Home Magazine The Diary of Louise Bourgeois | A life that turns into an artwork

Louise Bourgeois was born on Christmas Day 1911 in Paris and named after her father, Louis, who had wanted a son. Most of the year, her family would live in the fashionable St. Germain area in an apartment above the gallery where her parents sold their tapestries. The family also had a villa and a workshop in the countryside where they would also spend their weekends restoring antique tapestries.

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Stylistically the background is always the extraordinary tapestries with which I grew up. I lived with them since I was born. It has to do with the stories. I am telling the same stories as the tapestries told, but with different means. [...] Subject from the Old and the New Testament. They were stories about pleasure and reason. All these were really everyday subjects, which is why they had a great reality. They were part of my education.

Throughout her childhood, Bourgeois was recruited to help in the workshop by washing, mending and sewing the tapestries, as well as drawing their designs. All work was closely overseen by  Bourgeois' very attentive mother, Joséphine, who had an eye for detail. As an adolescent, Bourgeois attended the elite school Lycee Fenelon in Paris. However, tensions at home manifested in the fact that Bourgeois' tutor, named Sadie and who lived with the family, was also her father's mistress. Personal dramas such as these would later come to inform Bourgeois's highly autobiographical artwork.

My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama. All my works in the past 50 years, all my subjects, have found their inspiration in my childhood.


Louise Bourgeois with her mother Joséphine, 1915. Courtesy Arterritory
Louise Bourgeois with her mother Joséphine, 1915. Courtesy Arterritory


Louise Bourgeois. Courtesy Fondazione Prada
Louise Bourgeois Studio. Courtesy Fondazione Prada


At the age of 18, Bourgeois had left school for the Sorbonne, where she studied mathematics. She took a degree in 1932, but her mother died the same year and she switched to the study of art. Her father thought modern artists were wastrels and refused to support her, so she joined classes where translators were needed for American students and therefore received her tuition-free.

When I was afraid of my mother dying, a challenge I could not meet, the warding off of her death, not to let her disappear, I made a vow. I swore to myself if my mother survived that morning I would give up sex; My father provoked in me a continual loss of self - esteem. My mother represented self-confidence. “Don’t bother, you know how men are. You agree with them, humour them; men are like children.” She convinced me. It was her form of feminist; This. I love this! One of Sadie’s duties was, as I said, to teach us English and polish the car, drive my mother around. That was the pretext for her being there. Now my mother didn’t like that very much. My mother liked my company. And she said: “On the day you are 18, you get your driver’s licence and we will be on our own.” So that is what represents: I am 18 and I am in charge. She’s in the back. So we emerge in a kind of independence from Sadie.

She continued to study art by joining classes where translators were needed for English-speaking students, in which those translators were not charged tuition. In one such class Fernand Léger saw her work and told her she was a sculptor, not a painter.

My works are the reconstruction of past events. The past has become tangible in them; but at the same time they are created in order to forget the past, to defeat it, to relive it and to make it possible for the past to be forgotten. It means in short that the past, although I am intensely interested in it, is in fact sometimes far from being pleasant.

When she opened a print shop beside her father's tapestry gallery, Louis again helped his daughter on the grounds that she had entered the world of commerce. But one day Robert Goldwater walked in, bought a couple of Picasso prints from her and, as she put it: "In between talks about surrealism and the latest trends, we got married."

Robert Goldwater was a completely rational person; he had the same qualities as my mother had. He did not betray me. He did not betray anyone. I never saw him angry in my life. Ever. And I never heard my mother raise her voice, ever. That is something. 


Louis and Robert Goldwater in Long Island, 1984. Courtesy Fondazione Prada
Louis and Robert Goldwater in Long Island, 1984. Courtesy Fondazione Prada


They emigrated to New York City the same year, where Goldwater resumed his career as a professor of the arts at New York University Institute of Fine Arts while Bourgeois attended the Art Students League of New York, studying painting under Vaclav Vytlacil, and also producing sculptures and prints. The first painting had a grid:

The grid is a very peaceful thing because nothing can go wrong… everything is complete. There is no room for anxiety… everything has a place, everything is welcome.

Bourgeois had been unable to conceive by 1939, so she and Goldwater briefly returned to France to adopt a French child, Michel. However, in 1940, she gave birth to another son, Jean-Louis, and in 1941, she gave birth to Alain. She incorporated those autobiographical references to her sculpture Quarantania I, on display in the Cullen Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Even though I am French, I cannot think of one of these pictures being painted in France. Everyone of these pictures is American, from New York. I love this city, its clean cut look, its sky, its buildings, its scientific, cruel, romantic quality.

The early 1940s for Louis were full of the difficulties transitioning to a new country and the struggle to break into New York's exhibition scene. Her work during this time was constructed from junkyard scraps and driftwood which she used to carve upright wood sculptures. The impurities of the wood were then camouflaged with paint and she used nails to invent holes and scratches in the work, cathartically releasing her emotions from her body.

When in 1940 I painted Femme-Maison, a body half woman, half house, it was said that this work was an example of art made by woman. But I’m sorry I don’t know what art made by a woman is. There is no feminine experience in art, at least not in my case, because not by being just woman does on have a different experience: individuals are different, men and woman, but not human nature.

Bourgeois had her first solo show of paintings in 1945 at the highly regarded Bertha Schaefer Gallery, in New York, and then took part in two group shows, at the Whitney Museum of American Art and at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery (which was to feature prominently in the success of the abstract expressionists). In 1954, Bourgeois joined the American Abstract Artists Group, with several contemporaries, among them Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. At this time she also befriended the artists Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock.


Louise Bourgeois, A Banquet 7 A Fashion Show Body Part, Hamilton Gallery, New York, 1978. Cortesy Fondazione Prada
Louise Bourgeois, A Banquet 7 A Fashion Show Body Part, Hamilton Gallery, New York, 1978. Cortesy Fondazione Prada


As part of the American Abstract Artists Group, Bourgeois made the transition from wood and upright structures to marble, plaster and bronze as she investigated concerns like fear, vulnerability and loss of control.

I have met important figures from this century’s art: Brancusi, Léger… I have lived next to the most radical art movements, but I have always tried to make art that was my own. People talked about erotic aspect, about my obsession, but they didn’t discuss the phallic aspects. If they had, I would have ceased to do it… Now I admit the imagery. I am not embarrassed about it… When I was young, sex was talked of as a dangerous thing; sexuality was forbidden… At the Ecole des Beaux Arts, we had a nude male model. One day he looked around and saw a woman student and suddenly he had a erection. I was shocked. Then I thought what a fantastic thing, to reveal your vulnerability, to be so publicly exposed! We are all vulnerable in some way, and we are all male-female.  

Nothing could withstand the sheer artistic elan and commercial drive of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, especially with the backing of Clement Greenberg, a critic whose thumbs up or down was the difference between life or death. It was not until the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) gave Bourgeois a retrospective in 1982, when she was already 70, that she, at last, took her place as queen of New York, one of the most inventive and disturbing sculptors of the century. Bourgeois had another retrospective in 1989 at Documenta 9 in Kassel, Germany.

Critics, collectors, and big dealers were all invited to participate by the devoted friends of mine who were giving me the show. The museum people and the critics were all there, sitting in their caskets without knowing it. This is the element of entrapment, humor, and teasing that is present in all my works. This piece, in particular, was a parody of a love affair. 



Louise Bourgeois, The Couple. Photo Credit ELAD SARIG
Louise Bourgeois, The Couple. Photo Credit ELAD SARIG


In 1993, when the Royal Academy of Arts staged its comprehensive survey of American art in the 20th century, the organizers did not consider Bourgeois's work of significant importance to include in the survey. However, this survey was criticized for many omissions, with one critic writing that "whole sections of the best American art have been wiped out" and pointing out that very few women were included. In 2000 Louise was the first artist to tackle a commission for temporary work to command the vast spaces of the turbine hall of the new Tate Modern, in London, with the big installation Maman. In the last period of her life, before she died in 2010 Louise used her art to speak up for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) equality.

My first experience of great luck was when I was not picked up by the art scene and I was left to work by myself for about fifteen years. [...] My second piece of luck was my positive relation to the younger generation. I live with people of a certain age, less than thirty-five or forty. I understand them. [...] I related to them and there is an exchange. I would not say that of my contemporaries. I do not hold a grudge, I just ignore them and give my positive feelings to the younger ones.


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