This unique variation, 4/6, is the only NATURE STUDY with a highly polished patina and two rows of breasts; the variation in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, recorded as 1/6 and from the same edition, has a similar high polish with three rows of breasts.
Louise Bourgeois's chimerical Nature Study is one of her best-known sculptural forms. It is half-beast, half-human, but also half-male and half-female. This exquisitely finished bronze embodies the collision of anima and animus in both genders. The headless creature's proud, protruding breasts contradict the erect phallus nestled within its splayed haunches. The pedestal raises the genitalia to eye level, while the lack of forelegs ensures we see it. This image is confrontational; sharp claws and a highly polished surface lend it a hard, defensive edge. But its hairless, sensitized skin and exposed sexual organs also instill an air of vulnerability. "We are all vulnerable in some way," Bourgeois has observed, "and we are all male-female" (L. Bourgeois, quoted in S. Morgan, Louise Bourgeois: Nature Study: An Essay, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 1985, p. 2). Bourgeois created this sculpture when she was 73 years of age, during a period of accomplishment unprecedented in her career. Long lines of people had waited two years before, at New York's Museum of Modern Art, to see the work of the first woman sculptor to be singled out for a retrospective exhibition in their 53-year history. Bourgeois was finally being awarded critical and popular acclaim that had long eluded her and, far from resting on her laurels, she began making her most challenging and monumental works yet.
Bourgeois's art inextricably entwined personal experience and artistic expression. For over seven decades, she used sculpture to investigate projected psychological states. We can trace the roots of much of Bourgeois's imagery to her own life, particularly to painful childhood memories and the fraught terrain of femininity. She relentlessly tried to unearth and confront the deeply repressed issues that conditioned her youth, an effort that dominated her long career. In 1982, she confided to the world that she obsessively relived through her creative process the trauma of discovering an affair between her father and her English governess, to which her mother turned a blind eye. Conflicting, violent feelings accompanied this upsetting domestic triangle, forming a deep well upon which her art draws.
The hybrid animal that is Nature Study underwent several variations in shape, size and material. In each case, Bourgeois admitted its peculiar and deeply symbolic form was a portrait of herself and her relationship with motherhood. The breasts hover protectively over the phallus, signifying the maternity's nurturing side. "The phallus is the subject of my tenderness," she has commented. "After all, I lived with four men ... I was the protector." But similarly, she acknowledged the erect member's aggressive, demanding quality, stating, "Though I feel protective of the phallus, it does not mean I am not afraid of it" (L. Bourgeois, quoted in F. Morris and M-L. Bernadac (ed.), Louise Bourgeois, exh. cat., New York, 2008, pp. 184-186). This sphinx-like sculpture evolved over a decade in a variety of different media (plaster, red wax, rubber, marble). Where this model features firm pointed breasts and a pair of small stumps, its counterpart at the Whitney Museum of American Art has three pairs of pendulous breasts; the present work displays a greater level of sexual ambiguity; its forms are sharper, more muscular, and therefore more masculine.
This sculptural theme became even more obviously aligned with Bourgeois's autobiography when she carved the monumental She-Fox (1985) in black marble, and placed a girl's head at the animal's feet. Bourgeois compared the crouching canine to her mother, whom she described as, "a very intelligent, patient and enduring, if not calculating, person. To me she was a fox because I could not measure up to this kind of competence and this antagonism, this threatening aspect, exasperated me ... The She-Fox is a portrait of a relation. It is an expression of the faith a child can have in a parent and of the violence between the strong and the weak ... I have been inhabited by a ferocious mother-love; in that way the She-Fox is also a self-portrait" (ibid, p.163). And yet one does not have to be aware of Bourgeois's personal memories and associations to appreciate the uneasy contradictions at work in Nature Study. Without a head, this strange animal cannot express emotion. It remains a passive object waiting to be observed. However, its body still resonates with universal feelings of desire, anxiety and distress despite this apparent restriction. Its lustrous surface and sensuous physique are extremely seductive. Its unpredictable shifts in anatomy manipulate our bodies' recognizable landscapes to trigger deliberate discomfort in the viewer.
Nature Study also draws on an enormous artistic legacy of metamorphic form. Harpy, satyr, minotaur, gryphon - the grafting of animal and human occurs throughout history. Sculpture has particularly lent itself to these fantastic beings, as its malleable materials give them real, three-dimensional form. Bourgeois spent her childhood immersed in the world of gods and grotesques at her parents' antique tapestry business and, as a young docent, she learned the Louvre from end to end. By the time she declared herself an artist, she was familiar with the shape-shifters of Symbolist art and began moving in Surrealist circles. Armed with this encyclopedic visual knowledge, Bourgeois has created her own hybrid monster that evokes classical archetypes without being held hostage by them. The hermaphroditic body of Nature Study combines feminine and masculine eros, illustrating the inherently unstable relationship between being and appearance.