Exploring the Life and Legacy of Louise Bourgeois

Photo: Courtesy The Monacelli Press

Anyone who has visited the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), or even seen photographs of it online, will be familiar with the monumental Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) sculpture Maman (1999, cast 2003) on the plaza outside the Gallery’s front entrance. Since its installation in 2005, the sculpture has become so emblematic of the NGC that it is hard now to think of one without the other.

But there was far more to the artist than works such as Maman. In the recent monograph, Intimate Geometries: The Art and Life of Louise Bourgeois by American curator and Bourgeois’ longtime friend Robert Storr, the life and career of one of the world’s most original artists is covered in exceptional depth. 

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Louise Bourgeois in her studio with Life Flower I (in progress), circa 1960. Photo: © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, NY

Never one to be pigeonholed, Bourgeois worked with drawing, painting, fabric, metal, wood, installation and more, in a career stretching over some seventy years. For decades she toiled in relative obscurity, and it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the art world really began to take notice.  

“In a period,” writes Storr, “when the productive lives of artists are frequently as brief as the attention spans of those whose admiration they covet, Bourgeois managed to sustain her work during years of isolation and increase her production even as the media spotlight passed erratically back and forth over her.”

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Louise Bourgeois, St. Sébastienne, 1947, watercolor and pencil on paper, 27.9 x 18.4 cm. Private Collection. Photo: Christopher Burke, © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, NY

Bourgeois’ earliest experience with artistic production was in her parents’ tapestry-repair shop, located next to their home on the rue Saint-Germain in Paris, France. Tired of the no-show temperament of one of their assistants, Louis and Joséphine Bourgeois put the ten-year-old Louise to work re-drawing the lower portions of damaged 17th- and 18th-century tapestries. “Suddenly I was useful,” she wrote. “The bottoms of the tapestries had been eaten away . . . and a draftsman was needed to draw back the feet . . . as well as the legs of the furniture.”

The book is divided into chronological sections, each with a comprehensive account of a decade or so in the artist’s life. In addition to an astonishing array of personal photographs, each text is supported by a substantial standalone portfolio of work from the same period. The earliest portfolio (1930s to 1944), covering Bourgeois’ studies in Paris and her first years of marriage, is particularly fascinating, as it shows the artist working out her ideas and style on everything from translucent vellum to music paper.

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Louise Bourgeois, The Blind Leading the Blind, 1947–49, wood, painted red and black, 170.5 x 163.5 x 41.3 cm. Collection The Easton Foundation. Photo: Christopher Burke, © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, NY

This is also the period that cemented Bourgeois as a sculptor. Speaking of a class taught by painter Fernand Léger around 1934, Bourgeois said, “Léger turned me into a sculptor. . . . He took a wood shaving . . . and he pinned it up under a shelf where it fell, freely in space. We were told to make a drawing of it. I did not want to make a representation of it. I wanted to explore its three-dimensional quality. And so I did. I knew from this exercise that I would be a sculptor, not a painter.” Interestingly, this is also the period during which Bourgeois discovered an abiding love of geometry and mathematics.

It is intriguing to see how Bourgeois’ magpie-mind took elements from the work of other artists, played with them, then distilled them for her own purposes. In the section covering 1944–1955, for example, there are numerous sculptures in which Bourgeois appears to be working out her response to artists such as Alberto Giacometti. Her Personages and other sculptures from this period suggest both her response to the work of others, and her ability to transform those influences into something entirely new.  

One of the more compelling insights into Bourgeois’ work and outlook relates to the many spider sculptures she produced, including the National Gallery’s Maman. Although to most of the world, spiders are, in the words of Storr, “spiny predators,” to Bourgeois they represented many things. “First of all,” she wrote, “the spider as guardian . . . a defense against evil. . . . The other metaphor is that the spider represents the mother.” In a bow to her early life working with textiles, she further noted, “I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it.”

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Louise Bourgeois, Spider II, 1995, bronze, wall piece, 185.4 x 185.4 x 57.2 cm. Collection Palm Springs Art Museum, CA. Photo: Christopher Burke, © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, NY

Although many “art and life” books leave a strange void where the living, breathing artist ought to be, Storr’s Bourgeois is anything but a cypher. Throughout his text, Storr takes pains to explore virtually every nook and cranny of the artist’s life, from her childhood and early influences to passages from the psychoanalysis she underwent for decades. Dissatisfaction with certain aspects of her marriage to art historian Robert Goldwater — with whom she nonetheless remained until his death in 1973 — and her fraught relationship with her parents, all found their way into her work.  

Later in life, Bourgeois became the puckish darling of photographers such as Herb Ritts and Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photograph of Bourgeois, cheekily toting the overtly phallic Fillette (1968), is included in the book. “As tempting as it may be to dwell on such celebrity,” notes Storr, “Bourgeois’s late-in-life charisma has, at times, threatened to eclipse her actual artistic achievement.”

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Louise Bourgeois, Topiary IV, 1999, steel, fabric, beads and wood, 68.6 x 53.3 x 43.2 cm. Private Collection. Photo: Christopher Burke, © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, NY

The book closes with a thoughtful chapter by the author on his own enduring friendship with Bourgeois. Storr makes it clear that he was well aware of the peculiarities of Bourgeois’ personality, including her outright manipulation of the acolytes who swarmed to her apartment — sometimes so crowding the place that they could often only pay homage by squeezing into her presence one at a time. None of this, however, negates the author’s genuine affection for a woman who was, by turns, generous and funny, prickly and difficult.

Measuring roughly the size of a small end table, the monograph’s 828 pages contain more than 1,000 illustrations in both colour and black-and-white. In addition to Storr’s thoughtful text, the book includes an excellent chronology of the artist’s life and work. Despite its relatively high cost, Intimate Geometries is worth every penny, and would make both an elegant addition to any library of contemporary art and artists, and an excellent holiday gift. 

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Louise Bourgeois in her studio with her sculptures, Clouds and Caverns and Cove, circa 1987. Photographer unknown / Art: © The Easton Foundation

Since her death in May 2010, Bourgeois’ reputation has only grown. Exhibitions of her sculptures and installations have been produced around the world, and her work is found in public and private collections at many major institutions, including the NGC, which has several of her drawings and sculptures in addition to Maman. Bourgeois also continues to influence young contemporary artists, and numerous websites celebrate her art. 

In a 1986 interview, Bourgeois said, perhaps speaking of both herself and her art, “To do an assemblage is a nurturing mechanism . . . it is not an attack on things, it is a coming to terms with things.  . . . But there is something else in the assemblage, there is the restoration and reparation . . . You repair the thing until you remake it completely.”


Intimate Geometries: The Art and Life of Louise Bourgeois by Robert Storr was published in its box edition in October 2016 by The Monacelli Press, and in a French boxed edition as Louise Bourgeois : Géométries intimes in November 2016 by HAZAN. The NGC Boutique carries books on Bourgeois, including the illustrated children’s book, Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky (also available in French as Une berceuse en chiffons. La vie tissée de Louise Bourgeois), and Louise Bourgeois: Autobiographical Prints by Julie Mitchell.

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