French-American artist Louise Bourgeois is best known as a sculptor. Her prison cell-like environments, with abstract sculptures within, as well as her giant spiders, are internationally known. Often described as a symbolist with dark psychological intent, the artist can also be seen as a surrealist stolen away from France, where that movement began. Her work almost always possesses a gravitas bordering on the unbearable, more than likely the result of a family traumatized by their father’s decision to employ his mistress at his home as a nanny. Bourgeois met the American art historian Robert Goldwater and married him, settling in New York in 1938, where she lived the rest of her 99 years. But before she became heavily involved in sculpture, she was a painter of insight and deep feeling, as this show of work, done mostly during the time of the Second World War and just after, indicates at the Met. Painted loosely, rich with personal allusions, the works cannot be joined easily to the art movements of the time. Instead, they are meditation usually personal and symbolic in nature, both enriched and menaced by the ongoing emotional difficulties she suffered from.
How does an artist make compelling work about the events in her own life without taking the risk that the work will inevitably become self-involved? In New York, identity art, in which the personal attributes of the artist become as important as the work itself, remains strong as a genre of expression. By contrast, Bourgeois’s art communicated discomfort, even despair, within a threatening atmosphere by means of imagery that does not overtly tie its meaning to specific events in the artist’s life. Somehow Bourgeois communicates, in this body of work, unease in a way that draws both from the abstract and perhaps, as well, the way she escaped the war by moving to America (she remained deeply concerned and also guilty regarding her family in Nazi-occupied France). For an artist like this, a poet of dark emotions, Bourgeois had the wherewithal to allude to personal hardship without presenting its details. This resulted in an emblematic presentation, close to doom in general atmosphere, rather than a transparently personal conveyance of unhappiness. Choosing the symbolic over the confessional, the artist created in these paintings a point of view that suggested deep emotion that most viewers could react to, without proceeding too deeply into Bourgeois’s psyche. The result was an allegory applicable as much to the human condition as it was to the private life of the artist.
The jump, then, from personal suffering to the impersonal demonstration of pain is key to Bourgeois’s creativity. This leap is enhanced by the rough, somewhat hidden, effects of her paintery style. Often close to expressionist treatment, the paintings in this show reveal Bourgeois’s ongoing concern with emotional darkness, made more so by her ability to invest the atmosphere of her work with a penchant for shadowy allegory, or a symbolism that moves into general statement from the vicissitudes of her experience. But it cannot be said that Bourgeois publicly weeps over distress. The symbolism and surrealist bent of her art veils her
Investigations with shadows that objectify but do not necessarily make specific her personal troubles. In doing so, this allows Bourgeois to suggest demons without specifying their origin. Thus, the psychology of her art attains a universality, aided by the remarkable originality of her style and the original application of paint. At the time she painted the works on show, America was consumed with the studied emotionalism of abstract expressionism. But Bourgeois’s art, however loosely it may have been developed, remains entirely original. The combination of dark content, alluded to without revealing its origins, and alluded to by a complex presentation of motifs that convey a distress accessible to anyone alive, made the artist’s work highly original, even today.
Again, a major part of Bourgeois’s allusive intricacy is based on objects that roughly, often mysteriously, evoke the painter herself, albeit in a manner that does not illuminate her life in particular. When the viewer is looking at a symbolic treatment of experience, he inevitably moves into a generalized point of view. This is because symbolism, in some ways the least complex and specific of imaginative attitudes, communicates accessibility via an emphasis on the shared experience the symbolic object provides. Bourgeois is particularly good at connecting the menace found in her paintings with an outlook that extends as broadly as possible into the imagination of her viewer, so that the atmosphere of her work moves from her personal immediacies into a collective perception, not so much seen as intuited.. One can only admire the breadth of Bourgeois’s imagination, in which the paintings become partially obscured narratives of desire, guilt, and unease—attributes that speak to basic human needs. There are times, in fact, when we can determine the particular object of the artist’s continuing dismay, such as her worry her family in France and the accompanying guilt of her move to America during wartime. But even here, when we know the outline of the artist’s theme, her hidden presentation acts like a veil between her life events and the sense that we are watching a more impersonal outlook regarding troubled feeling.
This is a time of sharply directed personal expression, in which the artist and his or her private life take precedent over the work itself. Bourgeois’s paintings, produced several generations before the present circumstances of extreme personal reference, can be understood as a successful alternative to our current obsession with ourselves. Looking at the work, we find that the atmosphere of the painting, as valid as its impact as the specific objects and figures we see, regularly conveys a sense of loss, a dark mood. Because we know so much about the artist’s life, there is the tendency to read the paintings as self-portraits indicative of a landscape of pain. Yet emphasizing the psychological over the esthetic results in loss; the works become puzzles to be solved in light of experience. Bourgeois may be partly given to such an art, but that is not only what she is doing. Instead, we could plausibly argue that these works reflect the horrific times of the war, no matter how geographically distant the artist may have been from her home in France. The tension between the privately meant and the publicly expressed remains high in Bourgeois’s work, and her enigmatic style, outside the reach of popular ways of working at the time, blurs the contact between the two kinds of presentation. At least part of the allure of these remarkable paintings has to do with the ambiguity at the base of Bourgeois’s creativity, namely, the disorder of emotion and the need to present it in a readable fashion.
The conflict is evident through the body of work shown. In The Runaway Girl (ca. 1938), a tall, nearly adolescent girl, with long brown hair and simply rendered facial features, appears to be walking on a river of bright blue water. In the foreground, a group of light tan, pointed, low rocky prominences occur. On the other side of the water, at the top of the painting, is a dark sky with a gray cloud. Bourgeois’s mixture of fairy tale magic, natural detail, and threatening atmosphere all correspond to the information given in the title. Of course, no one walks on water, unless within the realm of the imagination. But the young girl seems magically determined to escape an unknown environment. The exhibition’s wall texts have suggested that the entire body of work can be seen as examples of the artist’s self-portrait, given the circumstances of her departure for New York. In the particular case of The Runaway Girl, it is hard not to see the scenario as an attempt on the painter’s art to escape her circumstances. Even though we know directly from Bourgeois that this image depicts her leaving France for America, it is mistaken to assign a purely personal interpretation the the image. The painting gains strength by reminding us of a fairy tale, thus universalizing a specific situation.. Whatever the circumstances that brought Bourgeois to paint so weighted a work of art, the image needs to be understood in light of human endeavor. The problem with knowing the unhappy details of the artist’s early life is that we tend to read all allusion in the paintings as indicating terrible, and personal, circumstances. To be sure, Bourgeois painted out of a deep psychic need to assuage the emotional pain she felt, regularly connecting her life with her art does damage to the imaginative, evocative brilliance of her painting.
In fact, the connection between Bourgeois the person and the image of the girl may not be quite as close as we think. This work may simply be a portrait of a girl on the run, given mystical presence by her sweeping across water. In another work, Confrérie (Brotherhood in English) (ca. 1940), Bourgeois has painted her family in silhouette at the bottom of the work. The third figure in the group of three on the left is said to be Bourgeois herself, while the central figure is her brother, and the two figures on the right are her sister and brother-in-law. The entire group is enveloped by a band of bronze-red, a fire perhaps indicative of the violence occurring in Europe. In the middle of the painting, we see a white strip of snow; in the midst of the snow, there is a low, one-story house with a red roof, domesticizing the image. Above the snow, there is a dark gray, brown, and dark green sky; directly over the house is an angry cloud, painted in muted colors, with a hollow vortex at its center. Because we know when Confrérie was painted, early in the war and shortly after Bourgeois moved to the States, notions of guilt and the need to reestablish contact with family easily come to mind. The painting is simply, even deliberately roughly, done; it is, perhaps, a way of acknowledging deep-seated psychic needs that were welling up inside the artist’s psychic life. At the same time, it appears to directly imply a massive conflict, the cloud symbolizing the anger of war. Bourgeois’s ability to merge her mind’s concerns with public trauma is wonderfully evident in this painting.
The 1940 recto side of an untitled work, made with oil and pencil on board, is highly suggestive of a self-portrait. A figure, done completely in shadow, stands on a pedestal in the middle of a painting with a brown background. To the left is a collection of abstract designs: a large, red mass with a rounded top and straight sides contains dark brushwork non-objective in nature; to its left is a passage that is a deep, dark blue with irregular sides. To the right of the figure’s head, we find several irregular shapes without figurative meaning; beneath them is a pencil drawing of thickish lines that move downward toward the feet of the figure. The combination of a recognizable person, along with the abstract embellishments, is a memorable treatment of anonymity. As always, the audience can see this as a portrait of the artist herself, or as an existential treatment of isolation. Both might be correct. It can be said that during the course of seeing the show, the viewer might tire of so many hazy references to self and to the world beyond the self. The difficulty with art that tends toward inner exploration is its inevitable constraints—boundaries resulting from an obsession with one’s own events. It is hard to say how Bourgeois escapes this problem, but she does. She manages to universalize within the pictorial content of individual grief. The viewer does not sense, in any way, a narcissistic projection of suffering, as happens so often in the art we see today. Instead, she reports, symbolically but also objectively, a discomfort we all have experienced. Thus, Bourgeois’s own situation becomes a platform for a statement encompassing as many people as possible.
An untitled work from 1945 to 1947 looks like an abstract allegory, overtaken by the violence of a war recently ended. Usually, though, allegories possess meaning; what can this resolutely non-objective compilation of mysterious, organically shaped objects suggest? There is a shape much like a bird with blue-white and brown feathering, that takes up most of the painting. But instead of a recognizable head and beak, the body, if it is one, is topped by a cloud-like mass of white, dark blue, and small patches of red. A thin pole appears to support the overall shape, while short arms extending from the pole hold eggs. Other shapes, organic and hard to accurately describe, fill the right side of the blue background of the painting. One could easily see the composition as a surrealist abstraction; Bourgeois give no clue what the work means. But in surrealism that is exactly the point; there is often very little to define the work so that its audience can make free sense of its extravagances, The colors and objects in this work of art may not be easily accessible, but the work possesses its own coherence, based on intuitive structure. Because the art is distant from conventional meaning, its details and overall architecture can be as free as the artist wanted. And so it is.
A later, untitled work from 1946 presents two abstract figures, whose head and upper torso is rendered in a black outline and whose lower body is given in white. The figures are hieratically developed, standing like high nobility or priests against a blue background and a red floor. This work is at once figurative and abstract, calling into focus Bourgeois’s great ability to create figures whose components are resolutely non-objective. This is likely what makes the painter so original in this remarkable show. The abstract majesty of the two standing personages is developed by means of form that individually, by themselves, can be appreciated as separate shapes in their own right. Thus, the artist introduces an element of individualized manufacture that emphasizes each separate element as equal in importance to the work’s entirety. Most often, Bourgeois tends to invest her compositions with personal meaning, even if we have to interpret that meaning through the veil of a more than slightly non-objective style. The formal element of the two figures introduces a social importance that might make them aristocrats posing for a portrait. Whatever the background meaning of this painting, it is clear that the art evidences Bourgeois’s great skill at combining genres of representational and non-objective form. Here a tacit formality of presentation is emphasized, making it evident that while the figurative element is predominant, there is also a strong interest in abstraction for its own sake.
Two of the four images comprising the Femme Maison (Housewife in English) (1946-47) are especially indicative of Bourgeois’s perception of a woman’s place in social circumstances. The house is a common reference in her work, standing likely for her home in France, but also as a symbol of domesticity, where, in traditional terms, women both held sway and were trapped. In one of the works, done in oil and ink on linen, we confront a figure drawn in a thin, dark line.
The upper part of the body consists not of a neck and head, but a three-storeyed house with stairs leading to the door from the waist up. The lower half of the body is without clothing. The obvious association of women with the home is graphically indicated here. It is both surreal and symbolic in its implications, a strength of Bourgeois’s sensibility. The second image from the suite is dark, muted thematically and tonally. Tall and narrow, the building rises up into a night atmosphere, with a long stairs leading to a thin black entrance. Most of the narrow windows above the door are lit, while two unexplainable projections, rising upward from the right side of the structure, add to the general air of mystery. One might say, with plausibility, Yet again Bourgeois disguises the personal by using objects to present feeling that the house is an objectified version of the artist and even of women generally. We recognize the mysterious, even threatening atmosphere of the painting, and understand that Bourgeois’s symbolism turned everything she did into an implied narrative meaning more than any simple description might entail.
An oil on canvas, ca. 1947, is composed of objects seemingly taken from nature, but which demonstrate no easy reference to particular flora or fauna. In the upper half of the composition, a form, looking a bit like a hedgehog, takes up most of the space, but only the left half of the body is covered with bristles. Above it on the left, at the top of the painting, is a dark balloon shape, with lines running over it to the top and left edges of the canvas. Beneath the bristled entity, is an apparent length of wood, defined by regularly spaced lines, And underneath, at the lowest part of the painting, is something that resembles a low hill with a peak, if in fact that is accurate. This work, like so much of Bourgeois’s art, hovers between the recognizable and the unknown. No artist ever truly leaves the beginnings of her life and career, and in this exhibition, we see imagery and psychic attitudes that continue onward, long into Bourggeois’s long life. The reason why she is so memorable, here and throughout her time of public recognition, comes from her great ability to invest a psychological aura within work that does not particularize the reasons for that aura. So mystery remains a singular artifact of the artist’s inquiring mind. Only when we accept the mixture of the personal and the abstract in Bourgeois’s work, do we begin to understand the complexity of her paintings.
In the long run, it is hard to characterize the artist, who is both open and hidden in the same moment. She never suffers from the literalism that has taken over New York’s art milieu. Nor does she exemplify the troubling combination of victimization and narcissism that plagues much of contemporary art. Instead, Bourgeois moves further and further into the unknown of her inner state, having found the means to describe it in objective terms. She is one of those artists whose life story cannot be separated from the work itself; usually, this is a burden rather than an advantage, Yet Bourgeois manages, in these paintings and throughout her career, to bring into recognition an inner landscape that is abstractly symbolic and touchingly human. The abstraction prevents the work from becoming overly confessional, while the figuration ties the imagery to the artist herself and to her audience. The overtly psychological in visual art can easily lose its purpose, being overtaken by excessive self-display. Yet in this remarkable show, nothing of the sort happens. Instead, the psyche becomes a template for exploration rather than demonstrative grief, always suggested, not declared, in the paintings. Bourgeois’s refusal to overemphasize the troubling occurrences of her early life has given this show a realism of high intention and expression, making it evocative beyond the components it consists of.