WORKS FROM THE DR ROBERT AND HELEN MANDELBAUM COLLECTION
Post Lot Text
Standing upright on a narrow pedestal, the sleek, amorphous form of Louise Bourgeois’s Woman with Packages strikes a dignified pose, and exudes stateliness and serenity. Crowned by a textured head, the figure has six bulbous forms, or packages, draped on one side, and it is positioned off-center so that the pedestal stretches away from it like a shadow cast by the body. The bronze sculpture is animated by a warmth that suffuses its burnished surface, and it glimmers with flecks of ruddy chestnut and amber in changing light. Devoid of recognizable features and anonymous, Woman with Packages could represent nearly any person, yet the curves of the sculpture suggest a distinctly feminine shape. She strides forward, moving confidently through space, and is unhindered by her bundled cargo.
Bourgeois’s body of work continually demonstrates her fondness for characters and storytelling. While not offering a narrative in the traditional sense of an Old Master painting, her sculptural forays have often been inspired by her desire to relate her audience to her sculpture, as well as its disparate components to one another, in order to create her mise en scène. Conceived in 1984, Woman with Packages in fact references an earlier sculpture of Bourgeois’s by the same name, dated 1949. Like the present work, this early Woman with Packages is comprised of a Surrealist-inspired totemic figure that evokes the human body with rounded and organic forms, and it features a smooth oval-shaped head atop a slender vertically oriented pillar, with teardrop-esque appendages hanging at the sides. Bourgeois’s Woman with Packages from 1949 is one of the initial figures in the artist’s famed series of Personages or sculptures that she made in response to her acute feelings of homesickness after she moved from Paris to New York. Longing for the familiar characters of her home, Bourgeois created a new “family” of sculptures that she displayed in groups, so “they [could] look around the room, but usually look at each other” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in R. Pincus-Witten, Louise Bourgeois: Personages, exh. cat., Kukje Gallery, Seoul, 2012, p. 19).
As an anthropomorphic totemic creation, the present Woman with Packages shares other similarities with its 1949 counterpart as well. Both draw from the same archetypal Venus of Willendorf-like female figure, who holds herself erect despite the literal or metaphysical burdens she carries, and both manifest an individual persona. Bourgeois has made some notable changes, however, to the present work: Woman with Packages from 1984 has much more of a sense of movement and liveliness in its form, which has a degree of volume and texture absent from the 1949 figure, and its shape changes as the viewer circles around it. While the early version of the sculpture is white, the present work veritably glows with its bronze patina, and the packages almost seem to grow directly from her body instead of just being attached to her sides. The result, in the present sculpture, is a figure of more forceful vitality and robust personality.
Bourgeois’s sculptures time and again underscore the artist’s penchant for autobiographical references and her role within her family. In her youth, Bourgeois shared an intimate bond with her mother—a woman she described as “deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful” (L. Bourgeois, Ode à ma mère, Paris, 1995, p. 62)—and she was greatly affected by her mother’s illness and untimely death in 1932. The artist had a much more difficult relationship with her father, a charming philanderer whose inappropriate advances toward various women and rather conspicuous 10-year affair with her English tutor led to a household ruptured by secrets, deception, infidelity and wounded feelings. Given Bourgeois’s background, Woman with Packages thus gains additional meaning as it suggests a woman of confidence, even in the face of difficulty.
Her father’s duplicitousness left Bourgeois with the lasting impression that men were characteristically weak, yet it also propelled her lifelong search for father figures amongst her artistic role models, who included Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brancusi. With their vibrant presence and thoughtful installations, Bourgeois’s sculptures show the influence of all three artists; however, the anthropomorphized look of Woman with Packages and its ability to convey emotion and wit through skilled manipulation of physical form most closely approaches Brancusi’s expressive legacy, and such iconic works as The Bird in Space and Princess X.
With their dreamlike and even haunting feel, Bourgeois’s imaginative and amorphous forms also indicate the artist’s Surrealist tendencies. Like many of her European contemporaries, Bourgeois relocated during the Second World War to New York City, where she associated with a number of exiled Surrealists such as André Breton, André Masson and Joan Miró, and their interest in sublimation and the unconscious appear repeatedly throughout Bourgeois’s oeuvre. Woman with Packages, for example, alludes to a wealth of Freudian concepts such as the home, psychosexual development, repressed memories and familial relationships. Its form, while somewhat recognizable with its curved shape, also bears indistinct features that render the figure unknowable, and the bulb-shaped protuberances drooping from the figure resemble phallic shapes or breasts, recalling the Surrealists’ interest in unconscious sexual desire and distorted or even violently fragmented anatomy. Simultaneously familiar and foreign, alluring and eerie, the sculpture embodies the concept of the uncanny, or a sensation of unease that Freud attributed to repressed memories bubbling up to the surface.
Woman with Packages confronts hidden fears and desires by rendering them in physical form. For Bourgeois, her art was key to shedding her past, resolving her pain and overcoming her demons. As she explained, “My work is a series of exorcisms. This touches the motivation of the work. While every day I am ready to run again, I am still exorcising some trauma—the word is not too strong. But it is not a subject of conversation, it is a subject of realization” (L. Bourgeois, quoted in P. Vinding, “The Space and the Body,” in Louise Bourgeois: Life into Art, Louisiana, Denmark, 2003, p. 10).
Like the Surrealists’ interest in bridging the division between the conscious and unconscious, Bourgeois’s work also contains dualities, such as the familiar and the alien, comfort and discomfort, attraction and aversion. It explores how those opposing forces play out not just in familial drama, but also in the grander scope of humanity. As Bourgeois scholar Penelope Vinding succinctly explains, “Despite the personal starting-point [sic], Bourgeois’ [sic] works are rooted within a shared human horizon of experience. We recognize the existential themes like life/death, man/woman, love/hate, loneliness/belonging; themes that are part of every society, and which are associated with both strong and ambivalent emotions. Bourgeois’ [sic] personal drama is only the core around which they are played out” (P. Vinding, Ibid., p. 12). Bravely baring her own wounds in works like Woman with Packages, Bourgeois influenced a legion of artists in the next generation including Tracey Emin, Eva Hesse, Kiki Smith and Karen Finley. Operating thus, and with a universal resonance, Bourgeois’s sculptures underscore why she is one of the leading artists of the last century.