Louise Bourgeois: Paintings is the first comprehensive exhibition of paintings by the celebrated artist, produced between her arrival in New York from Paris in 1938 and her turn away from the medium by 1949.
While Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) 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 mature artistic voice emerged, establishing a core group of visual motifs that she would continue to explore and develop over the course of her decades-long career. The exhibition opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on April 12, 2022 sheds light on a lesserknown, but formative chapter in the artist’s practice.
Louise Bourgeois: Paintings is organised by Clare Davies, Associate Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Met.
Bourgeois’s paintings can be considered self-portraits: serving to identify and locate her, while also evoking the sense of displacement that accompanied her move to the United States on the eve of World War II. This early body of work reflects the artist’s intimate knowledge of 20th century European avant-garde movements, especially modernist architecture and Surrealism, as well as New York’s rapidly evolving art scene of the 1940s. Also evident is her interest in French and Italian Renaissance conventions for representing three-dimensional space and architecture, which she studied in The Met collection of drawings and prints. The exhibition includes the hybrid woman-house of the “Femme Maison” series, as well as early works such as Confrérie (1940), a selection of abstract works in oil (1942–1944), and a group of later paintings, which anticipate her turn to three-dimensional work.
Confrérie is one of the first works in which Bourgeois employed the motif of the house and path in a rural landscape. It is also a family portrait. Describing the composition to curator Deborah Wye in 1992, the artist identified herself as the third figure from the left, next to her parents. Her brother, isolated, is at center, and her sister and brother-in-law are on the right. Explaining further, she said: “The figures are in limbo . . . they roam around together in the shadow.” The ominous storm cloud over the house alludes to the turbulent dynamics within Bourgeois’s family. She considered her early paintings, many of which referred to her childhood in France, as “nostalgia pictures.”
In 1938, after a brief courtship, Bourgeois married American art historian Robert Goldwater in Paris and moved to New York. Initially optimistic about her new life in America, she came to feel isolated and anxious, and suffered from guilt for her abrupt departure. She mourned the separation from her family, who were subsequently cut off from her in Nazi-occupied France.
This self-portrait, a hybrid of painting and drawing, was one of twelve paintings included in Bourgeois’s first solo exhibition, held at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York in 1945. She portrays herself midstride, holding a suitcase; she is seen simultaneously in the distance, swimming in the water. Jagged rocks in the foreground emphasise the perilous journey ahead. The archetypal house on the horizon represents everything that she left behind.
The figure of the fallen woman manifests in multiple ways within Bourgeois’s visual lexicon. It recalls stereotypes of the sex workers she befriended after hiring them as models for life-drawing classes at the Académie de la Grande-Chaumière, where she worked as a teaching assistant in the mid-1930s. Bourgeois also suffered from a fear of falling, which she understood as a symptom of psychic instability. The woman depicted here, visually cut in two by a dark building, embodies the rejection, fragmentation, and abandonment that the artist experienced and feared. In the late 1980s, Bourgeois related, “The theme of the woman cut in half is a theme of the passive state. . . . I wanted to move from the passive to the active, since I experienced myself as cut in two.”
In this work, the figure of a child is situated between the profiles of Bourgeois and her husband, which face outward in opposite directions. Painted the year Bourgeois’s son Jean-Louis was born, this composition speaks to the theme of a child’s development through shifting identifications with its mother and father. Considering her own identity in relationship to her parents, Bourgeois would later comment, “I inherited my mother’s rationality and my father’s sick heart.” The Janus-headed form recurs in later sculptural works by Bourgeois.
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). In each of these paintings, the female figure’s identity is obscured and confined by domestic architecture and, by extension, her role in society. Despite their dignified upright posture, all four figures are naked from the waist down, exposing them to the viewer and heightening their apparent vulnerability. The hybrid figures also recall Bourgeois’s agoraphobia and convey her experience at the time as a wife and mother: the house is both refuge and trap, shelter and prison. The various architectural typologies represented—the brownstone, the neoclassical courthouse, the saltbox cottage, the French country home—connect to details from Bourgeois’s life.
The exhibition is made possible by The Modern Circle, The Easton Foundation, and the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust.
After its debut at The Met, the exhibition will travel to the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), September 7, 2022–January 1, 2023.