My life in art: The day Bourgeois moved me to tears
The rage, fear and frustration in Louise Bourgeois’ autobiographical art shocked me into understanding what it must be like to be a woman
Will Gompertz, The Guardian, October 8th 2008
I have been married for 15 years and I think things have gone pretty well. We have four perfectly acceptable children, we all get along OK, and as husbands go, I’m not a bad lot. I’m loyal, I recognise my wife as a superior human being and I even have the odd moment of unselfishness. (I expect such moments to be verbally recognised and physically rewarded.) My wife stays at home to look after the children because returning to the teaching job she loved was made impossible by the incompatibility of teacher’s pay and the cost of childcare. The other option – of me becoming a househusband – was categorically not on the table. I don’t mind a bit of gentle hoovering, but I do mind babies. They’re like drunks: incomprehensible, unreasonable and prone to vomit on you. Anyway she loves it, doesn’t she? Well, that’s what I had assumed, until an incident a couple of weeks ago that shocked my smug, complacent, delusional self to the core.
I see a lot of modern and contemporary art; it’s a pretty fundamental part of my job. The vast majority of work I see I like on some level or another. Even the stuff I don’t like, I find interesting simply by dint of it existing and being revered enough to find itself in a museum or gallery; a sort of sign of the times. On the whole though, most art doesn’t have an immediate emotional impact on me in the same way as, say, a David Lynch movie or an Arsenal football match does.
Art and emotion tends to be a slow burn, built up over a period of time as I get to know and really appreciate the artist and their work. In fact, I would go as far to say that the only time I have been knocked sideways by a piece of art was when I first encountered the work of Willem de Kooning in my early 20s. Of course, when I saw Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I was completely blown away, but I already knew what to expect and the sensation was more like meeting your hero in the flesh. So when I strolled along to see a retrospective of the work of the 96-year-old French/American sculptor Louise Bourgeois, I was looking forward to a cerebral hour of gentle perusing and mulling on her Femme Maison that were made by Bourgeois from 1945–47, six years after moving to New York from her native France. By this time, she was married to an American art historian called Robert Goldwater and had three children (the first of which was adopted). Goldwater was a good bloke – a loving husband and a source of intellectual companionship for Bourgeois – and she adored her children. But that didn’t stop her from making a set of paintings that are so filled with rage, fear and frustration that, for the first time in my life, I began to understand what it must be like to be a woman. To have to accept that the world’s view is male and all the assumptions that come with it, such as: everything you do and say is seen and judged through the prism of your sexuality, that the expectation is you will fulfil the multiple roles of mother, housekeeper, companion, worker and lover with deference and gratitude, and that men – lazy, selfish, conceited men – are not forced to wear the same, or any other straightjacket. Bourgeois’s genius is that she is able to put all this across with some small paintings that are so simple they are almost naive.
All the Femme Maison (literally house woman/housewife) paintings share the same idea. In each one, a woman has a house covering her head, below which her naked body protrudes. She thinks she is safe and secure in her domestic prison, because that is all she can see around her. She has no idea that she is flashing her genitals to all and sundry, more vulnerable than ever. It’s the stuff of nightmares where you are publicly exposed and shamed. These paintings succinctly sum up the struggle of every woman and their destiny to live with the responsibilities and constrictions of trying to maintain the balance of wife, mother and housekeeper while trying to retain a semblance of individuality in such sapping domestic circumstances. The simplicity of the paintings adds to the sense of entrapment; there wasn’t the time for anything more studied or crafted.
These works have been related back to the surrealist movement that began in the 1920s with artists such as René Magritte, where he juxtaposed two seemingly incongruous objects or situations in order to make a point. Maybe they are, she certainly knew Marcel Duchamp and André Breton, the leaders of the movement, very well. But I’m not so sure. I think her work is much more closely aligned to the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, another woman who found out early what a letdown men can be. Both Bourgeois and Kahlo created warts-and-all autobiographical art, something that had never been done by women before. They exposed themselves to expose the truth, a daunting and dangerous thing to do, which requires immense courage. An approach to making art that can be seen most obviously today in the work of Tracey Emin, another person whose art, I suspect, will prove to be just as important in years to come.
Bourgeois’ Femme Maison paintings scream that women are put upon, jailed, abused and patronised. Up until seeing them I had thought I was a decent, caring husband – now I know I’m just like the rest, a chauvinistic bore. I rang my wife and mumbled some inadequate apology. She was a little taken aback, but not half as taken aback as I had been. Bourgeois made a note in her diary in 1980 that read: “The only access we have to our volcanic unconscious and to the profound motives for our actions and reactions is through shocks of our encounters with specific people.” I should coco, Louise. Game, set and match to you.