Can Louise Bourgeois’s paintings unlock the mysteries of her sculptures? –

The works that come to mind when you think of Louise Bourgeois are her iconic sculptures of spiders, doll-like figures and shapes reminiscent of genitalia. But before Bourgeois ever started working in three dimensions, she was a painter.

Bourgeois’ paintings are now the subject of a small study at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Looking at these under-recognized works, the exhibition’s curators believe, may unravel more mysteries latent in Bourgeois’ sculptures.

“What surprised me was that people, even her supporters and friends of many years, were not very familiar with the paintings,” said Clare Davies, an associate curator at the Met who hosted the show.

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A selection of the approximately 100 paintings Bourgeois created over a period of 11 years before leaving the medium in 1949, around the time Bourgeois began to focus on sculpture.

Created during a period when Bourgeois successfully exhibited her work, these paintings represent the first phase of Bourgeois’s career. Most of the works on display were created when she had just moved to New York from her native Paris. She was characterized by an intense sense of guilt for leaving her family behind, as well as other tensions.


Louise Bourgeois, housewife, 1946–47
© The Easton Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York – Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Easton Foundation

“She had just started a family, but she was really coming into her own, for the first time as an artist after many years of study,” said Davies.

Davies explained that while Bourgeois’ husband Robert Goldwater supported her work. Goldwater, himself an art historian, saw interest in Bourgeois’s paintings.

Bourgeois was entrusted with the typical domestic duties expected of a woman at the time. As a very anxious person, caring for her sons was extra burdensome, as heartbreakingly depicted Red Night (1945-1947). A self-portrait in which she and her three sons hide together in a bed in a sea of ​​turbulent red, the work is inspired by her recurring dreams that she and her children were in danger.

Bourgeois has long been known for her works portraying the darker side of motherhood and the domestic atmosphere, with the spider sculptures based on menacing qualities she attributed to her own mother. However, these themes have roots in Bourgeois’ early paintings. The series “Femme Maison” (1946-47) contains images in which a woman’s body is connected to the shape of a house, her head completely shrouded in the staircase.

Meanwhile, an untitled 1948 work in the Met show shows a building’s courtyard as a dark, red space that perhaps suggests the vaginal canal. On the roof of the building are chimneys and mysterious figures that convey something cheerful and explosive. The painting was created around the time Bourgeois started making sculptures on the roof of her building. The freedom of that new studio space is seemingly haunted by the house below.

These depictions of houses and buildings belie Bourgeois’ early interest in physical spaces. During her research, Davies discovered that Bourgeois began her own scientific exploration during these painting years in New York.

“I found that she often went to the Prints and Drawings department at the Met and reviewed treatises on the Renaissance perspective on Renaissance architectural drawings,” Davies said. “She was really interested in how people imagined the space on the canvas.”

Somewhere along the way, Bourgeois stopped painting. According to Davies, we’ll never really know why.

“She never started painting again. She continued to draw, so she was still very much writing pen on paper, but after 1949 she stopped taking up a brush,” Davies said. “That begs the question: why? I entered the exhibition hoping to answer that question, but I came away with the belief that it’s not really possible to definitively answer it.”

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