Does size matter for women? In terms of fame, apparently, it does. Traditionally female artists struggle to balance the scale and ambition of their creativity with their sexual and maternal roles, to their inevitable critical detriment.
As Whitney Chadwick notes in her classic Women, Art, and Society women’s “attempts to juggle domestic responsibilities with artistic production have often resulted in smaller bodies of work, and often works smaller in scale, than those produced by male contemporaries. Yet art history continues to privilege prodigious output and monumental scale or conception over the selective and the intimate”.
But Louise Bourgeois, painter, sculptor, mother, has been prodigiously productive and monumental, as well as delicate and subtle. She has always refused timidity or compromise in her art. As she wrote to a woman friend in 1939: “To convince others, you have to convince yourself; and a conciliatory or even an unduly understanding attitude – in that it is inevitably superficial – is not helpful to creativity.” A fierce contender in the art world, she speaks for women’s need to fight their corner: “A woman has no peace as an artist until she proves over and over that she won’t be eliminated.”
Since the mid-1970s Bourgeois has been a magnetic figure for art critics, especially feminist art historians and theorists. Her sculpture and installations can be repellent and sinister as well as erotic and sensual. Her sculpture, with its lumps, bumps, bulbs, bubbles, bulges, slits, turds, coils, craters, wrinkles and holes, can be slick and shiny, or rough and jagged. Her themes are highly personal, including her parents and childhood in France, her domestic confinement and transcendence, her interest in a French tradition of hysteria and creativity. But these subjects are also connected with larger issues, especially of gender.
Bourgeois has written a great deal about her childhood and family in Aubusson, “a part of France… where there is nothing but granite, as in Brittany, which is famous for its lace; the same combination of stone and needlework in both. The women wove and the men cut stone in the quarries”. Her mother “was a tapestry restorer. She employed about twenty girls and this group of weavers had an influence on me as a woman and as an artist”. Louise helped with tapestry restoration, drawing missing feet and even horses’ hoofs. From an early age, she noted, her mother “acquainted me with the problems of drawing and colour and the various historical styles of old tapestries. There were also the chemical problems of finding unfading dyes”.
In some respects, her childhood resembled that of Matisse, who grew up in Bohain in a community of silk-weavers, surrounded by looms and textiles. But while Matisse retained and used his memories of glowing, vivid colours and sensual textures, Bourgeois inherited a darker vision, and deliberately worked with a more constrained palette. Mme Bourgeois was a passionate feminist, a follower of the activist Louise Michel, after whom her daughter was named. But feminism did not protect her from her husband’s infidelities, s her daughter angrily observed. Louise describes herself as a child “desperate to please”, aware of the operations of power in the family. But by the time she got to school she was “terribly competitive”, and soon moved to Paris to study painting. In France, however, the system of art training was an apprenticeship, a set of tasks such as doing tapestry, and more imitative than she liked. She studied the great masters, but was determined to oppose them and to find her own style.
When she married an American art historian, Robert Goldwater, in 1938 and moved to New York, Bourgeois left behind a traditional, apprenticed and practical part of her life, associated with women, memory and her mother, and entered what was to her a more masculine modern, professional, independent and creative culture. These two modalities would alternate and combine in her work. In New York she raised three sons, “found a flourishing artistic milieu” and realised that her paintings weren’t big enough: “There is a timidity in the way the idea is presented.” By 1945 she had her first solo show. In these early paintings, titled in English, she observed a change: “Even though I am French, I cannot think of one of these pictures being painted in France. Every one of these paintings is American, from New York. I love this city, its clean-cut look, its buildings, its scientific, cruel, romantic quality.” In 1951 she became a US citizen. But aspects of her French upbringing continued to shape her work and her self-presentation. In contrast to American woman painters of the 1940s, she was glamorous and elegant; in contrast to her feminist cohorts in the 1960s and 1970s, she remained detached from politics and headlines.
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