Louise Bourgeois: An Intimate Portrait

Image of Louise Bourgeois: An Intimate Portrait (Artist Biographies, Women in Art)
Release Date: 
October 16, 2019
Laurence King Publishing
Reviewed by: 

Louise Bourgeois: An Intimate Portrait is an art book in the way an antique rococo picture frame might be art. In the way art is art, which is to say that it isn’t really a book about art, with information about artistic movements or reasoned analysis of the artist’s work, but that the book itself is the work of art.

Bound in soft sky-blue linen cloth and full of suggestive photography, the pleasure begins when the book is first held, its heft and weight, the mix of textures and fonts suggest something to be savored, then saved.

It is a scrapbook/diary/album/time capsule of an artist, recently lost, a feminist icon who influenced a generation of artists with her thought almost as much as with her large scale sculpture, painting, drawing, and installation art.

Author/photographer Jean-Francois Jaussaud spent 11 years winning Louise Bourgeois’ trust, visiting her at home and at her studio, photographing silence and silly moments, capturing thoughts as they were tossed like tissues, pulling them into his notebooks before they fell to the floor. She’s gone now but he shows us how she lived, with what things, who she missed and how. We learn how she thought about important and unimportant things, and what she said about those things at the time she felt them. 

We learn her work, all of it, the magical, the affinity for beautiful monstrosity, really did come from a sense of place (sometimes happy, mostly not) deeply rooted in childhood.

“At the dinner table when I was very little, I would hear people bickering—the father saying something, the mother choosing to defend herself. To escape the bickering around me I started modeling the soft bread with my fingers. We the dough of the French bread—sometimes it was still warm—I would make little figures. And I would line up the little figures on the table and this was really my first sculpture.”

Makes sense for an artist who later made so much of objects created expressly to make it possible to say things, always in the context of a place, for what is the invisible part of any object if not the space that surrounds, that houses, it?

“If I do not get dressed I cannot go out. If my house is not… clean I cannot go out. If I am dirty I do not want to go out. I detest misery . . . the housing developments at Antony, street without cobble, alcoholism, display on the Boulevard St. Germain, the men . . . who hit their wives and their children. I detest dirt, dirty towels in the storage rooms, blood on the towels, dirty laundry, the hamper, the handkerchiefs, what a job the power and the mistrust, the liquor closet locked, everything locked, icebox . . . mother’s bag, heart of oak, dairy industry, room for wool, laundry room, the attics, the fruit seller.”

The photos invite us in. Here she works, there are her tools, her kitchen table, her wet hands seem to shine when resting over the objects that reflected her life themes: domestic life, family and the balance of power between parents and children, sexuality and the body, as well as death, the natural world, and the subconscious.

Not all of it is pretty, but all of it serves to help us understand the point of view of the world that Bourgeois brought to her work; for example, that art was nothing but an opportunity for sanity, and that she herself was the house, the shelter of the objects she created to feed her genius.

“You cannot arrest the present. You just have to abandon every day your past. And Accept it. And if you can’t accept it, then you have to do sculpture! You see, you have to do something about it. If your need is to refuse to abandon the past, then you have to re-create it. Which is what I’ve been doing.”

It is also what Jaussaud is doing with this loving portrait in which everything is intimate—the images, the poses, the smiles, the quotes—all coherently here to help us feel what the author felt in Louise Bourgeois’ presence, to extend the intimacy he developed with her until it includes us, and to, in this way, let us in.