A large spider stands outside the Tate.  It crouches black and malevolent in the space between the rows of silver birch.  People walk under it,  laugh, take pictures.  Seen from a certain angle, the sun behind, its legs frame the dome of St Paul’s, a symbol in white marble suspended beneath the creature’s body.  To them, it is another photo opportunity, to the sculptor, it is her mother. 

Louise Bourgeouis was born, 96 years ago, into a rich middle class family.  Her father and mother were entrepreneurs; they bought up ancient tapestries, restored them and sold them on at great profit. They lived in Paris.  Her parents employed a nanny to look after Louise, but this nanny became her father’s mistress.  Her mother knew and tolerated the situation – for ten years.   Louise also knew, but nobody had told her.  Like a dark spider, her mother silently bent her head over her work of restoring old tapestries and said nothing.  Louise hated her father and his mistress for their deception and betrayal, but she also hated her mother for her silent complicity.  Imagine the four of them sitting down to dinner every night, exchanging polite conversation about the events of the day, but saying nothing.  Louise could trust nobody.  

‘Art is a guaranty of sanity.’  It was art that held her life together over the years. She has continually worked through the stresses of her childhood, her marriage, her removal to New York, her fears of sterility, motherhood,  the conflicts between her the domestic role and her work, the death of her husband, her sexuality, through the medium of her art.  Never actually conforming to a particular style, her work has constantly changed, keeping  pace with the movements of 20th century art,  adopting new techniques whenever these seemed appropriate.  Bourgeouis is fiercely independent; her work intensely personal.    

Her series of drawings entitled Femme a Maison, where a naked woman stands, a house where her head should be, expresses how domesticity comes to preoccupy the thoughts of even the most intelligent women.   Her ‘Personages’  are sculptures made of wood that represent the friends and family she left in France.  A Portrait of Jean Louis  explores a mother’s ambivalence towards her child.  Much of her work is very sexual, visceral even.  Although Avenza revisited is sculpted in plaster and plastic, the globes seem to float in a thick mucus which pours out in thick strands on to the floor.  Other work is more sexually explicit;  the penis features prominently, but take a closer look at them.  Janus fleurie appears to be set of male genitalia, torn off and suspended by the tip of the penis, but are the ovoids at the base of the sculpture testes or are they breasts?  And isn’t that the female vulva between them. Her work has been considered an expression of feminism, but Bourgeouis refuses to be labelled.  She is her own person.

But Louise Bourgeois never forgot the traumas and tensions of her early life.  It was a theme to which she constantly returned, especially it seems, towards the end of her life.  Her massive installations – cells as she calls them – in cages or surrounded by doors – exhibit all the symbols of her childhood – the double bed with a red plastic counterpain, the pillow with ‘je t’aime’ embroidered on it,  the enormous blood-stained tear drop above the bed,  her father’s large black coat on a hanger suspended from the hat stand.  And then there’s the spider again, crouching over a cage containing her mothers chair and scraps of tapestry pinned to the walls.  In another room, a replica of a New York rooftop water container are metal stands containing glass vessels, only these do not contain water, they contain feelings – emotions. 

Many of her latest works are in fabric, stuffed heads made out of fading tapestry,  a pregnant headless female, lying on her back, with a large open razor, the handle emerging from the chest, while the blade hovers above the abdomen, seven figures made out of pink corduroy, lying on a bed with their arms around each other – but look carefully, several of the figures in this tender scene have two heads, looking in opposite directions and the genitalia are prominent and clearly conjoined.            

Bourgeois preoccupation with the dangers of illicit sex has continued to influence her work to the end of her life.  They are her revenge against her parents, her means of surviving her childhood and they provide us with a courageous and explicit expression of how art can express the intolerable pain of a fragmented childhood.  Others might have became depressed, taken to drugs or alcohol.  Not Bourgeouis;  her life force has compelled her to harness her childhood trauma to create objects of great emotional significance and in so doing exposed the essential meaning of art.