Growing up in the suburban Parisian town of Choisy-le-Roi, Louise Bourgeois, the now 96-year-old enfant terrible of contemporary art, lived by the Seine in a grand mansion attached to a workshop that housed her parents' tapestry restoration business. Her sculpture "Cell (Choisy)" (1990–1993) is a miniature copy of that house, sculpted in rose marble, but encased in a cage and with a guillotine hanging over it. The only way to escape our captive past, she seems to be saying, is to sever ourselves from it. The piece encapsulates Bourgeois's lifelong mission: to transform the traumas of childhood into art. "Everyday you have to abandon your past or accept it," she wrote in an autobiographical text entitled "Child Abuse" in 1982. "[And then] if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor."
The work is on display in a thought-provoking exhibit that marks the artist's homecoming to Paris: "Retrospective Louise Bourgeois," a collection of her work from 1938 to 2007, at the Centre Pompidou (through June 2, then moving to the Guggenheim in New York and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art). Some 200 works capture the magic and drama of a childhood fairy tale turned bitter, challenging viewers to look outside their comfort zones. "It takes the form of a continuous psychoanalysis, and therein lies its strength," says Jonas Storsve, curator of the exhibit. "Everybody can find elements of his or her history in her work. That's why people react so strongly to it." Using a wide variety of media—including marble, bronze, fabric and latex—Bourgeois has explored themes of familial deceit, sexuality and lost identity, maternity and the continuous cycle of life and death. "She can see the possibilities in a certain material, which we cannot see," says Storsve. "With her conjuring hands, she can take a speck of dust and infuse it with something precious and amazing."
Born in 1911, Bourgeois is considered one of the most creative and seminal female forces of the 20th century. Her art centers on a woman's victimization, rage and rebellion, and the sewing machines, needles and thread which surrounded her as a child, today form the motifs of her work. Her imposing 10-meter bronze sculpture, "Maman," a gigantic spider created in 1999, graces Paris's Jardin des Tuilèries for the duration of the exhibit. The spider is a recurring object in her work, incarnating the maternal presence. "My best friend was my mother," wrote Bourgeois in a 1995 text that formed part of a portfolio of engravings entitled "Ode to my Mother." "She was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful as an araignée [spider]." Her mother spun a protective web around Louise, guarding her from the predation and emotional abandonment of a promiscuous father, who ritually humiliated the child and flagrantly took her live-in English tutor, the despised Sadie, as his mistress. "It was a double betrayal," she revealed in "Child Abuse" at the time of the pivotal 1982 MoMA show that propelled her art into the international limelight. "There are rules of the game. You cannot have people breaking them left and right. In a family a minimum of conformity is expected."
The show allows glimpses of wit and joy amid the melancholy. In "Untitled, 1996," an embroidered handkerchief says, "I have been to hell and back. And let me tell you it was wonderful." Bourgeois also celebrates her beloved American husband, Robert Goldwater. In the sketch "Untitled, 1998" she writes: "La vie commence qd je rencontre Robert en Juin 1938. Rien avant." ("Life begins when I meet Robert in June 1938. Before then nothing.") Goldwater represented Bourgeois's escape from the familial nest and a new life in New York. His death in 1973 marked the beginning of one of her most prolific periods, which included the creation of "The Destruction of the Father," her first piece of installation art, which depicts the childhood dining table from where her terrifying father reigned as a predator's bloody cave, with jutting stalactites and stalagmites, and half-eaten prey—an exorcist scene that screams anguish, fury and cannibalism.
It isn't pretty, but it reminds us that neither is life at times. As Bourgeois writes in a 2000 note on rose paper, "Art is a guaranty of sanity." For the viewer, as well as the artist.