26 July 2010

Womanhouse: Louise Bourgeois

"A woman is her house. That's the thing." - John Updike.

When Womanhouse opened on January 30, 1973, in an empty Hollywood mansion, attendance on that first day was limited to women. Reports have it that the reactions were uninhibited. The artists, (each woman got a room in which to create a total art work) deconstructed and then reconstructed the relationships between women and houses. As Judy Chicago's Woman Closet makes clear, surrealist subversion abounded.  Hovering over Womanhouse like the protective spiders she called Maman, wa the spirit of Louise Bourgeois, if only someone had told us then.

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) died on May 31, 2010. French-born, she came to New York with her American husband, art historian Robert Goldwater. Remembrances of Bourgeois have focused on her career as a sculptor, where her achievements were stellar. But before she switched from painting, at the urging of Fernand Leger she said, Bourgeois created a series of images in the late 1940s that she called Femme Maison, pictures that encompass the contradictions between agoraphobia and claustrophobia of conventional female lives.

I don't know whether Judy Chicago had seen Femme Maison, but Woman Closet shares an obvious trope with Bourgeois' work. The vulnerable body is exposed to view, even when the woman's vision is obscured and her identifying face is as completely obscured as if she were wearing a chador. Femme Maison, especially in the black and white drawing above, seems to pose a question from Stevie Smith's poem - waving or drowning?

For a biography of Louise Bourgeois and sldies of her works, visit here.


bessfones said...

I'm glad that I attended this small exhibit at MOMA while she may still have been alive: "Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now" (to August 16,2010).

Jane said...

Thanks for bringing the exhibition to our attention. I'm sure it was planned while Bourgeois was alive.