Museum  July 6, 2022  Howard Halle

Louise Bourgeois' Early Paintings at The Met

© The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Christopher Burke.

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1946-1947. Oil on canvas. 26 x 44 in. (66 x 111.8 cm). Tate Modern, London.

When Linda Nochlin published her essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" in 1971, it caused a stir, and for good reason. In it, Nochlin took the conventional wisdom of the title and turned it on its head, noting that there have always been great women artists, it’s just they’d been written out of the record by men. Nochlin was writing as second-wave feminism began to gather strength, and indeed, her article signaled the beginning of a sustained campaign to restore previously overlooked female artists to their rightful place in art history.

Among them was Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). Though she made and exhibited her work after coming to America in 1938 as an escapee from gathering war clouds in Europe, it took some sixty years for Bourgeois to become the household name she is today.

Though she’s renowned as a sculptor, this exhibition at The Met reveals that Bourgeois mainly produced paintings early in her career. Like the rest of Bourgeois' oeuvre, they’re largely autobiographical, reflecting the emotional scars of a dysfunctional upbringing.

© The Easton Foundation: VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New and the Easton Foundation. 

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: Paintings on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 12–August 7, 2022.

The middle child of three, Bourgeois was born in Paris to the owners of an antique shop specializing in tapestries. In 1919, the family decamped to a suburb south of the city where they opened an atelier for tapestry restoration. That same year, Bourgeois' mother contracted the Spanish Flu and never fully recovered. An au pair was hired to look after the children, and soon, she and Bourgeois' father began a ten-year affair, with wife and mistress under the same roof, creating a veritable Hiroshima of psychological fallout that left a pall over Bourgeois' life.

Bourgeois entered the Sorbonne in 1932 to pursue math but soon turned to art as a way of coping with persistent bouts of depression following her mother’s death. She attended classes at the École des beaux-arts and the Louvre. She also studied with the artist Fernand Léger, who advised Bourgeois that her real strengths lay in working three-dimensionally. He was certainly right, judging by the works on view: While fascinating and important to the artist’s story, none of them rise to the level of the sculptures that made her famous.

© The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Photo: Christopher Burke.

Louise Bourgeois, Fallen Woman (Femme Maison), 1946-1947. Oil on linen. 14 x 36 in. (35.6 x 91.4 cm).

Bourgeois married the American art historian Robert Goldwater and moved to New York City, where they raised three sons in a building on East 18th Street. She used a bedroom as her studio, and in 1946, began to build sculptures on the roof. All the while, the difficulties of motherhood were never far from her mind, and those struggles, along with memories of her family, comprise the major themes here.

Confrérie, a small, casein on board composition done around 1940, conjures the past as a landscape of resonant traumas. A horizon divides it nearly in two, with the lower section depicting a group of totemic silhouettes, set against a background painted the color of dried blood. They’re separated into groups, with one at right comprising the artist and her siblings, and another at left showing her mother, father, and nanny being eclipsed by shadows resembling the waning moon. Meanwhile, the upper half of Confrérie isolates a tiny rendering of the familial manse under a menacing storm.

© The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Photo: Scott Hess.

Louise Bourgeois, Confrérie, circa 1940. Casein on board. 32 x 44 in, (81.3 x 111.8 cm).

Various shades of red frequently appear in the work to convey Bourgeois' anxieties over her children, and Red Night (1945-1947) is especially feverish in this respect. It captures the artist and her boys huddling in a bed as they’re borne along by a gale-blown wave of scarlet brush strokes.

The most interesting works, though, are a series of narrowly vertical panels from 1946–47 that share the title Femme-Maison—housewife in English. Each makes the domestic burdens of women literal by replacing the upper part of a female nude with a domicile of one sort or the next. Though it’s never clear just how personally these motifs connect to the artist, one of them plainly pictures a New York-style brownstone in grisaille, sprouting arms and legs while kicking up its heels.

© The Easton Foundation : VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New and the Easton Foundation.

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois: Paintings The Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 12–August 7, 2022. Iterations of the artist's Femme-Maison pieces can be seen on the left.

Another image in outline resembles a Surrealist “exquisite corpse,” and has been appropriated as a feminist symbol. But Bourgeois never associated herself with feminism, nor did she ally herself with Surrealism, or Abstract Expressionism, though she exhibited alongside artists identified with them.

Near the exit to the show, Dagger Child (1947–49), a tall wooden shard, pointed at both ends, stands upright like a sentinel. Metaphorically lethal, it expresses Bourgeois ambivalent feelings towards motherhood, foreshadowing the now-common dilemma of balancing ambition with childrearing. Nevertheless, Bourgeois persisted at both, but not without cost.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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