Louise Bourgeois: ‘A prisoner of my memories’

Robert Storr

Critic, painter and art historian Robert Storr reflects on the life and career of Louise Bourgeois, ‘the artist everybody has heard about but nobody knows’. Her gigantic, disturbing spider sculptures count amongst the most iconic and popular art works of our era. These monumental structures, which now reside in numerous locations throughout the world, arose from Bourgeois’ critical engagement with her own psychological pain, and serve to put viewers in touch with their deepest fears.

Storr explains how Bourgeois’ unhappy childhood was the source of a lifetime of anguish, but also the spring bed for a remarkable intellectual journey and creative invention. Invisible for much of her career, but profoundly engaged with the world and artists around her, Bourgeois changed forever the way women artists are seen and opened up new, stimulating possibilities in contemporary art.

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Louise Bourgeois is a remarkable anomaly in the history of art, in that she was barely recognised until her later years, but she was in at the beginning, so to speak. But she was a very complicated woman, who was also very, very fearful, capable of fits of terrible jealousy, of destructive anger. And all that is woven into her work. At a certain point she began to make these gigantic spiders. And these are her sort of most disturbing and at the same time most popular objects, people love these things even though they look like a science-fiction creature that’s walked off the screen. And there’s a whole family of these things, spread out all over the world.

Louise Bourgeois is in some ways the artist that now everybody has heard about, but nobody knows. And I would simply say having known Louise for thirty years, she was one of the most intelligent, most widely cultivated persons I have ever met.

“As I always say, I am not what I say, I am what I do.”

She was born in France in 1911, she grew up in a family which devoted itself to restoring tapestries, and they made quite a good living out of this. But she had a quite unhappy childhood in many respects, her father was a philanderer with a nanny who was English.

“And she was not interested in me at all. She was interested in sleeping with my father.”

She studied mathematics at the Sorbonne, but she escaped from her family situation by artmaking. And fear and pain were her main subjects.

“I have been a prisoner of my own memories, and my aim is to get rid of them.”

Louise started making drawing of spiders in the 1930’s/40’s. The spider was associated with patience, with the weaving of webs, and her family had been weavers, and also a predatory dimension to them. Initially she talked about them as being her mother. And her mother who was, as I said, a weaver and who had to manage her husband’s philandering, was a very capable, powerful woman. Very powerful and in some ways intimidating to Louise. So the intimidation in the spider is her mother’s intimidation of her. And then she began to think about how to make this three-dimensional.

The spider at the Tate has this cage underneath it, and it’s an egg sac. First of all, an egg sac on a spider suggests many more spiders. So, oh my god, it’s a spawn; there’s a whole race of spiders about to enter this world. The it becomes another part of her dialogue about the failures of the mother or the failure to be mothered. You’re beneath them, you are within their reach, you are perhaps their prey. The attraction I think, is precisely the way we’re attracted to all horror things. They talk to deep fears, and they allow us to be free of our fears by putting them in some objective way that we can sense that we’re safe as we contemplate them.

The suspension of disbelief, and the participation in one’s own projected anxieties, is all what that work is about. Once she came to the United States in 1938, she began making art seriously as an independent artist, and over the years many people, myself included, acquired works from her. So, she’s very well represented but the general public didn’t know her, and she was virtually invisible. And part of that was sexism, but she was friendly with any famous writer or artist you could think of. She was utterly up-to-date as an intellectual in a world of intellectuals as well as in a world of artists.

Ans she brought all of this to bear. And so, when you see her working through emotional crises, the crises are real, and I saw her in states of terrible, terrible unhappiness. But she used all of her capacities to overcome them.

“I use anger because it is a raw emotion. You want to break this, it will not break.”

In the years between 1980/81 and 2010 when she died, she produced easily two times as much work as she’d ever produced. Louise’s Cells were part of this late burst of creativity. What she did was to collect lots and lots of objects that where resonant to her. She would put them in rooms, and the again you could peek at the through cracks in the glass, you could peek at them around the edge of the door, but you couldn’t enter into them.

The on that the Tate has is really unique and it’s a fantastic piece. The middle of it is this huge, black sculpture of two eyes, and there is no iris, there is no pupil, nothing. So, they’re basically blind eyes, looking out but seeing nothing. And then you find, to your dismay, that the mirrors are looking back at you. They are the eyes in a sense. And not only do they look back at you, but you then see yourself, you become the active spectator. So, this object, which in a traditional sculptural way would be just a marble sculpture, becomes this wildly prismatic effect of looking and being looked at.

“The mirror means the acceptance of the self. So, I have lived in a house without mirrors because I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t accept myself. So, the mirror was an enemy. Now the mirror cannot be your enemy, the mirror has to be your friend. So instead of seeing the mirror as a symbol of vanity, I saw the mirror as a symbol of acceptance.”

Louise played powerfully on ambivalence. She did not have settled feelings about anything, least of all herself. And she describes particular pieces, she would describe them in very different ways. And the reason is not that she was just making it up, the reason that that happened was these things stayed live for her. And if she saw a piece that triggered something in her, she would reinterpret it to herself in light of her current emotional flux. And that meant that everything was connected to everything else, but nothing was ever fixed.

“I could never find an argument with my father because he had a cruel sense of humour and I could not answer it. The frustration was a kind of stiffening, like this, and keeping the resentment inside. And twenty-five years later, I have not come to terms with my resentment, which is there. Which is there forever.”

If you have someone like Louise, who studied mathematics, which is a highly rational discipline, and if you have someone like her who analysed everything around her with such acuity, I don’t think it serves anybody well to reduce artists to categorically those who feel and those who think. Good artists do both. And I think it’s the plight of many women artists, particularly those who have real stories to tell as Louise did, that their art is just turned into a version of their story.

Almost nobody saw that for a long time, and then for a long time thereafter they were so busy talking about her personal miseries that they didn’t realise the nature of her invention. She will have had a profound effect on the way that people will begin to revaluate the presence of women in art history, and for many years she was the artist that nobody had heard about, understood for what she did and be valued for that most of all.

With thanks to…

Jeremy Pollard
Peter Sumner Walton Bellamy
The Easton Foundation



Alamy Stock Photo
Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.
Bridgeman Images
Getty Images
The Easton Foundation



Audio Network
9 Lives



Arena Special: Louise Bourgeois
Director: Nigel Finch
BBC / Getty


Louise Bourgeois
Jeremy Pollard, Date unknown


Louise Bourgeois, 2004
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.


(Aluminium Coil Sculptures)
Louise Bourgeois, 2004
Photo: Gail / Worleygig.com
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.


Louise Bourgeois, 1996
Artwork © The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.
Photo: Tate (Marcus Leith)


Cell XIV (Portrait)
Louise Bourgeois, 2000
Tate Modern
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.


Louise Bourgeois, New York City, 1989
© Chris Felver / Bridgeman Images


Robert Storr with Louise Bourgeois, 1995
Peter Sumner Walton Bellamy


Louise Bourgeois with her brother, her father and Sadie in Nice, circa 1923
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.


Louise Bourgeois
Berenice Abbott, 1949


Louise Bourgeois in her studio at East 18th Street in New York, circa 1946
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.


Louise Bourgeois, 1999
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.


Louise Bourgeois, 1995
Detroit Institute of Arts
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.


Untitled, plate of 8 of 9, from the illustrated book Ode à Ma Mère
Louise Bourgeois, 1995
© 2018 The Easton Foundation/Licensed by DACS


Louise and her mother
From Louise Bourgeois Spider, Mistress and Tangerine, Director Amei Wallach, Marion Cajori, 2008
Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo


Louise with spider
From Louise Bourgeois Spider, Mistress and Tangerine, Director Amei Wallach, Marion Cajori, 2008
Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo


Louise Bourgeois, 1994
Tate Modern
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.


Louise Bourgeois photographed by Brassaï at the Académie de la Grande-Chaumière in Paris, 1937


Franz Kline Opening, 1960
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images


Bourgeois & Goldwater At MoMA, 1963
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images


Andy Warhol and Louise Bourgeois at the Robert Miller Gallery, 1987
Patrick McMullan/Getty Images


French Sculptor Louise Bourgeois in her Studio in New York City in 1995
Porter Gifford / Corbis / Getty Images


Louise Bourgeois, 2008
Collection Tate, London, Gift of The Easton Foundation
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.
Photo: Christopher Burke


I see You
Louise Bourgeois, 2008
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.
Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo


Detail from 10 am is When You Come to Me
Louise Bourgeois, 2006
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.
Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo


Cell (Eyes and Mirrors)
Louise Bourgeois, 1989-1993
Tate Modern
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.


À L’Infini
Louise Bourgeois, 2008-2009
Tate Modern
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.


Seven in Bed
Louise Bourgeois, 2001
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.
Photo: Christopher Burke


Louise Bourgeois & ‘Confrontation’
Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images


An art enthusiast examines a work of art
(Arch of Hysteria in bronze, Louise Bourgeois, Tate Modern
© The Easton Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2018.)

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