She comes across, in interviews, as the epitome of the crusty old dame, alternately courting attention and dismissive of questions--especially those she considers to be stupid or irrelevant. Like many artists of her standing, she is self-involved--one might say self-interested--to the point of obsession. At 97, Louise Bourgeois remains feisty, querulous, supremely confident of her destiny as an artist. And there's no question but that she has reached a stature achieved by few others in the past century.
All this becomes apparent in the film, Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine from which you'll find a short clip here. (Zeitgeist, by the way, which produced this film, puts out some fabulous movies about artists, a couple of which I have mentioned previously.) I'm a bit uncomfortable with its occasional effort to reduce this extraordinary woman's work to the outcome of her personal life story: it is, as she repeatedly tries to stress, both independent from that, and much bigger.
That said, as I see her work as primarily about deeply human pain and suffering; about the isolation to which we are all, in our very essence, condemned; about our relationship with objects and spaces in the external world--and with other people--and the hidden fears they provoke; about our distorted body image, our innate fear of freakishness and the grotesque; about time, the passage of time, and memory--and the inevitable distortions that memory brings with it. In short, it's about the human psyche, the interplay between the conscious and the unconscious minds as we struggle with the often daunting, sometimes overwhelming realities of life and death.
Certainly, in her work, she draws on life experience. Born in time to be aware, as a small child, of the horrors of the first World War, from which her father returned with injuries, she grew up in the shadow of his blatant infidelities--perhaps the cause of her mother's withdrawal and the sense of abandonment she suffered in her early years. It's clear, in the presence of her work, that the fear, the grief, and the anger of that childhood experience are powerful emotional drivers of her creative energy. In poignant installations, which the viewer is allowed to glimpse only through small windows or cracks, she evokes the always partial, often frustrating image of the little girl on the outside of the tenuous marital bond between her parents, and her own mystifying presence in the world, as if as an unwanted outsider, always the voyeur.
In a variety of media, too, ranging from bronze and marble to clumsy stitchery, she recreates both the awkwardness and strange beauty of the human body, as though to plumb its troubling enigmas. Fascinated by the natural world, she is attracted to its spookiest manifestations: the spider, clearly, is the image most closely associated with her name; in the plant world, it's the phallic forms and fungoid presence of mushrooms that appeals:
The Zeitgeist film, by Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach, offers an impressive overview of the Bourgeois oeuvre--more wide-raning and diverse that I've been able to indicate here--along with the close-up portrayal of the artist herself. It's available on Netflix.