The rage, fear and frustration in Louise Bourgeois’ autobiographical art moved me into understanding what it must be like to be a woman.
Art and emotion tends to be a slow burn, built up over a period of time as I get to know and really appreciate the artist and their work. In fact, I would go as far to say that the only time I have been knocked sideways by a piece of art was when I first encountered the work of Willem de Kooning in my early teens. Of course, when I saw Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I was completely blown away, but I already knew what to expect and the sensation was more like meeting your hero in the flesh. So when I strolled along to see a retrospective of the work of the 96-year-old French/American sculptor Louise Bourgeois, I was looking forward to an hour of gentle perusing and mulling on her gigantic spiders and famous phalluses.
It was a comprehensive assault on my sense of wellbeing, a bit like the tragic moment when you walk into work looking forward to the challenges of the week ahead, only to be told you have been sacked. I had gone into the exhibition expecting to see some big sculptures, but it was a group of small paintings that left me thinking.
The paintings formed part of a series called Femme Maison that were made by Bourgeois from 1945–47, six years after moving to New York from her native France. By this time, she was married to an American art historian called Robert Goldwater and had three children (the first of which was adopted). Goldwater was a loving husband and a source of intellectual companionship for Bourgeois – and she adored her children. But that didn’t stop her from making a set of paintings that are so filled with rage, fear and frustration that, for the first time in my life, I began to understand what it must be like to be a woman. To have to accept that the world’s view is male and all the assumptions that come with it, such as: everything you do and say is seen and judged through the prism of your sexuality, that the expectation is you will fulfil the multiple roles of mother, housekeeper, companion, worker and lover with deference and gratitude, and that men – lazy, selfish, conceited men – are not forced to wear the same, or any other straightjacket. Bourgeois’s genius is that she is able to put all this across with some small paintings that are so simple they are almost naive.
All the Femme Maison (literally house woman/housewife) paintings share the same idea. In each one, a woman has a house covering her head, below which her naked body protrudes. She thinks she is safe and secure in her domestic prison, because that is all she can see around her. She has no idea that she is flashing her genitals to all and sundry, more vulnerable than ever. It’s the stuff of nightmares where you are publicly exposed and shamed. These paintings succinctly sum up the struggle of every woman and their destiny to live with the responsibilities and constrictions of trying to maintain the balance of wife, mother and housekeeper while trying to retain a semblance of individuality in such sapping domestic circumstances. The simplicity of the paintings adds to the sense of entrapment; there wasn’t the time for anything more studied or crafted.
These works have been related back to the surrealist movement that began in the 1920s with artists such as René Magritte, where he juxtaposed two seemingly incongruous objects or situations in order to make a point. Maybe they are, she certainly knew Marcel Duchamp and André Breton, the leaders of the movement, very well. But I’m not so sure. I think her work is much more closely aligned to the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, another woman who found out early what a letdown men can be. Both Bourgeois and Kahlo created warts-and-all autobiographical art, something that had never been done by women before. They exposed themselves to expose the truth, a daunting and dangerous thing to do, which requires immense courage. An approach to making art that can be seen most obviously today in the work of Tracey Emin.
Bourgeois’ Femme Maison paintings scream that women are put upon, jailed, abused and patronised. Bourgeois made a note in her diary in 1980 that read: “The only access we have to our volcanic unconscious and to the profound motives for our actions and reactions is through shocks of our encounters with specific people.”