Collecting guide: 10 things to know about Louise Bourgeois
Famous for her huge spider sculptures and the ‘Personnages’ series, the French-American artist ranks among the greats of the 20th century. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s
1. Louise Bourgeois was born on Christmas Day
Louise Bourgeois, one of the great sculptors of the 20th century, was born in Paris on 25 December 1911. Her parents ran a gallery in the 6th arrondissement that dealt in medieval and Renaissance tapestries.
Not long after her birth, the family set up a workshop for tapestry restoration in Choisy-le-Roi, south-east of the capital. It was here that the young Louise produced her first art, making drawings of lost sections of tapestry as a template for the stitching repairs to follow.
2. Her English teacher became her father’s mistress
In 1919, Bourgeois’s mother, Joséphine, contracted Spanish flu, a disease from which she never really recovered. Louise’s education was frequently interrupted so that she could help care for her. Things weren’t helped by the arrival of a British au pair, Sadie Gordon Richmond, to teach Louise and her two siblings English.
Living with the family for almost a decade, Gordon Richmond became Mr Bourgeois’s mistress. This complex family arrangement would, by the artist’s own admission, inspire work throughout her career. For example, her many pieces with a spiral motif — such as Labyrinthine Tower — were born out of a desire, she said, ‘to wring the neck of my father’s mistress’. Joséphine died in 1932.
3. Bourgeois was encouraged by Fernand Léger to become a sculptor
Aged 20, Bourgeois entered the Sorbonne to study mathematics and geometry. This was just months after her mother’s death, and she said later that the choice of subject had helped with her emotional and psychological struggles at the time.
‘I got peace of mind,’ she said, ‘through the study of rules nobody could change.’
She soon decided that she wanted a career in art, however, and left the Sorbonne to enrol in a series of schools (including the Ecole des Beaux-Arts) and to study in the atelier of Fernand Léger. It was he who insisted that her talents — and her future — lay in sculpture.
4. She dismissed the Surrealists as ‘smart alecks’
In 1938, she married the American art historian Robert Goldwater, whom she’d met while he was on a trip to Paris. The couple moved to New York, where in 1945 Bourgeois had her first solo exhibition. Held at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery, it consisted of 12 paintings.
In the run-up to the Second World War, and also at its outbreak, many of the Surrealists she’d known in Paris, such as André Breton and Max Ernst, joined Bourgeois in New York, fleeing the Nazis.
In later life, however, she rejected the attempts of commentators to interpret her art as Surrealist in any way, insisting that she had had ‘nothing to do with the Surrealists, who were only smart alecks’.
5. Bourgeois’s breakthrough works include the ‘Personnages’ sculptures
In the late 1940s, Bourgeois shifted to making sculpture. Her breakthrough works included the skinny, totem-like offerings called ‘Personnages’, today regarded as among the finest pieces of her career.
Made from scavenged wood — and, in cases such as Breasted Woman (above), subsequently cast in bronze — they represent the family and friends in France with whom Bourgeois had lost contact during the war. She had a career-long interest in the human body, but always tackled it in an oblique rather than a naturalistic way.
6. Inclusion in the exhibition Eccentric Abstraction boosted Bourgeois’s career
The artist’s production levels dropped in the 1950s and early 1960s, as she devoted time to bringing up her three sons. She also immersed herself in psychoanalysis following her father’s death in 1951.
Her career then took an upward turn in 1966, when the writer and curator Lucy Lippard included works by her in the group show Eccentric Abstraction, at the Fischbach Gallery (alongside pieces by younger artists such as Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman).
Made predominantly in plaster and latex, her sculptures from that time moved towards the bulbous, organic and amorphous. A good example is Avenza (1968-69), a cluster of bulges, simultaneously connected and separate, which perhaps call to mind an animal’s udder or a range of hills.
7. Through her work, Bourgeois addressed motherhood, loneliness and the home
Over time, Bourgeois expanded her repertoire to the point where, at the peak of her career, she never felt bound by a particular style, material or technique.
Some works are carved in stone, others woven in fabric. Some are soft, others jagged. With their evocative lumps, bumps, craters and coils, her sculptures can be sexual or they can be sinister.
What unites Bourgeois’s disparate works are certain recurring themes, such as motherhood, loneliness and the home. The popular Nature Study, a solitary, sphinx-like figure with no head but two rows of breasts, directly addresses the first two of those themes.
8. Moving into an abandoned garment factory allowed her to work on a larger scale
In 1982, Bourgeois had her first retrospective — at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York — aged 70. By the time she was invited to represent the USA at 1993’s Venice Biennale, her reputation as one of the greats of international art was confirmed.
She was now making works on a much bigger scale, something made possible by her move into a larger studio — an abandoned garment factory in Brooklyn.
For example, each of her celebrated series of ‘Cells’ consists of a caged architectural space filled with a dreamlike mix of furniture and other objects, into which the viewer peaks from the outside. For ‘dreamlike’, you can usually read ‘nightmarish’.
9. Bourgeois described her famous spiders as ‘an ode to my mother’
If there’s one subject with which Bourgeois is most associated, it is spiders. They first appeared in her work in 1947, in a small drawing.
More than half a century later, she created the giant (35ft tall) spider sculpture, Maman, for the opening of Tate Modern in London in 2000. Bourgeois was the first artist invited to make work for the gallery’s Turbine Hall — now a prestigious annual commission.
She said the spider sculptures were ‘an ode to my mother’, adding that ‘like spiders, my mother was very clever… helpful and protective’.
The arachnoid pieces are by far the most coveted of Bourgeois’s works on the market. At the time of writing, they’re responsible for every one of the 10 most expensive works by the artist ever sold at auction. The record price stands at $32,055,000, for Spider — a bronze conceived in 1996 and cast a year later — which sold at Christie’s in 2019.
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Other strong performers at auction have been the ‘Personnages’ sculptures, which make up seven of her 30 highest-priced works.
10. Bourgeois lived to the age of 98
Towards the end of her life, numerous awards and accolades came Bourgeois’s way. These included a National Medal of Arts, presented to her by US President Bill Clinton in 1997, and the French Legion of Honour, presented to her in her New York home by the visiting French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2008.
Bourgeois died in 2010, aged 98. She had once said, ‘I work like a bee and feel that I accomplish little.’ The countless artists she has influenced — from Antony Gormley and Kiki Smith to Lynda Benglis and Tracey Emin — would surely disagree.