Louise Bourgeois: Art is a Guarantee of Sanity

She was neither Apollonian nor Dionysian, neither a true ego-inspired Duchampian conceptualist nor an id-dominated Pollockian expressionist. But Bourgeois long ago seems to have understood that there are many languages.” – Larry Quall

mamanaraignee de louise bourgeois
Maman by Louise Bourgeois

Abstract: This article aims to examine Louise Bourgeois‘ art from her perspective and delve deeper into how her personal life served as an allegory for her artistic expression. All of her works are deeply rooted in her childhood, unconscious mind, domesticity, mortality, and femininity. The article explores the extent to which personal experiences can be channeled into creating art that becomes public once it’s created. Adopting a psychoanalytic approach, this study analyzes her art and its profound connection to her inner world.

Louise Bourgeois’s art was never affiliated to any particular art movement. The French American artist was synonymous with personal archives and deep secrets that were only revealed in psychotherapy or confided in a close friend. Almost all her works, delve deeper into human relationships or the bonds she has shared with her parents or herself. The sculptures, paintings and artwork reveal a hidden meaning into the poet’s unconscious. Louise Bourgeois found recognition only in her 70’s.

According to Quall, Bourgeois long ago seems to have understood that there are many languages, that there is no one truth, and indeed that individual truth does not reside in a single work of art or in the mental state of its creator. But most of her works were allegories of her various states of mind throughout her life. 

Maman: An Ode to Her Mother

She created Maman, a giant 30 ft high and 33 ft wide sculpture, in 1999. Originally made in steel, it has 6 subsequent castings in bronze. During the 1990’s, Bourgeois began to use the spider as her central image of art. Her narrative is often personal. But when art is made public, does it have the same meaning that it did when produced by the artist? The meaning attached to it changes. Roland Barthes, in ‘Death of an Author,’ considers the end of authorship as soon as the writing procedure begins.

Similarly, Bourgeois’s sculptures, which delve into past human relationships and explore the connections between the body and the building through the relationship between the woman and her house in Cells, can evoke various interpretations and reviews. In Barthes’ view, the allegory can then be drawn by the audience or viewer. Similarly, in different ethnographic societies, texts can be interpreted differently through shamans, and each time a performance is deciphered by a translator, it may not fully capture its true genius. This holds true in Bourgeois’s case, where the bias towards her personal stories makes critical writing about her works challenging. 

Art writing about Bourgeois’s spider sculptures often carries a bias due to their emotional and biographic roots, which are deeply personal to her. For instance, the round cage of the spider, measuring 4.5 meters in diameter and 5 meters in height, holds significant symbolism and meaning within her artistic expression. The bronze spider dominates the frame and the spiders’ toes are needle sharp.  

A fragmented woman looks onward, and her middle body from the chin and the missing part has an S shape. Her left arm is extended upwards as if she is decorating and at the height of the spider’s knee, two pieces of bones are inserted next to each other, into the spaces. The commentary on spiders is more narrative oriented as compared to Bourgeois’s work Cells which is more studied. It is difficult to see a big spider and not go back to one’s childhood.

Maman includes a sac with 32 marble eggs and it’s the abdomen and thorax are made of ribbed bronze. Bourgeois used to sketch spiders long back in the 1940s and subsequently returned to the motif years later. Most of her work has been centered around a female subject although she has stated that her art was not feminist. The spider’s body is suspended from above and is suspended by eight legs like that of a real spider. This gives the audience enough space to walk underneath.

There is also an allusion to the mom-patient archetype, hardworking and calm which is the way spiders’ function. Psychoanalyst Donald Melzer has stated, about Maman, that the object is the fountainhead of creative thought and imagination. Maman arouses apprehension yet gives ample space for the child to play. Jerry Gorovoy, in an interview, said: “She started making sculptures of spiders until the mid-90’s and it was ode to her mother. You know, she just saw the spider is benevolent. But it was also the idea that the spider was really a weaver and would build this architecture out of its own body, the same way she did. So, it’s a connection to her mother but it’s also a connection to her own artistic process.” 

The spider’s ability to build her a house, and a living architecture is inseparable from how the web incites the web’s use in the form of a deadly snare. It holds true of Bourgeois’s adolescence where she worked in the family’s tapestry business. “Each leg is an ‘arch of hysteria,’ a wound bundle of muscle and nerves, recalling the twisted rolls of tapestries wrung-out in the river Bièvre, or the arched skeins of hair in her drawings.”

The legs are flexible. The hanging egg sack of the mother spider indicating conception and the marbles must be a representation of her siblings. The sculpture is very neatly structured with spacing between the leg ladders that give ample space for one to move around the spider and view it. This can be alluded to the artist’s background in mathematics and how geometry has played a significant role in sculpturing. Bourgeois also said that mathematics had a calming effect on her and provided her with stability in a highly unstable environment. In one of the images, St Sebastienne, her father’s mistress Sadie appears as a smiling pussy face stuck with arrow pins. Pins according to the artist alluded to the sardonic remarks by her dad on women. Bourgeois has also redressed the Christian martyr St Sebastian as a female and in the work depicts the pain women silently endure in a patriarchal setup.

Many of the works show Bourgeois’s intense fear of abandonment, perhaps precipitated by the loss of her mother when she was 21. For Bourgeois, her art was a form of psychoanalysis. Most of her work on spiders, both in the 1995 caricature of a giant spider bronze with a silver nitrate patina and that of Maman, is paying a tribute to her mother. In Ode à Ma Mère, an illustrated book from 1995, Bourgeoise calls her mother her best friend and compares her to a spider. “The friend (the spider – why the spider?) because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful as a spider.” Thus, spider serves as an allegory. 

The Triptych for the Red Room

This work consists of 3 panels that each depict a pair of nude male and female figures that meet and interact in unusual poses. The pair in the central image are the only pair that are not in direct contact with each other and are presented against a light blue background. The torso and legs of the male figure is visible in the central and right panels. The female figures are arched backwards and to the left. Each of the figures are open mouthed and have wide eyes. The bodies look athletic. The triptych was installed in Bourgeois’s The Red Room, serving as examples of what Bourgeois called her ‘cells,’ created by combining salvaged architectural material, found objects and the artist’s own sculptural works.

Each panel has an arc shaped position that could serve as a visual representation of hysteria. Hysteria is supposed to originate from the uterus. Male figures also appear in the Arch of Hysteria and Triptych for the Red Rooms.

The curator Marie-Laure Bernadac noted that Bourgeois’s relationship with psychoanalysis was always ambiguous as she rejected much of Freudian theory while accepting the importance of the subconscious. Bernadac has also written that, countering traditional psychoanalytic theory, Bourgeois did not see hysteria as exclusively feminine, which is why male figures appear in works such as Arch of Hysteria 1993 (reproduced in Morris 2007, p.43) and Triptych for the Red Room.

Bernadac also argued that Bourgeois did not consider hysteria to be an entirely negative or painful experience. Her work of channelizing her mental trauma and manifesting it into her structure is similar to the body’s arch of the emotional excess that patients with hysteria display. She is channelizing her repressed emotions the way trauma patients react when triggered. The figures in the Triptych for the Red Room have a close resemblance to Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion where they arch and twist in similar ways and form unusual figures. They are also all depicted with their mouths agape, exposing their teeth as if they are in pain.

Curator Frances Morris has seen similarities between Bourgeois and Bacon: ‘Both worked on the fringes of Surrealism but made highly distinctive bodies of work at a distance from the various avant-garde groupings we associate with modernist art history.’ The arch is sexual as if longing for intimacy with no access to it. It is a substitute for orgasm. There is no sign of suffering in the arch. 


Bourgeois rejected the binaries of political extremists, i.e., either right or left. Her art paralleled the dichotomy of aggression and vulnerability. Sleeping Figure and Friendly Evidence are composed of tall and fragile wood. “During that period things were not grounded. They expressed a great fragility and uncertainty… If I pushed them, they would have fallen. And this was self-expression.” Like many of her works, Sleeping Figure was autobiographical.  

The arms of Sleeping Figure are movable which prop up the figurine which was allegorical for a war figure defensive where her face is in the form of a mask and arms are in the form of lances. It resists change by existing without a base. Sleeping Figure expresses a helplessness and depicts the survival mode that the Second World War set in. It depicts the instability and apprehension of Bourgeois as an artist often belittled by her contemporaries.  

The image is phallic and true to the disempowerment and alienness Bourgeois might have felt being a new artist in the United States of America. This could be why the phallus looks erect but is unstable. The seventies saw the gay rights movement and women’s rights movement with whose emergence, Bourgeois’s artistry rose to prominence. The presence of the penis in Sleeping Figure, Bourgeoise has stated, is a replication of her dreams about having a penis as a weapon. This cathartic display of her hidden desire also has theoretical roots of ‘penis envy’ that is a Freudian concept. Bourgeoise describes her work as a transformation of nasty work into good work and hate into love which makes her tick.  

Theorists have suggested memory and architecture play an important role in her works. In several of her interviews, Bourgeois has stated the codependent relationship between architecture and memory. The memory featured also has an invented quality to her work that is mixed with real memories.  


Bourgeois’s sculptures and paintings never lost their magic and drama. Her childhood trauma was allegorical to her work. The only hidden essence in her sculptures was the sculpture itself, which served as a shroud for her internal turmoil. If Maman was an ode to her mother, The Arch of Hysteria and Triptych for The Red Room dealt with her personal experience with trauma, which was voiced through her art. It can be said that not only was Bourgeois’s suffering allegorical to her art, but her art was also allegorical to her suffering, considering both are dependent on each other to exist.

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Ananya Biswal

Ananya, 24, is an avid reader, theatre practitioner, researcher, and enthusiastic cinephile. She completed her master’s from the Department of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU. Ananya has a passion for photography and enjoys capturing various subjects, especially herself (smirks). She embraces her identity as a black sheep without any attached shame. She is deeply enthusiastic about feminist art practices that have influenced our understanding of the past, present, and future, and this reflects in her approach to life. Her feminism extends beyond writing and encompasses activism, filmmaking, and acting.


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