To Unravel a Torment, by Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois (Paris 1911 – New York 2010) became one of the most important artists, especially since the 80s, having created a work that remains up-to-date and surprisingly challenging. After her first solo exhibition in 1947, there were others. Some covered a large part of her career, such as the one inaugurated last December 4 at Serralves Contemporary Art Museum. With the title To Unravel a Torment and curated by Emily Wei Rales, this exhibition was conceived from the collection of the Glenstone Museum (Potomac, Maryland), an institution that opened in 2019, and then there was a second exhibition at the Voorlinden Museum (Wassenaar, Netherlands). Now adapted to Serralves by the museum’s director Philippe Vergne and curator Paula Fernandes, the exhibition reveals thirty-two pieces that portray the artist’s valuable and vast work until 20 June 2021.

With an artistic output spanning eight decades, Louise Bourgeois became one of the rare artists to excel in modern and contemporary art. Her exercise has several references and if, on one hand, she has a vanguardist and modernist spirit, on the other hand she recovers elements that that time had rejected, such as narrative. As we see in some pieces, the artist also anticipated movements such as conceptual and minimalist art. In fact, her work integrates much of the art of the 20th century. And, as Philippe Vergne explains, she crosses surrealism with figuration and abstractionism, among others. Some of her influences are unexpectedly related, as in Personages (1947-1954), in which she refers to both Miró and African art. The latter is the field of study of her husband, the historian Robert Goldwater (1907-1973).

Trained in renowned institutions such as the École du Louvre, and having worked with names such as Le Corbusier, Louise Bourgeois began her art in graphics, prints and drawings, but it was sculpture that stood out the most. Her trajectory and experience in various plastic areas gave birth to some of her most outstanding creations, such as the iconic Maman, nine large scale spiders that are found in the largest international art centres. As we see at the beginning of the exhibition, and as with other elements that are repeated throughout her work, the spider was born as an illustration, and only later achieved three-dimensionality. One of its larger-scale versions, conceived in 1999, is now installed in the Serralves gardens, ten metres in diameter and over nine metres high. Like its peers, this example provides a unique, overwhelming experience. But in this particular case we find a strong tension, in a confrontation between its black and solid steel and the harmonious Art Deco architecture, with a soft pink tone of Casa de Serralves. It is the contrasts that define the meaning of the figure of the spider, since it summons death and life, destruction and protection, strength and fragility. And it also depicts the mother of the artist, being at the same time a self-portrait.

Although Louise Bourgeois explored different visual arts and expressions, there is an aesthetic sense that stands out throughout her work, and everything is based on a perspective or envisioning. Therefore, some motifs repeat themselves and appear with different faces, like stairs and spirals. Her need to write was permanent and, as Philippe Vergne explains, recurrent relationships between image, form and language emerge. And architecture, sculpture and the body are also combined. Above all, the artist’s work reveals the same concerns and motivations, mainly related to her childhood, marked by her relationship with her parents. Among this, a deep fear of abandonment, which lasted throughout her life. The impact of the First World War and her move to New York before the Second marked the artist deeply. These experiences, or torments, as the title of the exhibition refers, are reflected in her and the effects are felt throughout the artistic creation, which unfurled as catharsis. We feel this as we go through the exhibition. This, despite having a certain delicacy fitting to the artist, is above all marked by a dense obscure character, often displayed through themes of extreme violence, such as castration and cannibalism, as in one of her best-known pieces, The Destruction of the Father (1974).

The autobiographical side of Louise Bourgeois’ work is particularly evident in works such as the Cells series. The first conceived piece, Cell (Choisy) (1990-93), represents her parents’ house and tapestry workshop. The second, Cell I (1991), depicts her mother’s bedroom and her deathbed. Both are in Serralves, on the lower floor and the second exhibition area, respectively. However, the formal complexity, the various elements and details, as well as the title, suggest multiple interpretations. Despite being a retrospective, Louise Bourgeois’ work is highly relational, addressing issues and evoking common emotions such as oppression, rejection, motherhood, the domestic sphere, the body, sexuality, memory, loss and death, among others. Her feminist action and intention are also evident, as in the sculpture Fillette (sweet version) (1968/1999). As the title indicates, and although it clearly represents the male genital organ, it was conceived with conscientious plastic care and presents delicate contours, acquiring some vulnerability and even femininity.

As Philippe Vergne comments, double meanings, dichotomies and dualities are recurrent in Louise Bourgeois. Love and hate, sweetness and evil, nourishing and destroying, man and woman, passive and active, conflict and dialogue, exhale a dizzying and intoxicating energy that contaminates space and anyone in it. Since this character is ambivalent, complex and transversal to all its creation, there are different elements revealed in each piece. To get to know the artist, it is necessary to see a large part of her work, in an attentive and dedicated way, with the will to dive into it. This is the only way to achieve the aesthetic experience of the artist. The same is proposed in Serralves’ exhibition, which, with a distinct curatorship, extends along the entire left wing of the museum to the garden, to Maman, which ends a fantastic and memorable visit to an enormous mastery, expressed in a remarkable journey.

Constança Babo (Porto, 1992) has a PhD in Media Art and Communication from Universidade Lusófona. Her research focuses on new media arts and curatorship. She has a master's degree in Art Studies - Art Theory and Criticism from the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Porto and a degree in Visual Arts - Photography from the Porto School of Art. She has published scientific articles and critical texts. She was a research fellow in the international project Beyond Matter, at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe, and was a researcher at Tallinn University, in the MODINA project.

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