There is nothing unusual,” wrote Richard Dorment in a review of Louise Bourgeois’s exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, “about an artist representing memories of childhood through symbols. It’s the continued intensity of Bourgeois’s rage that I find so repellent.” Even at first glance, it’s a review that has aged poorly. Dorment claims that Bourgeois’s work “gives [him] the creeps”, that her success is purely a result of her willingness to “chronicle in lurid detail” the childhood trauma of her father’s affair to a voyeuristic press and public, “obsessively picking at the Oedipal scab, keeping the wound open, savouring her hatred like some vintage wine she can roll around on her tongue”. The Telegraph published the piece in 1998 with the headline, “Daddy’s Angry Little Girl Gets Even”. Bourgeois was 87.
Displaying a collection of her most recent works, the exhibition Dorment was reviewing ran from 18 September 1998 to 10 January 1999 – and was met with similar hostility by other critics. In the Independent, Tim Hilton wrote that he was “surprised by the cold, even malevolent aura of much of the work. Advanced age has not made Bourgeois a more gentle artist. There is an edge of enmity in her sculpture.” The very emotion that both Dorment and Hilton took issue with – “repellent” by virtue of the fact that it belonged to a female artist – was, however, the great driving force behind Bourgeois’s art. “Quand les chiens ont peur,” she told an interviewer in 2003, “ils mordent.” When dogs are afraid, they bite. In Bourgeois’s work, anger was a way of responding to fear: it was generative. Journalists continued to probe this rage throughout her life, as if an angry woman were an exotic animal; a repulsive spectacle. Bourgeois died in New York City on 31 May 2010, aged 98. Ten years after her death, anger still radiates from her work; it gleams.
Bourgeois grew up in Choisy-le-Roi, a suburb south of Paris. Below her parents’ apartment was their tapestry restoration workshop, where they repaired antiques. Bourgeois described her mother, Joséphine, as her “best friend” – but her relationship with her father was more complex. He had a furious temper, but she craved his affection. As a child, Bourgeois’s anger originated close to home: when Joséphine fell ill, her husband began an affair with Bourgeois’s English tutor, Sadie. When her mother died in 1932, Bourgeois was grief-stricken and gave up her study of mathematics to pursue art, which her father refused to support. At the École des Beaux-Arts, and for the rest of her career, she returned to the same themes again and again, as if by reworking the emotions of her childhood she could sculpt it into a shape that no longer had the power to frighten her. In interviews, she spoke candidly about the fantasies of retribution she had: of wringing Sadie’s neck, and of tearing her father’s body apart at the dinner table.
Anger was not a restraint but a driving force for Bourgeois – and she turned, unsurprisingly, to the colour that most clearly symbolised it. She had been preoccupied with the colour red for a long time: writing in red pen, painting with red, stitching with red fabric. The colour appears in so many of her works, and often in pieces wrestling with intimacy or anger (or, sometimes, both). We find the colour in Spirals (2005), 12 oil-based woodcut prints on Japanese paper, which she claimed represented her desire to wring Sadie’s neck. It also dominates one of her most famous works, 10am is When You Come to Me (2006), a series of hands – hers and those of her assistant, Jerry Gorovoy – in red paint. “Red is my favourite colour, definitely,” Bourgeois explained in an interview with Amei Wallach for the New York Times. “It is violent. It is the colour of blood.” In her diary, she continued, “Red is the colour of shame. Red is the colour of jealousy. Red is the colour of grudges. Red is the colour of blame.” To Bourgeois, the colour seemed uniquely placed to navigate the sticky terrain of anger: its contradictions, its intensity, its complex intimacy.
Anger surfaced repeatedly over the course of her career – a buzzing electric current – in recurring spirals and mirrors; in red paint; in casts of her childhood house. But it appears most compellingly, I think, in the Cells: a series of large sculptural works situating found and crafted objects within various cell-like enclosures, created during the last two decades of her life. Anger is particularly palpable in the often-overlooked Red Rooms, where “daddy’s angry little girl gets even”. Even if, as Dorment cynically suggests, Bourgeois’s rage became part of a persona crafted to garner critical attention, who can blame her for using it to her advantage in a world that would punish her for its expression regardless?
In 1980, Bourgeois worked from a studio for the first time, in an abandoned factory in Brooklyn. From there, she began to work on the Cells, producing 60 over the course of her career. Among her most autobiographical work, the Cells reproduce and re-imagine the emotional situations of her childhood, many of them focused on domestic space. Peering inside, we find an array of objects – items of clothing, furniture, crockery – protected by enclosures of steel and wire mesh, wooden doors, or glass window panes. The only pair of linked cells in the series were created in 1994: Red Room (Parents) and Red Room (Child), two circular, enclosed spaces constructed using wooden doors, with different invitations – a curved opening, and a glass window pane – to view the objects inside. These two pieces are often overlooked in favour of other works: Cell (Choisy) (1990-93), which suspends a guillotine over a model of her childhood home; or Spider (1997), in which her most famous symbol, the spider, crouches protectively over a wire enclosure. But it’s the Red Rooms that are among the most nuanced, the most faithful to her anger.
In both Red Room (Parents) and Red Room (Child), we find an array of objects charged with feeling. Each one seems to contain a difficult memory: we find red spools of thread; a red lantern; white mittens stitched with “moi” and “toi”. From the outside of Red Room (Parents), we see thin slats of light from between the doors – taken from a courthouse in Manhattan – with flickers of red, stretching out on to the floor. Entering Red Room (Parents) feels a lot like entering a maze: an invitation, a slow curling pathway into the middle of the room, where we find the bed and its red pillows. Bourgeois places the central lie of her childhood that ruptured the family – “je t’aime” – and stitches it on to the pillowcase in red thread. The room rings with bitterness. On the bed, we find a closed xylophone case and a toy train on tracks. Around the bed, there are two triangular cabinets, an oval-shaped mirror, a red plastic bubble, marble statues.
Both rooms juxtapose intimacy and violence. In Red Room (Child), objects are gathered in the centre, undisturbed, cluttered; countless red spools of thread, a lantern, red sculptures of clasped hands. There’s a stickiness here, a holding on to. These objects emit a longing for connection, for parental protection. But there’s something threatening, too: in Red Room (Parents), the paint on the doors is scratched and chipped – as if the walls have been clawed at, kicked, punched. In Red Room (Child), the glass window of the door is marked from the inside as “PRIVATE” (the first and last letter scrubbed off, so that it reads RIVAT in the reverse). The pane of the window has splintered, the fractures travelling outwards across the glass like cracked ice. There’s evidence of struggle here, of the back and forth between fear and rage. There’s an aggression contained within their walls; a sense of intrusion. The Red Rooms are among the most compelling of the Cells series because they so unflinchingly depict the complexity of a daughter’s relationship to her parents; they navigate the uneasy coupling of intimacy and violence, of pain and longing.
Ten years after her death, Bourgeois’s work retains its power because its central driving force – anger – is timeless. It not only chimes with the ways women’s art is received today, but also with the ways women’s voices are received in the #MeToo era. Women’s anger is, in many ways, still subject to the same responses of vitriolic dismissal evident in Dorment’s review two decades ago. At a time when women are beginning to make public their pain, shame and trauma in the midst of these responses, Bourgeois’s work – so fierce in its rage – acquires new potency. There’s something magnetic about the Cells: something that demands we look at this pain and appreciate its colossal scale. The Red Rooms occupy space on the gallery floor; they insist on being engaged with. Perhaps that was what was so infuriating to Bourgeois’s reviewers: her stubborn refusal to fold down her rage, to allow an onlooker’s gaze to drift elsewhere.
For Bourgeois, rage did not simply burn itself out over the course of her life. The continued intensity of her anger was the locus of her reviewers’ unease when they stood, bristling at her work, in the Serpentine Gallery in 1998. “The feelings most present in this art aren’t love, loss, regret or forgiveness, but sadism and revenge,” Dorment wrote. In what may be the most poorly aged closing lines of any exhibition review, he concludes: “It was only because Louise spilled the beans on Dad that a small army of academics have raised her to her present heights. Personally, I’ve come to feel sorry for poor Louis Bourgeois. Having heard at such length from his daughter, I’d love to have heard his side of the story.” I, for one, am glad to have heard – at such length – from Bourgeois, instead of the father that caused her such pain. I am glad to have witnessed a daughter’s rage so magnified.
Dorment’s review is subject to a range of fundamental misunderstandings: that “sadism” or “revenge” can’t make for great art; that intense feelings of rage somehow negate the quality of a piece; that “spilling the beans” – or truth-telling – somehow diminishes the power of a work instead of acting as its central scaffolding. That these male reviewers were so angry about Bourgeois’s work seems only to prove a point about the origin of anger directed at women expressing their own rage: that it stems primarily from fear of a woman’s power, of where that rage will take her, of what it will mean for those at whom this rage is targeted. Dorment’s review contains embarrassingly transparent hopes of suppressing Bourgeois’s rage by humiliating her – it’s easier to label a woman’s anger “repellent” than it is to admit to fear of its intensity. In the end, then, Dorment and Hilton were only proving Bourgeois’s point. When dogs are afraid, they bite.
This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe