Louise Bourgeois: the Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine

Born on Christmas Day in 1911, the French sculptor Louise Bourgeois took more than the usual amount of time to be recognised by the establishment: it was not until she was over 70, in 1982, that MoMA honoured her with a retrospective—and only then after considerable protest from feminist organisations. As a child she grew to despise her father for his diabolical temper and his philandering, and—because she had an ear for gossip—picked up on the fact that the young Englishwoman hired to teach her English was party to her father’s sexual antics. Despite drawing constantly, she showed no discernible aptitude for art, and so studied mathematics at the Sorbonne. In the same year she graduated—1932—her mother died, at which point she decided to begin her artistic career in earnest. She eventually became recognised as the founder of ‘confessional art,’ largely because her work is autobiographical, and draws on her memories of childhood. Much of Bourgeois’ work depicts body parts: arms, legs, shoulders, breasts and penises—many, many penises. A famous portrait photograph taken in 1982 by Robert Mapplethorpe has her clutching her phallic 1968 work ‘Filette’ (‘Girl’) under her arm.

The provocative nature of her installations and sculpture eventually made her well-known, but not until the middle-sixties: up to then she was known to most in the art scene simply as the wife of her husband, the art historian Robert Goldwater. Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach’s documentary is a deeply personal examination of Bourgeois’ life and work, and looks not only at the (eventual) success of her overall work but examines several pieces and installations in depth, some in-progress, with description by Bourgeois herself as she examines and comments on the works and their origins. One particularly tremendous work is an installation, “The Unilever Series,” at the Tate Modern in London, which comprises three steel towers installed in Turbine Hall. At the top of each are two seats, and above them three huge circular, double-sided swivelling mirrors that give the viewer a distended view of himself from a really unusual angle. In the late-’90s, Bourgeois began using the spider as a central figure in her work and created a number of giant 35-ft. tall sculptures that are installed in various cities around the world. Thus the first part of the film’s subtitle; the other two words refer to the aforementioned English tutor and to another recurring figure in her work, the tangerine, the skin of which she fashions into small figures. The film includes interviews with art critics, curators and other commentators as well as her two sons, one of whom predeceased her. Bourgeois died on May 31st this year; she was 98.

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