​louise bourgeois: art is a guarantee of sanity

A powerful new exhibition at the Guggenheim in Bilbao reveals the dramatic interior life of one of modern art’s most unique and enigmatic sculptors.

by Felix Petty
04 April 2016, 11:43pm

Louise Bourgeois' most famous work, Maman, that giant, steel and bronze spider has grown, from symbol of motherhood to symbol of modern art, full stop. There it was, at the opening of Tate Modern, in 2000, the first thing you saw as you walked through the doors of the London's new temple to contemporary art; those long spindly legs, arching in the air, an aura of calm terror, a protective monstrosity, terrifying and tender. It was a tribute to the artist's dead mother; an ideal of motherhood, nestling those precious marble eggs high above our heads.

Maman is now outside that other architectural manifestation of post-industrial art-led city-wide rebirth; the Guggenheim, in Bilbao. There she sits now, alongside the banks of the Nervión, beside those famous steel shimmering curves of the Frank Gehry designed museum; standing watch, an inscrutable mirador. Maman, you can't help but compare her majesty to Jeff Koons' hapless and happy flowering puppy that sits on the museum's other side, facing the city; these two icons between them could be a microcosm for the polar opposites of modern art today. One, glittering and glimmering, an icon of a hyper-capitalist post-modern ironic emotional detachment; the other a nightmare of frightening symbols that tap into collective and personal trauma. Last year Koons' bright and bold retrospective came to the museum, this year, they host Bourgeois, in an exhibition of her sculptural series The Cells, the last works the artist made before her death in 2010, a series of works that looked back to her turbulent childhood.

Louise Bourgeois, In and Out, 1995 © The Easton Foundation / VEGAP, Madrid

Louise grew up in Choisy-le-Roi, a suburb of Paris, where her family ran a tapestry restoration business. Her mother was kind but fragile and constantly unwell, her father an authoritarian adulterer who spent a large portion of Louise's childhood having an affair with the housekeeper, her mother ignored it, but Louise kept the memories bundled up all her life, which led to her suffering from depression and anxiety. Louise's mother died suddenly whilst she was studying maths at the Sorbonne, an event that drove her to reconsider her direction in life and become an artist, something her father hated until she became successful.

These events, passions, troubles, are something she returned to often in her art, and it's the tragedy and emotional drama of her early years, revisited and picked over and laid bare, which makes The Cells so powerful and resonant.

Louise Bourgeois, Cell II, 1991 (detail) © The Easton Foundation / VEGAP, Madrid

It was in 1991, aged 80, that she began work on The Cells. This was a year before her retrospective at MoMA, the first female artist to be so honoured by the institution; after a lifetime of making work, she was growing in stature to become one the most acclaimed living artists, exhibiting across the globe, that spider becoming a recognised worldwide symbol of her practice. But as she finally getting the recognition her unique talent deserved, instead of looking to the future, she was turning her eye back that troubled childhood in Choisy, the emotional wreckage she found became The Cells. They were her late career artistic triumph, an existential psychodrama-cum-autobiography of Louise's childhood refracted through the terror of Freudian psychoanalysis. The Cells dredge up the past like ships on a river, disturbing beds, making sense of the fragments that come to the surface. They hone in on the young Louise's emotional life to try and make sense of, and overcome, the remains of a disturbed childhood by rearranging it sculpturally. "Space does not exist," she once said, "It is just a metaphor for our existence." The Cells are the pinnacle of the sculptor's work, the ultimate metaphor for existence, in that they create an enclosed sculptural language to make sense of existence. This exhibition at The Guggenheim in Bilbao is the first devoted to them, the largest display of the works, placing many together for the first time, it's a feat of excellent curation that, like a Rosetta Stone, reveals that personal, sculptural language to us.

Cell, the word itself, might be the best place to start with unpacking everything in the series. A cell, a building block of life, the smallest element of what makes us, us; or a cell, a prison, a small and bare room we're stuck in, a place to withdraw to -- somewhere between those poles is where we find ourselves; an architecture of existence built out of the Freudian prisons of our childhood. "Art is the guarantee of sanity. Pain is the ransom of formalism", Louis writes in embroidery, on the covers of a bed in Cell I, from 1991. It could stand as an aphorism for the psychology of all these works. "I need my memories" another piece of embroidery says, in Cell I, "They are my documents."

Louise Bourgeois, Cell (Choisy), 1990-93 © The Easton Foundation / VEGAP, Madrid

The Cells keep a fairly simple structure as a way of playing the narrative of memory out; inside each enclosed space, paneled off behind doors or cages, Louise arranges a series of objects. They are spatial sculptures and emotional constellations, behind the barriers they form a cogent enclosed language of childhood that resembles the frightening abstract dimensions of fairy tales (more Charles Perrault than Walt Disney). It's a language that is hard to translate. A list of those objects that construct that language barely does The Cells' complexity justice. There's soft, skin coloured marble, crafted into disembodied arms, legs and torsos, or models of her childhood home in Choisy. Sculptural sacks of rubber that hang from walls, which stand in for sexual organs (the Freudian root of it all) or giant balls (here's Freud again) rooted to the floor as an imposing presence of a father figure. There are chairs, symbols of judgment. There are bones and clothes, the very fabrics of what we are, there are fragments of tapestries from her childhood, frayed and crumbling and just about staying together draped over the walls of the cells. There are beds, site of so much of life, those two wonderful opposites of what all art is meant to be about; sex and death. There are mirrors, extra surfaces that allow us peer into unseen corners of the sculptural spaces, revealing the unseen to us and revealing ourselves to ourselves (Louise's house in New York had no mirrors as if she was afraid of what she might see). She was an agoraphobic and claustrophobic, scared of the big and the small, and she was famously small of stature, the cells are built to her size; the chairs and beds and ceilings are Louise sized, she's building her own cages for emotional traumas. They are cluttered with emotional ciphers like the rooms of hoarders, but delicately and perfectly arranged like the rooms of neurotics. They are trapping but freeing, there are staircases that lead nowhere, walls you can't see around, places you feel you should be able to escape from but can't. That's our childhoods though, isn't it. The Cells are tombs for our interior lives; monuments for remembrance but also as a way of letting the past go. In one of the cells, a guillotine stands above a model of the Choisy home; in one a spider grows out of a model of a child sitting upon a tapestry-clad chair.

The Cells revel in dichotomy. They are equal parts mother and father, protective and revealing, comforting and scary, islands we look into and out of, voyeuristic and exhibitionistic, they make interior life into something exterior, the intangible made tangible, they conceal and expose, childhood refracted through the lens of approaching death.

Louise Bourgeois, Cell XXVI, 2003 (detail) © The Easton Foundation / VEGAP, Madrid

Louise leads us around her childhood through this constellation of objects and materials, recreating this narrative of childhood trauma, working through, examining it, trying to come to terms with it. "The artist remains a child who is no longer innocent yet cannot liberate themselves from the unconscious," she once wrote, about one of the cells, You Better Grow Up, from 1993 (a cage studded with mirrors, and three marble hands, two smaller ones being clasped by one larger, sitting upon a plinth of uncarved rock), "It is humiliating to be a toy in the hands of a fear that grips you so tightly."

The Cells are all about that fear, that pain, those things that grip you tightly, that are so hard to shed or come to terms with, they long for security and privacy, and yet, the only way for Louise the artist, to achieve that, paradoxically, (maybe that's why The Cells are so obsessed with paradox) is lay that all out for everyone to see. There is something quite unsettling about these sculptures, they are grotesque and larger-than-life and full of haunting symbols that recur as if we were stuck inside an inescapable loop, trying to untangle the Gordian knot.

Louise Bourgeois, Cell (The last climb), 2008 © The Easton Foundation / VEGAP, Madrid

The last cell she made, less than two year's before her death in 2010, is called The Last Climb. Not just the last cell, but also one of her final artworks. It is the only cell in the exhibition that doesn't leave you feeling queasy, unsettled. In The Last Climb the constellation of elements seem to reach peace in conclusion (or is that just the easy, autobiographical reading?) the large cage is restricted in content, shorn of chaos, the elements reach for harmony instead of dissonance, a spiral staircase reaches up out of the cell, those giant fatherly balls lie broken on the floor, blue glass balls float up alongside the staircase, out of the cell too, drifting off to freedom, or at least, conclusion. It's full of light, this agrophobic, claustrophic, depressive, insomniac, crafting a symbol of freedom for herself, a last ascent, a cell to break free of The Cells.


Text Felix Petty
Main image Louise Bourgeois inside (Articulated Lair) in 1986. Photography Peter Bellamy © The Easton Foundation / VEGAP, Madrid

Louise Bourgeois
Guggenheim Bilbao
felix petty
structures of existence
the cells