in silence. The
mother,
of
course,
tries to
satisfy
the
tyrant,
her husband. The children are full of
exasperation.
We were three
children:
my brother, my sister,
and
myself.
There were also two extra children
my parents adopted
because their own father had been killed in the war
(the
First World
War).
So there were five of us.
My
father would
get
nervous
looking
at
us,
and he would
explain
to all of us what a
great
man he was.
So,
in
exasperation,
we
grabbed
the
man,
threw him on the
table,
dismembered
him,
and
proceeded
to devour him.3
Bourgeois
delivered this last statement in her
caustic,
casual
manner,
not at
all as if this were an account of a childhood
fantasy,
but as the
retelling
of an
event that
actually
had taken
place.
In his fine introduction written for the
recent
catalogue, "Bourgeois
Truth,"
the art critic Robert
Pincus-Witten,
quoting
the above
passage
in his own
text, says:
"It is as direct and
potent
as
the conclusion of a children's
fairy
tale."4
2
"What is Performance Art?"
Performance
Art
1,
Premiere Issue
(Performing
Arts Journal
Inc., 1979), p.
23.
3"American Women in the Arts: Public and Private
Spaces,
An
Interdisciplinary
CUNY
Forum,"
Monday, April 30, 1979,
ed.
by
Rosette C.
Lamont, Centerpoint,
A Journal
of
Interdisciplinary
Studies, Volume
3,
Number
3/4,
Fall/Spring
1980, p.
16.
4
Robert
Pincus-Witten, "Bourgeois Truth," (Robert Miller,
New
York, 1982).
The
catalogue
has no
pagination.
230
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Louise
Bourgeois: Sculpture
as
Happening
There is indeed
an
evil witch in Louise
Bourgeois's story: Sadie,
the
young
girl
interviewed in London
by
her
father,
and
brought
over to be the
children's
English
teacher. The
nanny
became the father's mistress. Louise
never
got
over what she calls "child
abuse,"
the title of the
photographic
essay
she
put together
for the December 1982 issue of
Artforum.
In it she
declares: "This is child abuse. Because
Sadie,
if
you
don't
mind,
was mine.
She was
engaged
to teach me
English.
I
thought
she was
going
to like me.
Instead of which she
betrayed
me. I was
betrayed
not
only by my father,
damn
it,
but
by
her too. It was a double
betrayal.
.
."5
The above statement illustrates one
of Louise
Bourgeois's
most
lyrical
and
disquieting
recent small marble
pieces,
"The Fallen Woman." It is a
classical,
almost
Greek,
head of a
lovely
woman whose neck thickens into a
phallic
cudgel.
This
androgynous
instrument could be used as a murder
weapon.
Is
"The Fallen Woman" this bizarre
creature,
beautiful and monstrous at the
same
time,
or does she
represent
little
Louise,
struck down
by
the fatal blow
of this smooth
night
stick? "The Fallen Woman" could indeed be the
portrait
of the two
accomplices: Sadie,
and the
phallocratie
father.
"Did
your
mother realize what was
going
on?" I asked Louise. She
answered without hesitation: "Of course.
My
mother tolerated this situation
for ten
years."
Of
course,
in the France of La Belle
Epoque,
the institution of
"the Mistress"
was one of the facts of middle-class
life;
and Louise's mother
was much older than her
husband,
who had married her
against
his
family's
better
judgment. "My
mother's health had
deteriorated,"
Louise
explains,
"and she had to leave
home,
and her
work,
to
go
South for a rest cure. Sadie
was
very young
and
strong,
not much older than
my
eldest sister." Bour
geois's feelings
in
regard
to her
companion
were full of ambivalence: fascina
tion,
dependence,
hate. Her full
wrath, however,
was vented
upon
the father.
Speaking
of her
family,
she
says:
"The men in the
family
were
good
for
nothings,
des charmeurs. I
always
knew that it was
up
to women to take care
of men. When I was
growing up
I mothered
my younger brother,
helped
him
wash, dress, get ready
for school. He loved
me
and followed
me
everywhere.
As far as I was
concerned,
women were the
strong
sex.
My
own mother
directed the
atelier,
and
twenty young village girls
worked for her.
Very early
in
life,
when I was about
eight,
I was entrusted with the work of
restoring
Aubusson
tapestries.
I drew the
pictures
of the
missing parts
of the
tapestry,
usually
at the bottom. This is how I made
my
apprenticeship
as an
artist."
This is also how Louise
Bourgeois
became a feminist.
First,
she learned it
from the mother she
worshipped. "My
mother's heroine was the anarchist
Louise
Michel,
one of the heroic socialist women
during
the Commune.
So,
5
Louise
Bourgeois,
"Child
Abuse,
A
Project," Artforum,
December
1982, pp.
46-47.
231
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The Massachusetts Review
one could
say
that
my
father married a feminist." "What about
your
own
feminism? How did it come about?" I
inquired.
Louise answered: "I would
like to
say
that there were three
phases
to
my
feminism: two in
France,
and
one in the United States. In
France,
when I was a
child and
working
with the
twenty girls
at the
atelier,
I came to realize that
they
were
expecting
some
thing
from me.
They
were
immensely proud
of me because I was a
good
student,
and
they
were certain that I was fated to
go
on to
something
important.
In a
way they
identified with
me,
but
they
knew that I would do
what
they
could never
hope
to achieve. When I entered the
Lyc?e
F?nelon in
Paris,
and did
very
well?I
graduated
at the
top
of
my class?they
were
genuinely happy.
All that time I was conscious of not
wanting
to
disappoint
these
girls
who had
placed
their faith in me. After
my
bachot I went to the
Sorbonne to
study geometry.
This was
very
hard
work,
and I no
longer
had
any
time for
drawing.
Then I entered art
school,
La Grande Chaumi?re. I
was one of the few women students there. I became
massiere,
that is the
assistant to the
workshop's
director. One of
my
duties was the recruitment of
models for the
painters. Mostly
the models were
women,
for life classes.
These
girls
were
prostitutes,
but there was
nothing
servile and low about
them. In fact I was struck with their
pride,
their
sense of self.
They
were
proud
of their
beauty,
of their
bodies,
of
earning
their
bread,
of
being
what
they
were. I was
very young, very
naive and
shy,
but
paradoxically,
I was in a
position
of
power
since it was
up
to me to select the
girls. They
needed all the
extra work
they
could
secure,
just
to make ends meet. Life was
extremely
hard for women who were
poor.
While the
girls
I had selected were
waiting
to be
sketched,
we talked.
They
were
very
kind to
me,
maternal.
They
protected
me,
and also teased
me,
sweetly
of course. I never
paid
any
attention to
my appearance,
so
they
would make
jokes:
'You
really ought
to
comb
your hair,
at least once a week.' Or
they'd
call
my
attention to a
spot
on
my
dress. We were friends. I never
forgot
them. Like the weavers of
Antony
they
were
proud
of
me,
proud perhaps
that I could do
something
that was
not woman's work. In their
memory
I created
my
work
'Coyote.'"
C.O.Y.O.T.E. stands for "Come off
your
old tired ethics." In his
catalogue
introduction,
Robert Pincus-Witten describes the
piece
in the
following
manner:
This wooden comb-like structure rests
unsteadily
on
legs
of
extremely
slender
triangles
some of which don't even reach the floor
adding
to the tenuous
posture
of the work. The latterare the "short
legs"
of
short-sighted prostitutes
who failed to
respond
to
Margot
Saint
James,
the American social reformer
and friend of the
artist,
who in a tract called C.O.Y.O.T.E.
attempted
to
impose
upon
prostitution
a reasonable worker-like
organization.6
6"Bourgeois
Truth."
232
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Louise
Bourgeois: Sculpture
as
Happening
Like the "Maisons
Fragiles," perched
on their
spindly legs,
and the
early
"Femmes-Maisons,"
"Coyote"
is
a
witty, profoundly
tender
symbolic
representation
of the
precarious
condition of womanhood. The comb-like
structure
suggests
a
group
of hookers
walking
on
pin
thin
high heels;
their
balance is off but
they
are
quite
unaware of it.
"Coyote
is imbued with comic
pathos."
Louise
Bourgeois's
third feminist
phase sprang
from her life in New York.
As a
young European
artist in
America,
Louise met other
expatriates.
The
avant-garde painters
in the late thirties had
just begun
to absorb the Surreal
ist and Dada manifestoes. To cast off their middle class
origins,
and the
bourgeois
credo ofles
gens
comme il
faut, they
turned to the
liberating
realm
of eros.
Bourgeois
was
approached by
a
gallery
that
specialized
in
showing
erotic
art,
and with the fearlessness that was to characterize her whole
production
she took on the
challenge.
From her
readings
of
Breton,
Apolli
naire, Eluard,
as well as from her contacts with the Surrealists who had
settled in New
York, Bourgeois
learned to connect erotic
exploration
with
the
freeing
of the subconscious. The
principal
task of Surrealism was to free
the
imagination
from the bonds of Cartesian
logic,
and to unleash the
secret,
sacred forces of nature. In the wake of Fourierism which had
inspired
Baudelaire's famous
sonnet,
"Correspondances,"
the Surrealist
poets
and
painters sought
to
synthesize
antinomic
principles,
to reach
through
their use
of
analogy
and
symbol
a
supreme
kind of
harmony. Love,
"l'amour
fou,"
celebrated
by Breton,
was to serve as the
path
to the
mysterious
shrine of
these modern Eleusinian rites. Woman are no
longer merely
an
object
of
desire,
but the
guide,
or anima able to
open
for the artist the
gate leading
to
the realm of dreams.
Thus,
erotic art was treated with
high seriousness;
like
automatic
writing,
it seemed to lead to
something otherworldy.
The cult of
eroticism confined to its
very
opposite,
asceticism,
and the erotic
adventure,
for the
Surrealists,
was above all a
spiritual quest
in which the senses were
used as the humble servants of the mind.
Louise
Bourgeois
had not met with the Surrealist milieu in Paris where
she led a
sheltered,
studious Ufe. "I was a
blue-stocking,"
she
admits,
"and at
La Grande Chaumi?re I never
thought
of the male students as
possible boy
friends,
but as rivals." It was when she came to New
York,
the wife of Robert
Goldwater,
that she discovered her fellow
artists,
and came in contact with
the
European
Surrealists settled in America.
Bourgeois explains:
"Femi
nism,
at that
time,
had overtones and undertones of eroticism. I
belonged
to
a
group
of artists who declared that women were not to be ashamed of their
bodies,
and of the
physical. My
third feminist
phase
was erotic art."
Although Bourgeois's
work is
deeply
marked still
by
this
orientation,
some critics have discovered an
ambivalence in her more recent
pieces. Kay
233
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The Massachusetts Review
Larson writes in her
essay,
"Women
by
a
Woman": "Surrealism
delighted
in
alchemical transformations of mind and
matter,
and it
gave
her
[Louise
Bourgeois]
a visual code for a
similar transformative
system
based on her
understanding
of how the self can be
trapped by
the
anxiety
of embodiment
...
By getting
'inside the skin' of her
sculpture,
she discovers
an
anxiety
that
comes
straight
from the trauma of
being."1
It is obvious that much of Louise
Bourgeois's
art testifies to a
fundamental
unease,
a
divided consciousness.
Her numerous
representations
of "Femme Couteau"
("Woman Knife")
suggest
a
peculiar
combination of
vulnerability
and
angry
defensiveness.
Deborah, Wye,
the curator who
put together
the Museum of Modern Art
retrospective,
writes in the
catalogue: "Chameleon-like,
the woman turns
herself into
a knife and demonstrates a
potential
for
anger, violence,
and
cruelty
because of her need for
self-protection
and retaliation."8 A
pregnant
belly
stretched out
upon
a
knife,
such is the
image Bourgeois presents
for our
meditation. It is as
primitive
as an
archaeological find,
the contents of
an
imaginary pyramid
built to contain the remains of the
Magna
Mater. The
sensibility, however,
that informs these
smaller,
jewel-like pieces
is modern.
Bourgeois,
the
feminist,
also sets about to
demystify
the Freudian
myth
of
female
penis
envy.
There is
nothing
reverential about her
depiction
of male
private parts.
Whether in bronze or latex
they
are
suspended
from butcher
hooks,
or
dangle
from the
ceiling,
like
limp pinions
cut from
flight.
The
double ones in
particular suggest
standards wrested from the ranks of a
defeated
army. Ironically
entitled "Fillette"
("Little Girl")?a
reminder
per
haps
that in French the male
organ
has a female
gender?the
latex
family
jewels
are
suspended
from the
penis's
tender
tip,
like a
piece
of
rotting
meat
in the
display
window of a
bankrupt
boucherie.
Lady Chatterly's
lover
would shudder at this show.
It would be a
mistake, however,
to assume that
Bourgeois
is the classic
castrating
female. The tender mother of three
sons,
widowed from a hus
band she loved and admired all her life for his
profound intelligence
and
gentleness
of
spirit,
the
sculptor
has no need for
vengeance.
Flesh is
flesh,
flesh is
form,
flesh will
perish,
form will
stay,
is her
message.
Her
art,
both
delicate and
raw,
is
unflinching.
It is
always
a
statement,
and an enactment.
Louise
Bourgeois's performance
art is
a natural
outgrowth
of her aes
thetic. In a sense the
pieces
become
animated, they step
out into
space
to
move,
to
gesture
to us their secret
message. "My happenings
have to do with
hostility,"
Louise stated in
private
conversation.
"They
have to do with
men,
7
Kay
Larson,
"Women
by
a
Woman,"
New York
Magazine,
November
22, 1982, p.
74.
?Deborah
Wye,
"One and
Others,"
Louise
Bourgeois (New
York: The Museum of Modern
Art, 1982), p.
28.
234
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Louise
Bourgeois: Sculpture
as
Happening
not with women.
My
mother,
for
example,
does not
appear
in 'The Destruc
tion of the Father.'
My
second
happening
could be described
as a fashion
show of
body parts.
The tone of the
performance
is
ironical;
it is
a
lampoon
of
fashion,
of the art
scene,
of art criticism. As
you
know I
designed
the
costumes worn
by my
friends for the
happening, body
masks with bulbous
shapes,
like breasts. Women wore
them,
but also men. The men of course
looked
very funny,
but
they
did not seem to mind. Men are
very
vain
creatures, you know,
and these
men,
who held
important positions
in
society,
were
very pleased
to be
part
of the
happening.
In 'Confrontation' the
'actors' walk around a
long
table
upon
which one can see the remains of two
dismembered
bodies,
that of an older
person,
and the other
belonging
to
someone
younger.
A
struggle
has taken
place,
a
passionate
encounter. All
passion
culminates in
death,
and this is what is
left,
the remains of
passion.
There is an ironic contrast between the
terrifying
scene in the
middle,
and the
mincing
fashion show
going
around it."
At the
present
moment,
Louise
Bourgeois
is
working
on three
objects:
two
large pieces
of
sculpture
to be exhibited outdoors
(Chelsea Square
in New
York,
and Wave Hill on the
Hudson),
and a
happening.
"What will this be
about?" I asked.
"Again hostility,
but this time it will enable
my
students to
vent their
hostility
vis-?-vis their mentor. Moil It's made
up
of a whole lot of
small
desks,
each one
representing
a student. We're still
putting
it
together.
The environment is
done,
but the enactment itself has to be worked out." "I
thought your
students adored
you,"
I ventured. Louise cut me short: "Per
sonally,
I think
they
are fond of me. In
fact,
feminism has altered the erotic
scene
drastically.
Now,
an older woman can be surrounded
by younger
men,
which was unthinkable in France when I was
growing
up.
In France older
men
only
looked at
young girls.
But,
when it comes to
teaching, young
artists
have
no
patience
with masters. And that's
very
different from the
way things
were. I want to know
why
this is
so,
and that's the reason for the
happening.
A
happening
is not a show I
put
on for other
people,
it is a
way
of
finding
a
truth,
of
getting
closer to
something
that
puzzles
me." "What will the title be?
It sounds like 'The Destruction of Louise
Bourgeois.'"
From the
eyes
of
my
companion
I could see that she was not
ready
to be
destroyed.
Louise
Bourgeois
is
a
very
resilient
woman who worked in solitude and
against
the current for
over
forty years.
Her
emergence
into the
limelight
testifies to what she defines herself
as,
"a
singular singleness
of
purpose
backed
by
a
good
deal of
energy."
When I asked her the obvious:
"Why
are
there so few
women
sculptors,
even
today,"
she answered with a
wry
smile:
"Because it takes work." Then she added: "Most women are
discouraged.
There
is,
after
all,
the
question
of
storage,
and the fact that the work does not
move
easily,
does not sell." After a moment of
silence,
she concluded: "Of
235
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course all this has
changed
for me now." A masterful litote.
As a former
colleague
of the late Robert Goldwater at
Queens College,
I
could not resist
asking
Louise whom I had not met at that time
(back
in the
fifties)
what her husband's attitude had been in
regard
to her art. She
answered with
great warmth,
and her usual wit: "Robert was
just
like the
weavers who worked for mother: he had
complete
faith in
my
work.
So,
I
just
knew I mustn't
disappoint
him,
just
as I could not have
disappointed
these
twenty girls
who identified with me. Of course I am not
comparing
Robert to the
girls;
I
thought
he was un
type ?patant (a
fantastic
fellow).
He
was
witty,
with an
uncanny
sense of
precision.
He had a
profound respect
for
the world of
ideas,
of
pure
thought,
and a total
allegiance
to intellectualism.
We were
very
different: I was not an
intellectual,
I was an
artist. I
always
thought,
and still do that the most wonderful
thing
to do is to
write,
to be a
fine,
perceptive
critic. That's what Robert was. He never
completely
fathomed what I was
about,
but we
remained for one another
during
the
whole course of our
life
together,
de merveilleuses
?nigmes (wondrously
enigmatic beings).
As I left
my
friend
Louise,
I
thought
that in
speaking
of the
great
love and
reverence between herself and her
husband,
she had also
given
me a
key
to
the
reading
of her work. The "trauma of
being"
mentioned
by Kay
Larson is
superseded by
a sense of wonder in
regard
to
Being.
To communicate this
child-like
wonder,
Louise uses
marble, stone, bronze,
plaster,
wood,
latex.
Matter
shaped
into form is but an extension of her senses and her
psyche.
As
Eugene
Ionesco wrote in his illustrated
autobiography
of his
awakening
to
life,
D?couvertes: "To see is to
understand,
after another fashion."9 To reach
understanding,
and
bring
others to that same
illumination,
is
perhaps
the
supreme
form of
enactment,
the
deepest
and most
meaningful
kind of
"happening."
9
Eugene
Ionesco,
D?couvertes
(Geneva: Skira, 1969), p.
73.
236
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