From the moment her immense Maman spider sculpture commandeered the plaza at the National Gallery of Canada, the enigmatic Louise Bourgeois became a sizable figure in Ottawa. But as Jaenine Parkinson contends, an in-depth understanding of the late Bourgeois requires a close look at the Gallery’s current exhibition of her smaller works: Louise Bourgeois 1911–2010.
Above image: Louise Bourgeois, Cell (The Last Climb), 2008, steel, wood, blown glass, rubber, and spools of thread, 384.8 x 400.1 x 299.7 cm installed, Purchased 2010, National Gallery of Canada (no. 43031), © Louise Bourgeois Trust.
Story by Jaenine Parkinson / Maman photo by Magida El-Kassis
Working across mediums, movements and styles, Louise Bourgeois was a difficult figure for the art world to digest. She influenced and absorbed but always stood apart from so many artistic movements: surrealism, post-minimalism, feminism ...
Even if Ottawans seemed to simply get Bourgeois’ gigantic spider sculpture Maman from the moment it was installed outside the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in 2005, many don’t know that she was an American artist, of French origin, and approaching the age of 90 when she created the work.
Bourgeois's nine decades of artistic innovation were brought to a close last year when she passed away at the age of 98, but a small Bourgeois exhibition currently on at the NGC can help provide a broader view and a deeper reading of a world-renowned artist who in the past half-decade has taken on a special kind of renown at the NGC.
“I was surprised with Ottawa,” remarked Jonathan Shaughnessy, Assistant curator at the NGC, on the initial response that Maman received six years ago. Shaughnessy may have anticipated the outcry that often comes with the appearance of contemporary public sculpture in any cityscape. Yes, initially there were a few grumbles about the cost ($3.2 million), a few critics who would have preferred a one-of-a-kind work (Maman is an edition of six) and a few others who thought that such a signature NGC work should be of Canadian origin, but overall, the response was roundly positive. Ottawa Citizen columnist Mark Anderson’s prognosis upon the unveiling summed it up: “She is cool. She is going to be a great draw.”
Anderson was right, on both counts. For Ottawa and the NGC, Maman is a fun, fierce, and fascinating landmark, treasured equally as a superstructure under which to congregate, a symbol for the city, and no small coup for the NGC curatorial team. Despite her overwhelming presence at the gallery’s front entrance, on any given day you’ll see scores of both children and adults drawn to Maman, clinging to her, and dangling from her spindly legs.
Of course the NGC also enjoys the art world kudos: having a Maman puts NGC on par with other major institutions that have one, including Guggenheim, Bilbao, Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, and many other galleries temporarily graced by a touring Maman.
Overshadowed by a spider
Immediately recognizable in Ottawa and the art world, a Maman is also iconically Louise Bourgeois. Although the immense sculptures overshadowed her other work, Bourgeois was unperturbed. “The spiders I have made over the last decade have been a big success,” she once said. “And I do not object to how such a statement might sound to others, because success is sexy!”
Maman, though, is just one of more than a dozen Bourgeois works acquired by the National Gallery since the 1990s. The resulting small-but-important collection is significant for a national institution that aims to provide international context against which we might frame Canadian art.
The most recent acquisition, Cell (The Last Climb), 2008, was purchased just before the artist’s death and has been on long term display. A few other works from the collection—including early carved and assembled wooden sculptures—also feature in Louise Bourgeois 1911–2010, a small exhibition that came about after the purchase of Cell.
“It wasn’t meant to be a tribute show,” says Shaughnessy, but it has turned out that way with the passing of Bourgeois at the end of 2010. The inclusion or both early and late works serve to bracket the artist’s entire contribution; the show offers a taste of Bourgeois’s enduring concern with human relationships, her unique and personal symbolism, and her innovations in modern sculpture—achievements that make her career globally significant.
Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999, Bronze, stainless steel and marble, 927.1 x 891.5 x 1023.6 cm.
Inevitably, any examination of Bourgeois at NGC must begin with Maman. We literally enter the gallery from between her legs; she presides over everything thereafter. Monolithic and daunting, her limbs taper to form gothic arches that cradle a sac of polished marble eggs high above. On a personal level, the artist fashioned the spider as a symbol for her own mother, a complex character described by Bourgeois as “deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and as useful as a spider.”
More broadly, Maman is a nuanced study of motherhood reaching far beyond any one-sided Madonna-with-Child interpretation. This Maman is both predator and protector—frighteningly powerful and dutifully attentive. We do not need to know the artist’s personal story to respond to the work; we can use our own stories. Within Maman’s embrace “we are all reduced to children,” observed Kitty Scott, former curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery.
When considering the smaller works in Louise Bourgeois 1911–2010 we learn how Bourgeois‘s ambivalent relationship with her family fueled much of her output. As she once explained: “I have three frames of reference. I have the frame of reference of my father and mother, and that of my own experience. I have the frame of reference of my children. And the three are stuck together.”
The early wooden sculptures from the ‘40s and ‘50s were called personages by the artist and created as stand-ins for the family members she left behind when she moved to America with her new husband at the age of 26. Roughly humanoid, these abstract, totemic figures balance, just as Maman does, on narrow points—although here the stance is precarious and shaky. Bourgeois created some 80 of these personages over the course of a decade, a period marked with nostalgia, mourning, and guilt at the separation from her family.
Direct relationship with human scale
“Louise Bourgeois was one of the first true installation artists,” notes Shaughnessy while walking through NGC gallery space filled with personages that stand as tall as people, alone and huddled in groups. The overall effect evokes a cocktail party where the guests are self-conscious and lonely, gathered together in an attempt to ignore or relieve their alienation.
Installation view of Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010): works from the Personages series and Forêt (Night Garden). Collections NGC and Louise Bourgeois Trust, courtesy Cheim & Read Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth Gallery, London. © Louise Bourgeois Trust. Photo © NGC.
This personages installation at the National Gallery is special because it realizes the artist’s wish to exhibit the works without bases. The figures are mounted on rods embedded directly into the floor—something galleries are reluctant to do—forcing viewer and sculpture to confront one other on the same plane, without separation. Be it dwarfed by Maman or matched by the personages, Bourgeois’s works impose a direct relationship with the scale of the human body.
Beginning with the personages and continuing with another work in the NGC collection from the 1950s called Night Garden, we see Bourgeois repeat a bulbous breast-like form. This form appears again in the artist’s red gouache drawings from 2007 that line the walls in final room of the NGC exhibition. In these drawings, five bulging packages are carried around the neck and shoulders by female figures, most likely representing the five members of Bourgeois’s family supported by a nurturing mother.
Louise Bourgeois, The Couple (detail) 2007, Gouache on paper, suite of 18, Collection Louise Bourgeois Trust, courtesy Cheim & Read Gallery, New York and Hauser & Wirth Gallery, London. © Louise Bourgeois Trust. Photo: Christopher Burks.
The exhibition concludes with another series of vertical, thin, human-scale bronze sculptures that echo the personages. Haunting, almost magical in quality, these sculptures (also from 2007) are formed from jackets and sweaters that are rendered ghostly in a white patina finish. The same connection to family and the body that haunted Bourgeois at her beginning of her career seemed to do so at the end.
Louise Bourgeois 1911–2010 is but a select tasting of the remarkable variety found in this towering and distinct artist. A much different narrative might be easily stitched together beginning elsewhere in her career—dealings with her patriarchal father figure, for instance, or even a path based on psychoanalytic theory. The breadth in the Bourgeois web is as complex as motherhood itself and the most enchanting aspect of the artist’s body of work.
Just when you think you might know Bourgeois, you’ll come across a striking contemporary piece that seems certain to be the work of an up-and-coming artist but instead bears her name.