Louise Bourgeois

Spiderwoman's Sad Soul

Bourgeois 1 by bourgeois vg bild-kunst the easton foundation
It's a spider!
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    They once made her the best-paid female artist of her time, but only a few of Louise Bourgeois’ spiders and other works are available for sale today.

  • Facts


    • A Munich museum is showing her later works called Cells which probe her fears of beatings, loss and abandonment.
    • Her work ranged from explicitly feminist statements to claustrophobic, psychologically challenging sculptures.
    • Ms. Bourgeois’s work routinely fetches millions, but most pieces are with galleries or private collectors.
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Emotional states like fear and redemption lie close to one another in the installations of the French-American sculptor and artist Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010).

As an artist, she roamed through the tangle of traumatic childhood memories all her life. Yet it wasn’t until age 75 that she began to stage the surreal spatial and nightmare images from those remembrances.

The Haus der Kunst art museum in Munich has organized the largest overview of her central, complex work ever assembled in the exhibit “Structures of Existence: The Cells.”

Ms. Bourgeois created minute yet meter-high spaces out of doors and sheet metal, infused with an inventory of injuries she suffered at the hands of her father, her losses and her fears of abandonment.

Often, it is only a crack that allows a glimpse into the interior of the cell, which may contain nothing more than a small, empty stool as in “Cell VI” from 1991. Or, perhaps a very realistic male lower thigh and a guillotine as in “Cell III.”

These theatrical stagings exude a great deal of loneliness and a subtle anxiety. But it is a work hinting at unseen threats called “Precious Fluids,” consisting of a cot, two black balls, a rack containing dozens of vials and a long black coat hanging from a wall hook, that made her world famous in 1992 at the XI Documenta, the art festival held every five years in the western German city of Kassel.

The most expensive piece sold since 2011 was an over-dimensional spider sold at auction for €10.09 million ($10.7 million).

A diminutive figure, Ms. Bourgeois made feminist statements in the 1970s with naturalistic, giant penises and monstrous male genitals of plaster, but struck out on a new path again in her late work.

While other artists in the mid-1980s piled up everyday objects and garbage in major exhibition halls and leaning toward so-called spaces of existence, she was weaving together profound psychological, claustrophobic darkrooms of her memories and laying bare scenes from her subconscious.

Those looking for a message will look for a long time. “Her works are all about feelings,” said Jerry Gorovoy, an assistant to Ms. Bourgeois. She developed her own repertoire of symbolic and allegorical signs and means of expression. Winding staircases, a small, indefinable latex bag filled with sand, intertwining hands precisely worked in marble, cloth dolls and glass balls as pretty as soap bubbles became the ciphers of her oeuvre.

For example, in the early 1980s, she created “Spiral Woman,” in which a version of jute hangs like a convoluted knot with legs in front of a large mirror in “Cell XXVI“ (2006). The explosive nature is that it is a self-portrait and Ms. Bourgeois could not bear to see her reflection in the mirror.

Video: Louise Bourgeois demonstrates a trick her father used to embarrass her.


At this point, Ms. Bourgeois was already using wire mesh for her cell walls, locking the memories into openly visible cages. They were never occupied by infantile things such as, for example, the works of Mike Kelley, yet they were no less piercing, disturbing and deeply psychological than before.

The spider is the most famous motif in all her works. She first used it in 1994 for her mother. In recent years, however, it has become almost synonymous with the artist, who died just shy of 100 in 2010, and almost overshadows the view of other works.

Curated by Julienne Lorz, the exhibition argues that Ms. Bourgeois’ place in 20th century art extends far beyond the long-legged spider admired around the world. It casts her as a key female figure in the avant-garde movement.

That’s why she is one of the most prized artists on the art market today. Her work routinely fetches millions. The most expensive piece sold since 2011 was an over-dimensional spider sold at auction for €10.09 million ($10.7 million).

Cologne gallery owner Karsten Greve has handled the works from all of Ms. Bourgeois’ phases for 30 years and recognizes the market is currently very limited. He has watched prices climb with a smile on his face and a tear in his eye. Recently, a not-quite-so-large spider was sold at Christie’s for €3.4 million. Mr. Greve sold the work years earlier for €150,000.


Bourgeois 2 by bourgeois vg bild-kunst the easton foundation
The “Spiral Woman” is what happens if the artist doesn’t like her self-portrait. Source: VG Bild-Kund/Easton Foundation


While he still believes his prices are reasonable, the price for one of the few Bourgeois paintings he has – a bronze dating from 1946 — is listed at €1.2 million ($1.27 million) at the TEFAF, the world’s leading art fair in Maastricht.

It is becoming difficult for collectors to find her work. In 2007, a cage-like installation titled “Runaway” was sold at Christie’s for $1.3 million, but most of 60 works designated as Cells are in museums, private art collections or reserved exclusively for exhibitions by the Louise Bourgeois Trust. The Cells on exhibit in the Haus der Kunst from the Hauser & Wirth gallery collection are not for sale, the gallery’s Executive Director Florian Berktold told Handelsblatt.


Sabine Spindler is a freelance reporter in Munich. To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com.

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