This week, our Pioneers series remembers the bold, brave, and brilliant French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. Bourgeois had a long and prosperous career, which spanned 8 decades, making her one of the great figures of modern and contemporary art.
Born on Christmas Day 1911 in Paris, Bourgeois grew up in a turbulent household, caring for her ill mother from a young age and bearing witness to her father’s infidelity with his live-in mistress of 10 years. Growing up, she helped out at her parents’ tapestry restoration workshop and gallery; and went onto study Maths and Geometry at the University of Paris, before soon realising a career as an artist was calling. She left to pursue this with great vigour, training at a number of artist studios and academies in the city.
Bourgeois became best-known for her large scale sculptures and installations, and her exploration of raw human emotion; through themes such as life and love, death and suffering. Her identity, what she believed, and her work were inextricable from one another. For Bourgeois, art and the artistic process became a therapy. The anger she felt towards her father is evident in earlier works; the suffering she identified with her mother can be seen in later works. She once said:
“Art is not about art. Art is about life, and that sums it up”
She is perhaps best known for her imposing steel spider sculptures. Tied to the notion of spiders as weavers, makers, and powerful structures, they’re a tribute to her mother and her work in tapestry. Bourgeois also turned her hand to jewellery, designing a small silver brooch in the shape of an arachnid. This recurring motif associated with motherhood and domesticity was just one of the reasons why Bourgeois became synonymous with the feminist art movement, be it her intention or not. Preferring not to be pigeonholed, Bourgeois quite often challenged gender, using rough, hard materials connected with masculinity, to sculpt forms likened to the female body.
From the 1970s, she hosted Sunday salons in her New York apartment, giving younger artists a chance for their work to be critiqued by an established artist; unique at a time when other esteemed artists weren’t so readily willing. Bourgeois perhaps only became known to the wider art world at the age of 70 when the MoMA presented a retrospective of her works in 1982. The artist worked right up until her death in 2010, aged 98.
Today we remember Louise Bourgeois for all her might, determination and artistic prowess.