The works that come to mind when one thinks of Louise Bourgeois are her iconic sculptures of spiders, doll-like figures, and forms recalling genitalia. But before Bourgeois ever began working in three dimensions, she was a painter.
Bourgeois’s paintings are now the subject of a small survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Looking at these under-recognized works, the show’s curators believe, can potentially unlock more mysteries latent in Bourgeois’s sculptures.
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“What surprised me was that people, even her supporters and friends of many years, weren’t familiar with the paintings in any great depth,” said Clare Davies, an associate curator at the Met who organized the show.
On view is a selection of the 100 or so paintings that Bourgeois made over an 11-year period before abandoning the medium in 1949, around the time that Bourgeois began to focus on sculptural work.
Made during a period when Bourgeois was successfully exhibiting her work, these paintings represent the first phase of Bourgeois’s career. Most of the works on view were made when she had just moved to New York from her native Paris. She was marked by an intense feeling of guilt for leaving her family behind, and there were other stresses as well.
“She was just starting a family, but she was also really coming into her own for the first time as an artist after many years of studying,” Davies said.
Davies explained that while Bourgeois’s husband, Robert Goldwater, was supportive of her work. An art historian himself, Goldwater saw importance in Bourgeois’s paintings.
Bourgeois was burdened with the typical domestic tasks expected of a woman at the time. As a highly anxious person, her concern for her sons was additionally taxing, as is heartbreakingly depicted Red Night (1945–47). A self-portrait in which she and her three sons are hiding in a bed together in a sea of turbulent red, the work was inspired by her recurring dreams that she and her children were in danger.
Bourgeois has long been known for her works portraying the darker side of motherhood and the domestic sphere, with the spider sculptures drawing on menacing traits she attributed to her own mother. These themes have roots in Bourgeois’s early paintings, however. The series “Femme Maison” (1946-47) features images in which the body of a woman is spliced with the form of a house, her head completely enveloped within its stairs.
Meanwhile, an untitled work from 1948 in the Met show depicts a building’s courtyard as a dark, red space that perhaps suggests the vaginal canal. On the roof of the building, there are smokestacks and mysterious figures that convey something joyful and explosive. The painting was made at the time that Bourgeois had begun producing sculptures on the rooftop of her building. The freedom of that new studio space is seemingly haunted by the home below.
These depictions of homes and buildings belie Bourgeois’s early interest in physical spaces. In the course of her research, Davies found that during these painting years in New York, Bourgeois was embarking her own scholarly exploration.
“I found that she was going to the Met’s Prints and Drawings department often and looking at treatises on Renaissance perspective on architectural drawing from the Renaissance,” said Davies. “She was really interested in how people were imagining space on the canvas.”
Somewhere along the way, Bourgeois ceased painting altogether. According to Davies, we’ll never really know why.
“She never went back to painting. She continued to draw so she was still very much invested in kind of putting pen on paper, but she didn’t take up a paintbrush again after 1949,” said Davies. “That kind of begs the question: why? I went into the exhibition hoping to answer that question, but I came away convinced that it’s not really possible to answer it definitively.”