by Catriona Mitchell
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), one of the great feminist artists, grew infamous over her lifetime for her overtly sexual, witty, defiant and often dismaying images of the female body – largely in sculpture and installation, but also in paintings.
Her primary obsession with the fragile passage of a woman’s body through flowering and decay, made her stand out as a feminist influencer from the 1970s right up to when she died, at the age of 98, in New York.
A show currently on exhibit at the Schinkel Pavilion in Berlin, called The Empty House, captures Bourgeois’ core obsession in a few well-chosen works, never before seen together.
An empty sack is the recurring motif, suggestive of an ‘empty house’ – or the body of a woman who no longer performs a sexual or reproductive function.
The key installation, called ‘Rabbit Skins, Scrapped Rags for Sale’ (‘Peaux de Lapins, Chiffons Ferrailles a Vendre’), presents a range of these sacks, suspended from chains in a range of colours that bring to mind human skin, imprisoned within a large oval cage. Flaccid and seemingly purposeless, they are suggestive of disused body parts and sexual organs… and to look at them through the mesh of the cage is to have a response that is at once visceral and disquieting.
“An artist can show things that other people are terrified of expressing.” – Louise Bourgeois
Downstairs, in an elegant/grimy room characteristic of Berlin, a series of red gouache paintings (2007-08) also explores the life cycle: focusing here on the processes of pregnancy, gestation and birth, but in no sentimental fashion. Used only in red, the gouache has a distinctly blood-like quality.
With a career that spanned most of the 20th century, Bourgeois often spoke of pain as the subject of her art, and said the work represented here in Berlin represents “different types of pain: physical, emotional, psychological, mental and intellectual.”
“I am a prisoner of my pain and memories. The aim of my art is to be rid of them. Then I will have paid my debt to my past and I can be free.”
– Louise Bourgeois
Bourgeois drew frequently on symbols and archetypes in her work: recurring imagery such as spiders, cages, and hand-stitched body-parts are used to symbolize the feminine psyche.
Bourgeois claimed that in real life she was afraid of power, and that she identified with the psychology of the victim. Art offered some reprieve. Her life was plagued by insomnia, so she used the nights to draw.
“Art is a guarantee of sanity,” she said. “That is the most important thing I have.”
Louise Bourgeois’ The Empty House is showing at the Schinkel Pavilion, Berlin, Germany, until July 29.
Feature Image: Couple (detail) (2003)