Female artists struggle to balance the scale and ambition of their creativity with their maternal and sexual roles, finding themselves in a world of criticism in either role they decide to embark on. Juggling domestic responsibilities with artistic production often result in smaller bodies of work, smaller scales, smaller budgets compared to male artists.
Painter, sculptor, mother Louise Bourgeois is a woman who refuses to live in the shadows of timidity or compromise for her art. Bourgeois has been a magnetic figure for art critics, specifically feminist art historians and theorists since the mid- 1970s. She goes against the narrative of the timid artist, creating pieces which are repellent and sinister as well as erotic and sensual. Her work consists of lumps, bumps, bulbs, bubbles, bulges, slits, turds, wrinkles and holes. The pieces can be slick and shiny, or rough and messy and her themes are highly personal. She expresses, through her art, domestic confinement and transcendence, her interest in a French tradition of hysteria and creativity whilst connecting these personal experiences to larger issues such as gender.
She married an American art historian, Robert Goldwater, in 1938 and moved to New York. In doing so, Bourgeois moved away from a traditional, practical part of her life which was associated with women, memory and her mother, and entered what was to be a more masculine modern, professional and creative culture. She realised that her work was not big enough in this masculine world, ‘there is a timidity in the way the idea is presented’. In 1945, she had her first solo show. She originally titled her paintings in English because she believed that these paintings could have been achieved in France and therefore, could not go by a French name. These paintings, she stated, were American and just like New-York, they were clean-cut, scientific, cruel and romantic. She contrasted her fellow female painters of the 1940s, she was glamorous and elegant, she remained detached from politics, headlines and the news.
One of her major themes throughout her work in the 40s was female confinement in the home. She painted women as houses – femme maison- with the houses for heads, or the room for bodies. This was a typical trope of Gothic writers in the 40s, of the secret inner room of a woman, which is a source of mysteries, including birth and death.
Bourgeois used female sexuality in her work, but in the 60s, she began to create more androgynous and even masculine art. Her most famous ‘erotic’ work is her latex sculpture Fillette 1968, which plays with the idea of gender. The piece is a 2ft-long phallus, it is comic and diminishing rather than commanding and dominating. She decided to call the piece ‘a little Louise’, using her name as the butt of the joke. In one photograph of the piece, she holds it tucked casually under her arm like a baguette- as if there is nothing obscene about the piece or the act of being so casual with it.
In 1997 Bourgeois exhibited a cage, perched on top was an enormous spider sculpted in bronze. The legs completely covered the wire enclosure. Spiders became a theme for Bourgeois in both friendly and ominous means. She claimed that all the spider-related art represented her feelings about her mother. Her Maman piece 1999 is enormous and is installed at Tate Modern. This piece clearly shows how she went against the norm of timidity and, using her own language, created art in a more masculine way. Creating something unapologetic, something many people are scared of, something andrognous in a world of female vs male art is something extraordinary. She has disproved assumptions about the careers of artistic women, she is no a timid painter but a loud, proud, mechanic.