It is one thing to know that Louise Bourgeois made paintings. There are often a few in overviews of her long career as a sculptor, which peaked in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s another thing to learn that in the 1940s – her first decade in New York – she made more than 100 paintings. Nearly half of them are now warming up a large gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with raw emotion, awkward paint handling and adamant colors – mostly brilliant to dark shades of blue and especially red. In fact, this show is an insightful meditation on the swirling meaning of red, whose many associations include blood, passion, love, courage, joy, anger, and violence.
Nearly half of the works in “Louise Bourgeois: Paintings” are lent by the artist’s foundation; almost a third have not or never been exhibited for decades. Together they highlight some of the recurring themes explored in the sculptures, as well as some of the structures of these works, which began to appear as motifs of her paintings in the mid-1940s.
And yet the show, hosted by Clare Davies, an associate curator at the Met, also presents us with what is in many ways an entirely new artist and a new kind of artist to contend with, one whose balance of formal sophistication with emotional intensity was rare. especially as it involved early memories, motherhood, art making and their conflict. These themes are evident in the four “Femme Maison” (Women’s House) paintings from 1946-47, each of which combines a house with a female body; they would be endemic to 1970s feminist art. But in the 1940s, Bourgeois’ subjects had little precedent in Western modern art. (An obvious exception is Paula Modersohn-Becker.)
Now Bourgeois’ achievements will have to be included in the history of modern painting in two dimensions. She was at the heart of cutting edge art, although unlike many other women—Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan—she was not interested in mastering the Abstract Expressionist style (or scale). But the question remains: Did Bourgeois’ areas of solid saturated color have any effect on this style, or on his devoted colorists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, who were on their way to maturity during this period? Perhaps Bourgeois’ reds and blues would occupy a position similar to Janet Sobel, the Ukrainian-born New Jersey artist who was credited with creating abstractions of dripping paint before Pollock, who had seen her paintings.
Everything happened very quickly. In the spring or summer of 1938, she set up a small art gallery in part of her family’s textile gallery on Boulevard St. Germain. On September 12, she married an American man she had met in her store in August. This was Robert Goldwater, a young art historian, teacher and critic who moved into the higher echelons of the New York cultural sphere, where he was best known for his writing on the relationship between the so-called primitive art and the contemporary species.
At the end of October, Bourgeois was in New York, racked with guilt for leaving her family so suddenly (father, older sister, younger brother), and also missing Paris where she had learned to become an artist, working in a representational style derived in part from Picasso’s paintings by Marie-Thérèse Walter.
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One of her teachers in Paris was the painter Fernand Léger who bluntly told Bourgeois that she should become a sculptor. Bourgeois doesn’t seem to have paid much attention, but in 1947 strange, spindly, possibly figurative sculptures appeared in her paintings. In the 1980s and early 1990s, she would become world famous by representing the United States at the 1993 Venice Biennale, and best known for sculptures of giant bronze arachnids titled “Maman” (“Mama”). Or as one visitor to the Met’s show explained to her companion, “You know, the big spiders.”
Life in New York, a new city with an emerging art scene, must have been a shock. And new responsibilities came. In 1940, she and her husband adopted a 3-year-old French orphan named Alain, two months before she gave birth to Jean-Louis. Within 15 months, their third son, Michel, arrived. Fortunately, she later said, her husband was a feminist. It’s possible all this novelty took Bourgeois to a different place in her art, a place that jettisoned the intricacies of style and paint handling and operated from basic emotional needs. The first painting in the exhibition, dating from around 1938, is ‘Runaway Girl’, perhaps reflecting Bourgeois’ grief over her abrupt departure from Paris. It shows her as a doll-like creature with long blond hair, floating in a clear blue sky above two layers of mountain ranges – one in white paint, one outlined in charcoal. Beyond the sky is an ocean, bordered with charcoal and pencil, where a child swims; across the street is a white house that may be her family’s home outside of Paris, where they had a workshop restoring tapestries.
It is a measure of the bustle of Bourgeois life that only a few paintings here date from the early 1940s. Yet they powerfully reflect her belief that she has something to say and her own way of saying it. “Confrérie” depicts six dark silhouettes from around 1940 that seem to wander across a red plane, looking at another house. Above it hangs a magical multicolored cloud, a memory catcher whose flickering colors evoke the painted dome of a church. In “The House of My Brothers” (1940-42) the action moves inwards, in a faceted, transparent structure where the rooms and their inhabitants are visible.
After this, there are only a few signs of the natural landscape. The settings are usually architectural or artificial spaces: rooms, podiums, boxes, roofs or courtyards. It becomes clear that the paintings are mostly self-portraits and increasingly sculpting. In “Self-Portrait” from circa 1947, Bourgeois gives himself a purplish wolf-man face, which appears to be an admission of guilt or embarrassment, and a striking black and white striped dress whose central feature resembles one of the early sculptures in painted wood that Bourgeois called Personnages.
Other paintings are rather pure expressions of maternal anguish and loneliness: “Red Night” (1945-47) shows a woman and three small faces huddled in a bed floating on a swirling field of red. Opposite this is an untitled painting in pink and light blue, a comet with an open mouth and tails of long hair looms over a factory with a towering chimney from which three small figures reach for this terrifying creature. And some of Bourgeois’ paintings refer, intentionally or not, to horrors greater than herself – a woman desperate to become an artist.
“Regrettable Incident in the Louvre Palace” (1947) recalls an event – never revealed by the artist – that took place while she was a teacher at the museum. But the stark, barrack-like structure of the building quickly brings to mind the Holocaust or the Soviet Gulag. One of the brightest of the red paintings, an untitled work from 1948, depicts Bourgeois’ first sculpture studio: the roof of the apartment building where her family lived on East 18th Street. Atop this gleaming red structure is a veritable Felliniesque parade of clear, floating forms, perhaps a glimpse of the artist’s three-dimensional promise. And in “Roof Song” (1946-48) a comic image of the artist, grinning broadly, her hair resembling wings – on a miracle of a red chimney, somewhat resembling an ancient idol carved in stone . To the right is the source of her pride, black with red accents: a narrow totemic Bourgeois sculpture. This radiant, astonishing show further disrupts the history of 1940s New York painting as a linear, mostly male endeavor.
Louise Bourgeois: paintings
Until August 7 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.