The Shrink and the Patient Are One and The Same: Louise Bourgeois Paintings at the Met

Roof Song, 1946-1948, Oil on linen 21 x 31"; 53.3 x 78.7 cm. © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Louise Bourgeois: Paintings

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

April 12 through August 7, 2022

By NINA MDIVANI, June 2022

A compact, nuanced, exhibition of Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) paintings at the Met offers a glance into a sculptor-in-the-making, but also underlines her sense of truthfulness. This first extensive exhibition of the paintings presents works completed when Bourgeois moved to New York with her spouse, art historian Robert Goldwater (1907-1973), in 1938.  Works come from the next eleven years until the artist’s eventual negation of this medium and turn to sculpture in 1949 “for deeper things in three dimensions” (interview with Deborah Wye, 1982).   

Through these self-portraits, studies, landscapes, etchings we see Bourgeois as a diligent student of European avant-garde and classical traditions. Yet, a fully formed artist by 1938 she has absorbed visual vocabulary of the Modernist architecture, Surrealism, French Symbolism, Northern Italian Renaissance. First two landscapes encountered upon entering the Met show work with a traditional representation of an individual presence within the larger context of nature, of human life, of good and evil. This theme was as natural to Bourgeoise as it was to Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), Cosmè Tura (1430-1495), and Francesco Cossa (1430-1477). This theme of a presence within a larger Unknown continues through Bourgeois artistic endeavor, but the influence of Northern Renaissance goes still deeper. Atmospheric rendering of buildings, silhouettes, and the horizon encountered in Untitled, ca.1940 and Confrèrie, ca.1940, both casein on board, offer her comfortable homage to the past of the painting history. But in contrast to the old masters who represented their present through the models of antiquity, Bourgeois reverses the process, using relevant elements of the past to build up her own mythology. And she uses this method throughout the presented works. Superimposing her emotional states Bourgeois nonetheless connects to the symbolism of Odilon Redon, ornamental roots of Gustav Klimt, mysticism of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Yet, we only see the hints of the influences, we never become fully distracted from the shrink-patient who is building up the canvases. 

Louise Bourgeois, Confrérie, circa 1940. Casein on board, 32 x 44″; 81.3 x 111.8 cm. © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Photo: Scott Hess. 

Every painting is a confession, an obsessive work that has Bourgeois as a human being, as a woman at its center. The artist never attempts to disguise that she paints only herself here. It is her and her pain as the main objects as her mourning process takes place. Painting here is Bourgeois’ attempt to analyze her life and her sense of loss and alienation. We observe the artist at psychoanalysis, but the shrink and the patient are one and the same and this is what makes the works raw. Bourgeois honesty is revealing, endearing, poignant. In contrast to her male contemporaries, de Kooning and Pollock among others, who relished their personas Bourgeois did the opposite – at least in these early years – she lived her life through the canvases that we now can see.

Her honesty, neurosis, anxiety is still present as she is genuinely driven by an inner urge. Purity of her intent, of her impulse is what keeps us being fascinated. In her diary entry for these years Bourgeois is consumed by the sense of guilt over leaving her family in France occupied by the Nazis. This feeling of guilt exacerbates inner turmoil, unease we often see in Bourgeois and hence are drawn to. Intensity is uncanny and therefore beguiling. Bourgeois’ confessional stand was completely new at the time when the paintings were created and only through the years, we, the public, are able to see its significance in relation to the feminist art. Not surprisingly, Bourgeois is considered the patron saint of second wave feminism in the arts, although she never has officially embraced this status. Even when she became was the first woman artist to get a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1982.

Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison, 1946-1947. Courtesy of Designboom.

What we see here, on display, is Bourgeois obsessively investigating her ideas on sexuality, gender roles, love, desire, fear, belonging, and loneliness. Obsessive repetition of her traumas never become trite because she is always changing, evolving, never copying herself, trying to find new ways to express and thus to understand her own being. Her paintings are poems, creating their own gravitational pull. After closer viewing the audience is able to decipher a complete visual vocabulary. This puts her in line with Hannah Hoch, Mona Hatoum, Robert Gober, Matthew Barney – artists who all have created their own symbolic pantheons of protagonists and antagonists. 

One important element we observe in Bourgeois’ paintings of this period is anthropomorphic woman-house, femme maison, to be repeated at later stages of her career as sculptures (Cell, 1991, Red Rooms, 1994, Passage Dangereux, 1997). Here the artist tackles limitations of gender identities, as she herself was raising three sons. The house is a shelter, but also a fortress, an enclosure, a jail. Libido and desire ae there presented nakedly to the audience and demanding attention. Identity of a ‘house wife’ and of a woman is clashing with one another.

Louise Bourgeois, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, 1947.  

The gem of this exhibition is He Disappeared into Complete Silence -- a series of nine intaglio prints accompanied by short texts written by Bourgeois and published in 1947. Produced at Atelier 17, the printmaking studio run by Stanley William Hayter and transplanted from Paris to New York in 1940, pulling in newly immigrated artists from Europe. In these precise, laconic prints water towers, schematic representation of buildings, telephone poles stand in for people and their tragedies. Abandonment, death, rage, cannibalism appear here disturbing the artist and her audience years later. A sensation of freedom and of doom comes from these prints. But doom and freedom that are detached. As though in 1947 Bourgeois is able to now show us some distance between her and her pain. And logically enough the next work produced by her are human-sized Personages from 1945 – Bourgeois’ first sculptures. WM

Nina Mdivani

Nina Mdivani is Georgiani-born and New York-based independent curator, writer and researcher. Her academic background covers International Relations and Gender Studies from Tbilisi State University, Mount Holyoke College and, most recently, Museum Studies from City University of New York. Nina's book, King is Female, published in October 2018 in Berlin by Wienand Verlag explores the lives of three Georgian women artists and is the first publication to investigate questions of the feminine identity in the context of the Eastern European historical, social, and cultural transformation of the last twenty years. Nina has contributed articles to Arte Fuse, Eastern European Film Bulletin, Indigo Magazine, Art Spiel. As curator and writer Nina is interested in discovering hidden narratives within dominant cultures with focus on minorities and migrations. You can find out more about her work at ninamdivani.com

view all articles from this author