The Discreet Charm of Louise Bourgeois

by Linda Nochlin

Destruction of the Father/Reconstruction of the Father: Writings & Interviews, 1923-1997
by Louise Bourgeois The MIT Press in association with Violette Editions 324 pp $30 May

Louise Bourgeois stares at us from the cover of her book of writings and interviews with a gaze at once challenging and quizzical.

"I am my work. I am not what I am as a person," the artist flatly declares. A small but elegant woman in her late eighties, Bourgeois repeats this assertion in various forms throughout the collection. The artist is at once jealous of her privacy and outspoken about those aspects of her personal history that she considers relevant to her work. Indeed, some details of her family romance recur obsessively in the interviews that dominate this volume: the oppressive, macho father; the supportive, hardworking mother; the "superfluous" role of the girl child within the French family structure; the influence of the tapestry-repair studio run by her parents in the suburbs of Paris, where she grew up and began to draw; the liberating effects of her emigration to the United States in 1938.

Fame came late to Bourgeois. Although she had long enjoyed a following in the art world, she did not begin to receive wider recognition until the late 1970s, when she was well into her sixties. Since then, she has earned the highest international distinctions for her sculptures and represented the United States at the 1993 Venice Biennale in a solo exhibition entitled The Locus of Memory. There is no summing up Bourgeois's protean achievement with a stylistic catchphrase. Her work ranges from the ominous phallic potency of the enormous Twosome(1991)--a pair of moving black cylinders set on a railroad track, rolling slowly backward and forward--to the domestic nostalgia of Cells(1991), a windowed installation recalling with uncanny precision the joys and terrors of childhood, by means of fragile glass containers, a dirty bed, and a mirrored tray with perfume bottles and a pair of marble hands lying on its reflective surface. If her work has a common thread, it lies in Bourgeois's attention to the human form, sometimes fragmented, sometimes transformed into its organic essence, often metamorphosed into an entirely new entity, as in Femme Couteau(1982)--part vulnerable torso, part menacing weapon.

The role of rage in female artistic creation has a special resonance in Bourgeois's writings. It's a fraught topic, one seldom acknowledged by art critics, much less examined. "I use anger, and it is a raw emotion. It is my way of defending myself," she states. Bourgeois's hatred of her father's mistress, who was also her nanny, is described by the artist as a catalyst for her creative process: "The motivation for the work is a negative reaction against her.... It shows that it is really the anger that makes me work." Yet Bourgeois does not spill her rage in some raw expressive manner; she is determined to transform it into disciplined works of art: "The motivation may be murderous but the form must be absolutely strict and pure." Rage and sensuality may have fueled works like the 1984 Blind Man's Buff(a marble monument of breastlike or phallic shapes, almost fleshlike in appearance, surmounted by a sweeping thrust of rough, unworked stone) and the 1986 Articulated Lair(a haunted house of an installation in painted steel, with enigmatic rubber and steel hangings, perhaps evocative of the male organ, perhaps not). But what distinguishes such creations as Bourgeois's is their controlled,even threatening formality. Gender issues may be present, indeed omnipresent. Yet they are deeply embedded in the material structure of the work and often inflected by a sardonic humor that is also a Bourgeois trademark.

Nowhere is this enigmatic combination of eruptive anger and highly self-conscious formal absorption better captured than in the interviews the artist gave to Nigel Finch for his 1994 BBC documentary about her. (A transcript is included in the collection.) Not surprisingly, the film is not a conventional documentary, but a collaborative performance piece by Bourgeois and the director. Despite being staged, it successfully re-creates the sense of antagonism that marks all of Bourgeois's encounters with the investigative Other. At the outset of the documentary, a contract giving Bourgeois authority over the final cut is rolled on the screen and read aloud by the artist. She and the director argue over the statement, in a kind of intellectual bullfight, with Bourgeois finally raising a sign reading no trespassing. In another sequence, Bourgeois shatters a ceramic vase on camera and stamps on the fragments, while venting her rage and frustration toward her father. In one sense, it is a destructive act. Yet these fragments have a positive significance. Individual body parts--an arm, a leg, even an ear--turn up in many of her sculptures, often to stunning effect. "Cutting," the artist explains, "means being in total control. Accepting the total control of whatever happens and it is quite aggressive." When her interlocutor challenges her to justify the violent implications of cutting in her 1992 work Cell (Arch of Hysteria)--a male body bent back like a bow, with arms and head amputated--Bourgeois replies dryly: "Don't you cut your lunch up when you're ready to eat it? Is that a crime?"

Like many contemporary artists, Bourgeois rejects psychobiographical readings of her work. As early as 1954, she declared, "The artist who discusses the so-called meaning of his work is usually describing a literary side-issue. The core of his original impulse is to be found, if at all, in the work itself. Nevertheless," she adds, "the artist must say what he feels." Some readers will no doubt find themselves tempted to use her first-person reflections as a key to the inner workings of her imagination. But it's more accurate to see them as yet another layer of her art. As she puts it, "I never talk literally. Never, never, never. You do not get anywhere by being literal, except to be puny. You have to use analogy and interpretation and leaps of all kinds." And so Bourgeois says what she feels, without fear that her statements won't add up to a seamless whole. Along the way, she has succeeded in fashioning a creative self as richly ambiguous as her sculpture.

As poor Nigel Finch discovered while making his documentary, Bourgeois delights in volunteering seemingly contradictory interpretations of her work. In a conversation with Finch, she refers to one of her most famous sculptures as both a phallus and a little girl. In Robert Mapplethorpe's famous portrait of Bourgeois, the sculptor poses in her favorite monkey-skin coat, holding the suggestive object. "I counted on what I brought (to Mapplethorpe's studio). Namely the coat and the phallus," she recalls.

"Why did you choose the large phallus?" asks the luckless interviewer.

"It is not a phallus," replies the artist, suddenly reversing herself. "This is what people say and what it is is completely different. The piece is called Fillette. Fillette means une petite fille. If you want to indulge in interpretation you could say that I brought a little gave me security." But, as Finch reminds her, she has a big grin on her face in the photograph. "Yes, of course, because I knew what people were going to say." What might be read, admittedly with difficulty, in one context as a little girl may be read in another as a very big penis. Bourgeois slyly suggests that both interpretations are valid. The little girl who grows up to be the famous artist can claim the phallus, that confrontational symbol of male power. But she can also laugh at herself for possessing it.

Oh well. To paraphrase the gastronome Brillat-Savarin: The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of human kind than the discovery of a new scientific theory.

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