The neatly ordered jars set in the oak cupboard were a great comfort to Louise Bourgeois in the summer of 1942. Food rationing had begun that same year as the Second World War heavily burdened US supply chains. Government posters encouraged women to preserve local harvests and help feed their families, but Louise did more than set up food storage. She literally preserved the image of her kitchen pantry, and captured that moment in time through the lines and colors of her printmaking. Within her design, she reveals something of herself with the symbolic use of red-a color that signaled complex emotions for the artist.
As a new mother of three young boys, she had all the concerns one would expect of a parent facing economic challenges, only for her, there were added anxieties: the traumatic memories of her childhood and the horrors she witnessed during the First World War in France. On top of deep seated fears of harm and abandonment were layers of guilt and shame at having left behind her family and friends in Europe. Here in Connecticut, she found a measure of safety that allowed her to reflect on these feelings and use the creative process to liberate herself from the disquiet that plagued her. Often, she would sit at the kitchen table for hours carving into wood with a small knife creating blocks for printing and sculptural forms. Her sons would marvel at how she worked with her hands as diligently as any typical mother might have been knitting. Louise however, was no ordinary woman and the many fantastical forms she created over the course of her seventy year career in art seem to have had their beginnings in the peaceful solitude of her family’s summer home in Easton.
Born in Paris in 1911, Louise was a bright and creative young woman whose early artistic skills developed in her parent’s repair shop where she would draw replacement figures for damaged tapestries. She grew up in a household that had a certain amount of privilege and wealth but with it came sadness and distrust. Her father, described as a serial philanderer, was deeply disappointed that she was not born a boy. His capricious nature had a lasting impact on Louise and she often drew a contrast between her mother’s calm intellect and her father’s raw emotional outbursts. This duality, between intelligence and emotion, carried over in Louise.
Initially enrolled for a degree in mathematics at the Sorbonne, she switched her course of study to the arts after her mother’s death in 1932. At 21 years of age, she was attending studio classes for painting, sculpture and print making in some of the most prestigious schools in Paris. Resourceful and eager to engage with artists, she served as a translator for English speaking students as payment for her participation. It was an amazing time to be a student in the City of Lights: Louise was in contact with some of the most significant figures in the art world and was engaging with all the major stylistic movements from that period, particularly, Symbolism and Surrealism.
In 1938 she met and married the American art historian Robert Goldwater and they moved to New York. Between Louise’s artistic breadth and Robert’s innovative scholarly work on modern abstract art, their home became a social haven for many artists fleeing Nazism. Surrounded by intellectuals discussing politics and the latest artistic trends, she was enthralled by the creative energy and the dynamic city around her. She attended classes at the Art Student League and tried to break into the exhibition scene, all the while, fulfilling her role as the wife of an important scholar. She kept home, hosted parties and raised their growing family, often taking her work to the rooftop of their apartment building for lack of space.
While she had some success exhibiting her art, she was frustrated with trying to find balance in her life. Working out this conflict in imagery, Louise painted a series of female nudes with houses on their heads. Titled Femme Maison, literally “Woman House,” it was a clever play on the term “housewife.” For Louise, home was a mode of security and shelter, but it was also a confining prison with all the familial responsibilities that vied for her attention. In this series of works, the facial features of the female are completely hidden by the architectural structure. While some contemporary male critics praised these paintings as examples of women proudly displaying their domesticity, feminists in subsequent generations accurately saw Louise’s commentary on the tensions that pull women between traditional and modern roles obscuring their identity.
Louise continued to produce works in the years that followed but she was not widely recognized or seen in many exhibits. Despite this lack of attention from the main stream art world, she went on creating and even teaching for decades. By the 1970’s, there was an increased appreciation of her work and her career had a resurgence that lead to a groundbreaking solo retrospective at the MOMA in 1982. Significantly, Louise was the first female to have her own sculptural show at this museum. Though she was already seventy years old, her new level of success encouraged her to pursue larger and more complex works and installations.
Louise revisited the theme of Femme Maison in marble but she became increasingly interested in houses themselves and their role as points of memory. She began a series of life-sized Cells that were rooms filled with artifacts of daily life, architectural fragments and sculptural elements. While most male artists did not engage with the subject of domestic spaces, Louise saw that dwellings are an important reflection of our personal experience; within our walls and rooms, everyday life runs the entire range of human emotion.
It is curious to note that the brownstone in New York City where she resided for over fifty years is rarely depicted in her artwork. After her husband‘s death in 1973, the entire building, with the exception of his personal library, served as both her home and studio: sculptures occupied all free space with writings and images covering the walls. In effect, her NYC home became a work of art in itself. In contrast, her home in Easton was a frequent subject in her paintings and sculpture. Originally a barn, Louise and her husband purchased their Center Road residence in April 1941. Here, the family would spend their summers and occasionally weekends. Louise needed the quiet and calm of this rural setting to balance the frenetic pace of her life in the city. More importantly, it was an opportunity for her children to engage with the natural world. She believed that this time spent in the country was a critical part of their relationship and the process of sharing discoveries in this environment helped their education.
Engaging with the outdoors as much as possible, she planted dozens of boxwoods around the property for their sculptural potential. She also made careful studies of plants, animals and even insects.
Many of the compositions from this time include organic forms pared down to almost geometric essentials and rendered in a grid pattern. This superimposed structure helped her analytical mind organize and control the abundant new information. This process is exemplified in her piece Connecticutiana, which has at its core the silhouette of her country house.
Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Easton‘s wildlife for Louise was its spiders. She was fascinated by these delicate creatures. She noted that those living in her house and in the neighboring trees spun their webs like the tapestry weavers in her family. She also expressed her gratitude to these benevolent creatures because they helped reduce the swarms of mosquitoes her family endured in the summer months. Surviving sketches dating to as early as 1947 depict spiders and spider-like armatures that she would revisit decades later and translate into monumental bronze and steel. The great Maman, or “Mom” sculptures express the protective and creative qualities of arachnids, but as with all her work, deeper meaning links them to emotions and memory. These enormous sculptures were in fact a symbolic portrait of her mother who she described as her best friend because “she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.”
Louise’s Maman sculptures propelled her to international fame and her works of art can now be seen in museums around the world. While she remained very active and exhibited well into her nineties, during her final years she remained mostly in her Chelsea home in New York City. Suffering from agoraphobia, she described herself as “no longer traveling in space, but only in time.” She began a series of cartographic compositions in which she reflected on her unique life journey. Within these works, she uses the outlines of preexisting maps to chart her memories and associations with significance places. In her Map of Connecticut and Long Island, the vibrant red coloring of the Hudson River and the coastline of the Long Island Sound is matched by the concentric red circles marking the location of Easton.
The swirl she uses here to denote her Connecticut home was another important reoccurring element throughout her career. Spirals were a means of unwinding the past and coping with memories. Twisting shapes recalled the washing and wringing of fabrics and they symbolize nature’s cycles of birth and rebirth. Paired with the red flowing river in her drawing, which embodies the passage of time, the spiral functions in her map as a thread that joins together the past and present.
It is important to recognize as well that she saw spirals as a metaphor for permanence in a fleeting world. When describing her own character in interviews, she was proud to identify consistency as one of her better qualities. Looking back on her life, despite setbacks, she never gave up. She also saw herself as unwaveringly honest, with others and with herself. In essence, the spiral in these autobiographical maps represents Louise and serves as a symbolic self-portrait.
Clearly, in her later years, her Easton home and the memories it contained were at the forefront of her mind and heart. She addressed the importance of this location not only in her art work but in the preparations she made for her legacy. When considering a name for the non-profit art charity she founded in 1984, Louise christened it the Easton Foundation. Located in the New York City brownstone where she lived and worked until her death in 2010 at the age of 98, its mission is to preserve her art and offer opportunities for scholarship. Though it is currently closed and undergoing the preservation and cataloging of their extensive archives, it seems quite certain that Louise intended to weave a strong link between these two homes for posterity.