Louise Bourgeois et sexs miroirs

Mirrors is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when people mention the name of the – painter? sculptor? artist? –  in short, the name of Louise Bourgeois.

It so happened that I read quite a lot about Bourgeois before, quite a long time ago, in fact.  My reading was not related to mirrors at all, I was exploring the intersection of psychoanalysis and art, and in this context her name pops up inevitably. I remember going through a lot of her ‘psychoanalytical’ works, but I can’t recall any encounters with her mirrors, then.  Therefore, my recent exploration brought many discoveries (mostly pleasant, I should add).

A short story about Bourgeois, and her mirrors.

In some sense, Bourgeois shares a lot with McLuhan; in case of the latter, everyone knows about media and the message, but very few know more than this aphorism, and even that one they tend to interprete very primitively. With Bourgeois many people know about her Maman, a series of giant spiders installed all over the world (with the most famous in Bilbao); but few can say – and do – something more meaningful then producing a few snapshots with Maman on a background.

And when these ‘many people’ begin to learn more about other Bourgeois and her works (not only the spiders), they usually exclaim with disgust ‘Oh, what of crap is this your perverse modern art!” 

I actually didn’t plan to write about Bourgeois; I had mind to complete my ‘old masters’ (well, “to complete” here should be read here with quite a lot of salt).  But then I decided that it’s better to mix and juxtapose ‘old’ and ‘new’ mirrors in the blog. I was also triggered by our visit to the Gemeente Museum Den Haag (literally, a municipal museu, but de facto the museum of modern art, one of the largest in the Netherlands); we actually wanted to see the ‘old’ art, in the Mauritshuis, but it is currently close for long-term restoration, and its collection has been partly relocated to the Gemeente Museum, so we managed to cover the above ‘mix’ in one go.

This museum is known (among the fans of Bourgeois, that is) for one her famous Cells (Cells n. 9, to my knowledge). Here’s how it looks:

There is a mirror here, and a story worth talking, but it’s already late Bourgeois (the installation is from 1998); it is also quite an advanced stage of her “mirrors’ theme”. To understand this and similar works, one would need to start earlier, for ‘the very beginning’; in her case, from the very childhood.

The Wikipedia piece about her biography is written fairly well, and I don’t want to copy/paste it here. Instead, I will just put here a couple of pictures.

This is, for example, one of the most famous (and most scandalous) portraits of Bourgeois: made in 1982 by Robert Mapplethorpe, she is holding her Fillette.

Here is Fillette, the Girl Enfant, itself; the sculpture was made in 1968:

The work is slightly psychoanalytical, so to speak (by the way, if such works make you nervous or upset, you should perhaps stop reading here).  I personally believe that all this ‘psychoanalysis’ in her works wasn’t actually ‘real’ or ‘authentic’, but as in the case of Nabokov, was a system of very well calculated traps, placed here and there in anticipation of specifically framed reactions. But I will write about it later, and now just to note this characteristic line of the lip; we will it many times on her (self) portraits, and could be seen even on the earliest pictures of her:

Above, Louise is alone, and below she is with her family – the father (Louis), the mother (Josephine), older sister (Henriette) and younger brother (Pierre), at their home in Choisy-le-Roim in 1915. She is four years old by then.

Details and stories of the early childhood are considered to very important for understanding of her works; well, in psychoanalysis it’s a dogma for any art, and any artist (and any man in general). In the case of Louise Bourgeois it had been also explicitly expressed, articulated and propagated by herself over all her life, and then of course also re-iterated by numerous biographers and critics.

In her early childhood Louise Bourgeois has witnessed adultery relationships of her  father with the English maid who lived in their house, which he didn’t even bother to hide from her mother. An early death of the mother in 1932 and strained relationships with the father resulted in her suicide attempt and left a deep, life-long emotional wounds that Bourgeois was trying to heal through her art till the end of her life” – the sentence like that can be a short summary of many biographers and critical works about her art (which often are blended into one art-life story.)  

There is a lot of truth in such descriptions, I assume; her father was, perhaps, indeed a serious asshole, a sort of alpha male who was trying to show it in every possible way. They didn’t invented yet the paraplan flights heading a flock of cranes, so it was necessary just go with open living with your mistress in the house, next to the wife and three kids.

Here Louise is riding on a boat with this very mistress, during their trip to Paris:

The suicide attempt occurred too – she jumped into the river when she was 17 (but it was her father who rescued her). The quarrels with him – and the lack of those between him and her mother, who silently accepted the situation – doomed the childhood of Louise. She kept her diaries from the age twelve, where she minutely described her thoughts and feelings (of “anger, guilt and fear tearing her apart”, as it’s usually presented).

These “tearing feelings” accompanied Bourgeois through her entire life, and many of   her later art works directly refer to the details of her childhood and youth; I think that it is in her diaries we could find her first drawings (but it’s a guess, I haven’t seen them myself, yet).

These works are more recent, but I would expect to see something similar in these diaries, too):

Self Portrait (1938)

Self-portrait (1942)

In 1932, when she was 20 years old, Louise enrolled in the Sorbonne University in Paris, at the Department of Mathematics, but soon swapped to the School of Fine Arts, and its Faculty of Painting.

Modernistic schools of all sorts and shadows – constructivism, cubism, surrealism, dada, and the likes – have already been pretty mainstream movements, there and then. Her own first works more or less followed the suite:

Reparation (1938)

These first try-outs were so-so, perhaps not bad per se, but not having much chances to stand out in Paris, with its talent density per square meter. On the other hand, this  bohemian lifestyle, with its non-stop schmooze were a form of art in itself, that Louise mastered quite successfully, I assume. At one of such art-gatherings she met her future husband, American art historian Robert Goldwater. They married in 1938, and in the following year went to America, where Louise Bourgeois lived until his death in 2010. She called herself an American artist.

Here she is in her first studio in New York in 1946:

In the States she at first continued to draw (and paint, to lesser extent). Here are a few examples of her works, from the series Women House (Femme maison):

Femme maison (1947)

Femme maison (1946)

Femme maison (1945)

Femme maison (1948)

But after a while she became more interested in 3D works, as we would call it today – not exactly even sculptures in a full sense, but simply more voluminous works (and already quite phallic, if you ask me):

Worth adding, perhaps, that her husband was an art historian – of primitive art, as it was called, that is, of these totems, amulets, shamanistic rags and similar primal art form (or pre-art form, even); art brut took much of this source later too).

Whether through this primitive or primordial art, or through other sources, but Bourgeois found her own distinctive style, which she then mastered all her life. She didn’t become famous or even well-known – on the contrary, almost all her life she was a very marginal figure, well-known only in the narrow circle of “friends”. But in these circles she was the Master, and of very special forms of art:

Labirinthe Tower (1962)

Sleep II (1967)

Janus Fleuri (1968)

As I said, all of these sculptures and installations were known to a very small handful of friends/fans, who of course labelled them as the New Art, Deep Breakthrough into Subconscious, and Art Philosophy of Sex; the rest called them ‘pornography’.

Until very recently I would have written here “but they did not have any mirrors,” and proceed to the later stages of her life, when we see mirrors galore. I would add, perhaps, that archaic doesn’t know mirrors, it’s allien to reflection.

But recently I found this sculpture by Louise Bourgeois:

Mirror (1970е)

This work is called Mirror, but it’s a mirror only to an extent, of course (following a known anecdote about a professor, a student, and a crab (1), we can say “She did know something about mirrors”).

Mirror here, if we accept the label, was not intended to accurately reflect the reality, thus clarifying it, but to distort and deform it. Its task is not to make things clear, but to confuse and disorient (a very meaningful goal, especially in the times of total order (pseudo) clarity.

Chronologically speaking, this is the earliest ‘mirror’ by Bourgeois I found so far. Interestingly, it’s already a 3D object, and not a (2D) painting; I’d like to peruse her diaries at some point, in the hope to spot some earlier ‘mirror’-ish things there.

I wrote above about these psychoanalytical games she was playing all her life, and about her effort to ‘sculpture the unconscious’. This made Bourgeois recognizable, but not unique, many other artists ventured in the same direction at that time (Dali would be one obvious example, and even earlier, Man Ray).

But at some point Louise Bourgeois took a truly original course, when she began to work with the spaces rather then standalone (art) objects. In this way, she made possible for us not only to look at her ‘wounded unconsciousness’, but literally enter it (btw, ‘wounded unconsciousness‘ is a bit of tautology, in my opinion).

Below is a picture of one of the first of such ‘art spaces’, so called Destruction of the Father (1974)

It is a dark cave, or a crevice, a giant rictus, indeed resembling a mouth with the rows of huge teeth; feel free to fill it with your own free associations.

The official (e.g., the author’s) narrative is that this space represents an enactment, a re-play of those “tearing feelings” of the childhood; as I said already, she was practicing this ‘re-enactment’ all her art-life, and yet she admitted that this was the first time when she was really close to conveying her inner experience.

I haven’t seen this piece in real life, only in the pictures, and can’t say how powerful (or pointless) the experience is, of re-experiencing the inner experience of other. Speaking about power, she should be full of it, to create these large, heavy and volumes installations at the age of 60+ (and later also 70+ and even 80+); she might look as shy introvert, but seemingly had a fireball inside.

Shortly after this Destruction, Bourgeois creates her first Cell (a Room? or a Cage?). I describe it as a ‘cell’, because she created many of such art-spaces later, although this one was not yet called ‘cell’ yet; its official title is Red Room (or sometimes The Parents’ Room, 1974).

It’s always difficult to write about art, but in this case the problem is also ‘technological’. These are not flat paintings, and not even sculptures, but complex space; you look at them from different angles, you place yourself ‘into’ them, even if only mentally (in a majority of cases it’s not allowed to really ‘enter’ these cells, only to peek in. There are not so many images of these installations (and those available are often of very bad quality, like the above); most of them are without people, so it’s not always possible even to estimate the scale.

But what them interesting (and especially in the context of my ‘mirror studies’) is that there are indeed mirrors in these cells – which, in turn, makes the task of describing the installation even more difficult, because the mirrors make these spaces ever more complex, self-reflective. 

Paraphrasing Yoda, on the meanings of these mirrors we speak can not. Or rather, there are so many different meanings that these mirrors evoke (or provoke) that musements on each one of them could easily become a book-size project.

On a factual side, these are real mirrors; that is, they ‘work’, they reflect the things around them, as every other proper mirror would do.  I don’t know if these are also ‘real’ mirrors in terms of being taking from real life, or they’ve been produced specially for this cell.

The small one looks like a typical table mirror (but one can also held it in hands), the other one is much larger, the mirrors of this sort are usually standing on a floor. In this case I can’t even say with certainty if it is on a floor, or on a some kind of a pedestal.

The picture above is a scan from the book (Louise Bourgeois, by Marie-Laure Bernadac), they should have get the ‘official’ copy. I also find another, mirrored version of the same image (see below); which one to believe? Whom do you believe to in the world of mirrored parents?

Cell ‘Red Room’ (‘Parents’ Room’) (1974)

After this room/cell Bourgeois produced at least a dozen of similar installations, some of them cite-specific, and others are more generic (and therefore movable). Some of them have own unique names, others are just ‘numbers’. Not all of them have mirrors, but many do – like this Cell III, for instance (1991):

The mirror here seems to be convex, but again, I can’t say with any certainty at the moment; I am still looking for a book, or a catalogue that would display, and describe her ‘cells’  somewhat more comprehensively.

The following picture of another cell called Eyes and Mirrors (1989) (although the word “cage” would do better here):

The mirrors here are not just an element of an installation, they are the core focus of it; they are all very different, but also all transformed and re-appropriated (or may be misappropriated). They are not pieces of furniture anymore, but parts of a strange surreal constellation.

In 1988 Bourgeois creates one of the most famous – and the most ‘mirrored’ – installations, so-called Mirror Cell (or Twelve Oval Mirrors):

To my knowledge, this is one of the few installations (if not the only one) where viewers can enter the art space, thus becoming participants.  I still know very little about this work (and never experienced it myself) to say to what extent it’s original or a remake of the famous Leonardo’s Mirror Chamber. In short, I don’t know the story here (or a narrative, if to use Art English).

But the narrative behind this, and other ‘art spaces’ of Bourgeois was powerful enough to evoke a new wave of interest to her works; she became ‘famous again’.

She didn’t switched to these ‘spaces’ only, and continued to produce other works too; in fact, I think that her sculptures become much more interesting and complex after she ventured into this spatial territories. Many of her most famous works bear the influence of the cells, and mirrors in particular.

Blind Man’s Buff (1984)

She-Fox (1985)

Rabbit (1990)

Nature Study (1984)

Oh, and the spiders; Bourgeois has made a lot of spiders during her long life. I began this posting with the most famous one, perhaps, but there were many more. This one, for example, was installed in the Hague, next to the very museum we visited (although I didn’t spot it this time, may be they moved it to another location). In general, the whole spider thread is bit off my mirror theme, but this one, standing on a water (or thin ice during winters), may suddenly gain an interesting layer of meanings.

(Can spiders recognizes themselves in a mirror?  Do they have any ‘self’ to recognize? or with which to recognize?)

Spider (1996)

In some of her cells/spaces Bourgeois used not mirrors, but other reflecting objects, allowing all sorts of mirror-like effects and games to play with light. Those included flasks, bottles, or just polished surface; in the installation called Precious Liquids (1992) they are used to the max:

The installation is ‘just beautiful’, because of all these reflections, light sport and min-rainbows, but it also has deeper meaning (as almost everything with Bourgeois). The vessels are filled all sorts of human liquids – saliva, when we feel hungry, sweat, when we working (or when we are afraid – Bourgeois believes that it’s a different kind of sweat); tears, urine, and so forth. We are made of our precious liquid.

I recently found other similar installation, but I don’t know the story behind:

No Exit (1989)

As I wrote already, these works are difficult not only to describe, but even to represent; for example, the Precious Liquids is captured by thousands of people, in different places, and at different time, so we have, in fact, not individual but collective portrait of this art work:  

Using the term coined by Huge McLeod (aka gapingvoid), these works become with time the Social Objects.

One of her latest cell, simply called Number 27 (2004):

Even if Bourgeois have made only the cells, she would get into the art-mirrors-art’s Hall of Fame easily. But with her latest work, an installation I Do, I Undo, I Redo she really exceeded herself. The three giant mirrors had been shown for the first time at the Tate Modern in London, during the the season of 1999-2000. These mirrors are so huge, that they become architecture, rather than art or design; the height of the “mirror towers” was more than 20 meters:I Do, I Undo, I Redo (1999-2000)

The making of I Redo (1999)

Few years later Bourgeois has built another giant mirror, the last one of that kind; it was commissioned by the Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona, and on its mirror surface we see the motto of the artist: Art is a Guarantee of Sanity. Ironically, it’s embedded into one of her insanely huge art works:

Art is a Guarantee of Sanity (2005)

The picture below may convey the scale of the events better:

A few examples of the games people play with this mirror:

I’d argue that these games are as much a part of the art work, as ‘art work’ itself; the old question of Alice (the second Alice, that is):  who owns a reflection in a mirror? The mirror? The person who looks in the mirror? Or the one who looks at the person looking in the mirror?

Going back to the cell I mentioned in the beginning of this posting, the one in the municipal museum in the Hague – yes, I took quite a few pictures of it, but already feel that this is not enough, and that I need to go back to the place one day soon.  I feel I was not very prepared to explore and capture all the dimensions of this work.

But to start with at least something: here is how this cell called Qui es-tu? – Who are you? – looks like:

You can also look at the today‘s and yesterday‘s aman_geld.

At the end of this – not even a story yet, but rather a pile, a congerie of some pictures – I’d like to wish to myself many happy returns to the mirrors of Bourgeois. In no way it’s a concluding post, quite the opposite; I see these postings more like the first openings to the world of the artists, that only show the beautiful gardens behind them. Reflectier and reflectier!

PS: Special thanks to i_shmael for the help in preparation of the ‘cover’ to the posting.

(1) I refer to this anecdote often in my Russian blog, but don’t remember describing it in English: The story happens during an exam in a medical institute, when a professor asks a student to tell him what he knows about cancer. ‘Well, – answer the student, – A cancer is a sort of fish, that swims backward.’  ‘Well, – replies the professor, – a crab is not exactly a fish, and it doesn’t exactly swim; and more sideway than backward… but you do know something about cancer!’


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