Anything but Bourgeois

The spider sculpture Maman by Louise Bourgeois
The spider sculpture Maman by Louise Bourgeois Wikimedia Commons

It must be one of life’s little jokes that Louise Bourgeois’s surname is synonymous with mediocrity, because her artwork is anything but.

This weekend that fact was reinforced to me. The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston has put on a modest-sized show, "Bourgeois in Boston," of the artist’s sculptures, prints, drawings and even an early painting (a rare inclusion for Bourgeois, who is known foremost for her three-dimensional forms). The venue was relatively small, but the short checklist did not hinder the impact of the exhibition.

After looking at only a few works, it becomes obvious that Bourgeois’s art is compelling because it's simultaneously personal and symbolic. On par with Frida Kahlo’s work in terms of its autobiographical engagement, Bourgeois’s oeuvre is an open book when it comes to the her life.

Her close relationship to her mother; childhood traumas; her preoccupation with the body and sexuality; and her father’s infamous ten-year liaison with Bourgeois’s live-in governess—every one of these intimate disclosures finds its way into her work.

But at the same time, the viewer is never put off or alienated by the sharing of such intimacies. The artist’s highly developed symbolism turns diary confessions into so much more. A strong example of this is how Bourgeois’s tenderness for her mother is manifested through the personification of the spider, one of the artist’s most enduring symbols.

In Bourgeois’s hands, the threatening arachnid body becomes a sheltering, protective haven. As a weaver and spinner, the spider is also a source of fragile creativity and inspiration, quite a fitting homage to the artist’s literal originator and expressive muse.

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