The Comprehensive Exhibition ‘Louise Bourgeois: Paintings’ Opens at The Met




Louise Bourgeois: Paintings at The Met

Louise Bourgeois: Paintings is the first comprehensive exhibition of paintings produced by the iconic, French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) between her arrival in New York in 1938 and her turn to sculpture in 1949. The exhibition opens on April 12th.

Louise Bourgeois, Red Night, 1945-47, Oil on Linen. In this nightmarish scene, Bourgeois huddles in bed with her three sons, immersed in a field of red. For Bourgeois, the color red carried multiple connotations: it was the color of blood, pain, and violence.  Her diaries of the 1940s convey her struggles with the duties and responsibilities of motherhood and record recurring dreams in which she and her children were in danger.

Understood as self-portraits, Bourgeois’s paintings serve to identify and locate her but also refer to the sense of displacement that accompanied her move to the United States on the eve of World War II. This early and little-seen body of work reflects the artist’s intimate knowledge of the European avant-garde, especially her interest in modernist architecture and Surrealism. Also evident is her interest in French and Italian Renaissance conventions for representing three-dimensional space, which she accessed in drawings and prints from The Met collection. In these paintings, Bourgeois established architectural space as a core artistic concern moving forward and developed a visual lexicon of motifs that would reappear consistently throughout her decades-long career. Though she is best known today as a sculptor, the contours of Bourgeois’s practice come into focus first in and, crucially, as painting.

Louise Bourgeois, Reperation 1945, Oil on Linen. In this work, Bourgeois depicts herself as a girl bringing flowers to her family’s cemetery plot in Clamart, France. Her bouquet, stark against the minimally rendered headstone, is an offer of apology and a desire, as the title confirms, for reparation and forgiveness.

Louise Joséphine Bourgeois was born in Paris, France in 1911. Her parents owned a gallery dealing primarily in antique tapestries and their restoration. Bourgeois entered the Sorbonne to study math and geometry in 1930 (“I got peace of mind, only through the study of rules nobody could change.”…..Bougeois) But that all changed when her mother passed away in 1032. She abandoned her studies in math and took up the study of art.

Louise Bourgeois, Self Portrait, 1947 Oil on Linen

“The subject comes directly from the unconscious. The formal perfection is the important part, and very conscious. The form has to be absolutely strict and pure”                                        ….. Louise Bourgeois

She was encouraged to focus on sculpture, rather than painting, by Fernand Léger, who saw her work in one of her classes. She graduated the Sorbonne in 1935, and continued her studies of art in Paris at École des Beaux-Arts and École du Louvre, and then on to he independent academies of Montparnasse and Montmartre such as Académie Colarossi, Académie Ranson, Académie Julian, Académie de la Grande Chaumière and with André Lhote, Fernand Léger, Paul Colin and Cassandre.

Louise Bourgeois, The House of My Brothers, 1940-42, Oil on Wood. Her childhood home in Choisy-le-Roi, France was the inspiration for the house depicted in this painting.

Bourgeois opened her own gallery in 1938 next door to her parent’s tapestry gallery. Here, she showed the works of artists like Eugène Delacroix, Henri Matisse and Suzanne Valadon. And it was here that she met the American art professor Robert Goldwater – a customer who she would eventually marry and move to New York, where her husband taught at NYU.

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1946-47. The architectural structure depicted in this painting, the largest Bourgeois produced, also appears in the backgrounds of ‘Abstract Figure’ and ‘Regrettable Incident in the Louvre Palace’ both on view in this exhibition.

“Even though I am French, I cannot think of one of these pictures being painted in France. Every one of them is American, from New York. I love this city, its clear-cut look, its sky, its buildings, and its scientific, cruel, romantic quality.”                                                                       ……. Louise Bourgeois.

In New York, she continued her education at the Art Students League, going the prestigious American Abstract Artists Group in 1954. In 1958, Bourgeois and her husband moved to 347 West 20th Street in Chelsea, where she lived for the rest of her life. Her husband passed away in 1973.

Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison, 1946-47, Oil and Ink on Linen. All four canvases in this series were likely shown at Bourgeois’s second solo show of paintings at the Norlyst Gallery, New York, in 1947, albeit under different titles. In the 1970s, they were embraced by the second-wave feminist movement in the United States and retitled collectively as ‘Femme Maison’, which translates as “housewife” (literally, ‘woman house’).

She began teaching in 1973 ~ at Pratt Institute, Cooper Union, Brooklyn College and the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting & Sculpture, as well as the School of Visual Arts and a public school in Great Neck on Long Island. She was also actively involved  with the feminist anti-censorship collective Fight Censorship Group.

Facets of the Sun was her first commissioned public sculpture, installed in 1978 outside a federal building in Manchester, New Hampshire. Her first retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art NYC in 1982. Bourgeois passed away in 2010. She was survived by her two sons.

Louise Bourgeois, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, 1947, a Book of nine engravings and letterpress text. In 1946, Bourgeois began working at Atelier 17, the renowned printmaking studio of artist Stanley William Hayter. The illustrated book consists of nine engravings paired with parables written by Bourgeois, which focus on alienation, disappointment, and the failure or refusal to communicate.

While Bourgeois is best known today as a sculptor, it is in this early body of work—created in the decade spanning World War II—that her artistic voice emerged, establishing a core group of visual motifs that she would continue to explore and develop over the course of her celebrated, decades-long career. Informed by new archival research, the exhibition sheds light on a little-known chapter in the artist’s practice.

Louise Bourgeois, From L-R, Femme Volage, 1951 and Dagger Child, 1947-49, Painted wood on stainless steel base.

Louise Bourgeois: Paintings will be on view from April 12 to August 7, 2022 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, NYC.

The exhibition is made possible by The Modern Circle, The Easton Foundation, and the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust. All works in the exhibition are by Louise Bourgeois (American, born France, 1911-2010).

Take a look-back to Louis Bourgeois.Drawings 1947-2007  in the Online Viewing Room at Hauser & Wirth NYC in 2020.