t‘s been 40 years since the symbolic burning of bras. yet images of empowered women are still hard to come by. Sn and the City fans might argue that those glamorous gals' unapologetic commitment to having it all v— the shoes. the job. the orgasm and the man - has liberated many young women to say what they think and to let their hands touch what they want. But our obsession with limiting female role models to the young and sexy tends to exclude those who don‘t ‘frt‘ these moulds. Any woman whose sense of self isn‘t constructed around her ability to skip across Madison Avenue in a pink tutu tends to be invisible. Fortunately for those feeling bored by our culture's obsession with perfectly honed plastic perfection. the Fruitmarket (iallery’s upcoming exhibition showcases an artist who can rightfully claim to be an alternative. highly idiosyncratic female icon ofour age. Louise Bourgeois deserves iconic status for a variety of reasons. Firstly and foremost as an artist. she has produced a continually surprising. highly memorable body of work for the majority of her 92 years (too often it is her age that is ‘celebrated' -- the fact that she is still alive. while heartening as a biological fact is. however. the least important aspect of her life and work). For the last 30 years her frequently erotic. poetic. and emotionally charged sculptures. drawings and installations have haunted the spaces of
Louise Bourgeois (opposite) photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1982 with her sculpture ‘Fillette’. Recent work (left) is often made from fabric
‘LONELINESS IS A HUMAN CONDITION. THE ABILITY TO MAKE YOURSELF UNDERSTOOD IS THE REAL PROBLEM'
many of the world‘s rrrost prominent museum and gallery spaces. The l‘ruitmarket‘s solo show will be her first in Scotland.
Although Bourgeois‘ varied practice makes her worrk trnclassifiable. there are some defining. consistent features. In all her sculptures. drawings. installations. performances and texts there is a deep engagement with the mysteries of the psyche. lirom her menacing spider sculptures to her delicate. decidedly odd drawings and her beguiling theatrical installations. there is evidence of an attempt to gain some control of those irrational desires that lie buried beneath the veneer of every day 'reality". In one of her of candid interviews. she remarked how 'my sculpture allows rrre to re-experience the fear. to give it a physicality so I am able to hack away at it. Sculpture allows me to re-experience the past. to see the past in its objective. realistic proportion.~
Louise Bourgeois. career has seen her appear and reappear like an orbiting comet periodically coming into vision. Prolonged critical and popular success only really found its way to her in the WSUs. when she was accorded a solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Subsequently. she participated in a plethora of significant international exhibitions. Recently she was given the first. highly prestigious 'l'ate Modern commission for the 'l'urbine Hall. As impressive as the facts of Bourgeois~ career are. her life is no less arresting. Born in l‘)ll in Paris. she grew up in a privileged. btrt classically dysfunctional family. Blighted by her father‘s habitual infidelities and her mother‘s early death. her exposure to the turmoil beneath the polite composure of upper middle—class life had a profound effect on her work. As she was later to remark: "l‘he subject of pain is the business I am in.‘
In the l‘Blls she threw herself into the electric Parisian art world. It was here that she fell in love with her future husband and lifelong supporter. the art historian Robert (ioldwater. With him she left liurope for New York just prior to World War II. and subsequently raised three children. all the time continuing to practise as an artist.
In 1906 she was championed by a burgeoning group of young. politically activist female artists and curators. most notably l.ucy l. l.ippard. and her career really began to take off. Btrt the cementing of Bourgeois as a female icon really occurred in IUSZ. Asked to pose for the New York photographer and bad boy Robert Mapplethorjm. she conspired with him to produce one of the most deliciously memorable images of an artist of the last century.
In the photograph Bourgeois appears in a black monkey fur top. her slender frame hidden by the ruffled silhouette. The standard response on initially seeing the image is to focus on the face. Bourgeois has a serene gerrtility with piercing but sympathetic eyes that emanate warmth and experience. with just a hint of steely determination. She exudes an air of self—possession and confidence. Then the eye moves down. first to the mouth. which curves gently with a slightly mischievous smile. Here there‘s a hint of devilish fun. a barely contained mischievous streak teasingly slipping out. 'l’hen you find out why.
(it'as‘ped under her slight arm is a huge. apparently bron/e sculpture of a cock. Bourgeois grips it carefully and expertly with finger and thumb. Now you know why she is smiling so cheekily'. The image is riotously ftrnrry. and joyously uplifting. If ever there was an image of female mastery and control. this is it. She appears to have tamed the phallus. Whatever mythical power is supposed to emanate from this blood reliant tube of flesh and veins appears now to have been transferred to this tiny sparrow of a woman. It‘s a liberating image that shatters all the categories of age. sexuality and gender. Like her work it rips through barriers. flere is an elderly lady. arnusirrgly cocking a snook at all the patriarchal pricks' codes. l'nder'standahly the power and impact of this image secured Bourgeois a ctrlt status for a generation of younger women artists.
With otrr culture increasingly obsessed with feting prodtrction line parodies of an individual. Bourgeois is the real thing. A one off. How often can you say that'.’
Louise Bourgeois: Stitches in Time is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Sat 6 Mar-Sun 9 May.
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