Works that come to mind when one thinks of Louise Bourgeois are her iconic sculptures of spiders, her doll-like figures with gaping mouths and enormous breasts, and her ubiquitous use of the cage. But before Bourgeois started working in three dimensions, she was a painter.
Bourgeois’ paintings are now the subject of a small survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Examining these under-recognized works, according to the curators of the exhibition, has the potential to reveal more mysteries latent in Bourgeois’ sculptures.
“What surprised me was that people, even his longtime supporters and friends, didn’t know the paintings in depth,” said Clare Davies, an associate curator at the Met who curated the exhibit.
A selection of the hundred or so paintings Bourgeois made over an 11-year period before abandoning the medium in 1949, around the time Bourgeois began to focus on sculptural work, is on display.
Produced at a time when Bourgeois was already successfully exhibiting his work, these paintings represent the first phase of Bourgeois’ career. Most of the works on display were made when she had just moved to New York from her native Paris, a period marked by intense feelings of guilt at having left her family behind and the stress of a new life.
“She had just started a family, but she was also starting to assert herself for the first time as an artist after many years of study,” Davies said.
Davies explained that while Bourgeois’ husband, art historian Robert Goldwater, was supportive of her work, Bourgeois was burdened with the typical domestic duties expected of a woman at the time.
As a very anxious person, his concern for his sons was also trying, as shown heartbreakingly red night (1945–47). A self-portrait in which she and her three sons hide together in bed in a turbulent sea of red, the work was inspired by her recurring dreams that she and her children were in danger.
Bourgeois has long been known for her works depicting the darker side of motherhood and the domestic sphere, with her sculptures of spiders drawing inspiration from menacing traits she attributed to her own mother. These themes, however, have roots in Bourgeois’ early paintings. The “Woman House” series (1946-47) features images in which a woman’s body is glued to the shape of a house, her head completely wrapped in its stairs.
Meanwhile, an untitled 1948 work in the Met exhibit depicts the courtyard of a building as a dark, red space that possibly suggests the vaginal canal. On the roof of the building there are chimneys and mysterious figures that convey something joyful and explosive. The painting was made at the time when Bourgeois had started producing sculptures on the roof of his building. The freedom of this new studio space is seemingly haunted by the house below, but also rooted in it.
These representations of houses and buildings contradict Bourgeois’ initial interest in physical spaces. During his research, Davies discovered that during these years of painting in New York, Bourgeois was embarking on his own scholarly exploration.
“I found that she often went to the Prints and Drawings Department at the Met and looked at treatises on Renaissance perspective on Renaissance architectural drawing,” Davies said. “She was really interested in how people imagined space on the canvas.”
Somewhere along the way, Bourgeois stopped painting altogether. According to Davies, we’ll never really know why.
“She never went back to painting. She continued to draw, so she was still very invested in the pen-on-paper genre, but she didn’t pick up the brush after 1949,” Davies said. “This kind of question begs the question: why? I entered the exhibition hoping to answer this question, but I came away convinced that it is not really possible to answer it definitively.