Δημήτρης Χατζής: Άι-Γιώργης - Εικόνα

''Art is a guarantee of sanity.''
Louise Bourgeois


Through her art, Louise Bourgeois expressed her innermost thoughts and fears, worked through problems, and gave form to her emotions. In prints, drawings, fabric works, installation, and, most famously, sculpture, Bourgeois explores themes of guilt, fear, memory, motherhood, and love.

Despite working as a contemporary artist for decades, it was not until Bourgeois became the first female sculptor to have a retrospective at MoMA, at the age of 71, that her work attracted mainstream attention and recognition. 
Bourgeois’s art was informed by her life, particularly her childhood years. Everything I do was inspired by my early life. 

Revisiting episodes from her past does not reduce her art to mere autobiography. Instead, her work is delicately balanced in the present. Bourgeois makes a direct and visceral appeal to the viewer to interpret each work afresh according to their current physical and psychological state—just as she did.

Louise Bourgeois was born in Paris on Christmas Day 1911, the second of three children in a family that restored and sold medieval and Renaissance tapestries. Her father, Louis, was a domineering, irascible man. Bourgeois coped with his outbursts at the family dining table by making tiny figures out of bread—an early instance of her lifelong habit of working through her feelings by using her hands—then pulling off their limbs and eating them. She later revisited this in The Destruction of the Father (1974), a tableau, lit red, resembling at turns a mouth with tongue and teeth, or a cave containing an abstract dining table surrounded by rounded seats.

''My childhood has never lost its magic, it’s never lost its mystery and it’s never lost its drama. I refuse to let go of that period because, painful as it was, it was life itself.'' 

Bourgeois’s outwardly conventional childhood was fractured by the arrival of Sadie Gordon Richmond, the tutor appointed by her father to teach his children English and who subsequently became his mistress. The situation was tolerated by his wife Joséphine but the trauma of desire, secrecy, and anxiety of this period plagued Bourgeois. A feminist reading of her work extends the very personal rage at the father figure to become a conceptual attack on the patriarchy.

Bourgeois, a natural and curious student and voracious reader, excelled at school despite having to take time off to nurse her mother who had never fully recovered after contracting what was probably the Spanish flu. Her mother ultimately succumbed to her illness, and passed away in 1932, when Bourgeois was 20. Shortly after she enrolled at the Sorbonne to study geometry, enjoying the subject’s predictability and stability that contrasted so starkly with her upbringing. However, not long afterwards an episode of profound depression ¬– the first of many she was to experience – brought on by feelings of abandonment and guilt following her mother’s death led her to study art instead, setting her on the path to becoming an artist. 

Bourgeois found herself at the heart of the 1930s Paris art scene, and eventually lived in the building that would later house the Surrealist André Breton’s Gradiva Gallery. Amongst the teachers at the various studios where she took her lessons was Fernand Léger who encouraged her to be a sculptor.

In 1938, in a section of the family’s tapestry gallery on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, Bourgeois opened a small space in which she sold prints and illustrated books. The American art historian Robert Goldwater (who would later become director of the Museum of Primitive Art, New York) came in to browse, and the two were married only three weeks later. She moved to New York with him in October 1938, soon before the outbreak of WWII, and began to forge her artistic career. 

''Everyday you have to abandon your past or accept it and then if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor.''

Life for Bourgeois was particularly busy during the 1940s. Alongside her burgeoning art career, she was bringing up three sons. Her anxieties and exasperation about the demands of motherhood and marriage surfaced in Femme Maison (1946–47), a series of paintings in which a house or building replaces a woman’s head so that domesticity appears to weigh on her shoulders, removing her identity and leaving her naked body exposed and vulnerable. Femme Maison anticipated the language and politics of Feminism (although it long predated it ). Bourgeois returned to its themes intermittently throughout her career.

After two solo exhibitions of paintings in 1945 and 1947, Bourgeois abandoned the medium and turned definitively to sculpture. She worked on the rooftop of her apartment building creating the Personages, a series of anthropomorphic but abstract wood sculptures that were both slightly off-balance and evocative of the verticality of the skyscrapers around her. Exhibited without plinths, she installed the sculptures in clusters so that the viewer had to make their way through them as if walking through a group of people. For Bourgeois they represented friends and family she had left behind in France.

In 1951, Bourgeois’s father died, precipitating a second period of long depression. From around 1952 to 1963 Bourgeois essentially withdrew from the art world and underwent a period of intense psychoanalysis. When she re-emerged, it was both a reinvention and a relaunch. Her new biomorphic, corporeal works, exhibited in 1964, were made from organic, pliable materials—plaster, latex, rubber, and poured resin. In Robert Mapplethorpe’s well-known 1981 photograph, a grinning Bourgeois, wearing a monkey fur coat, appears with one of these works, Fillette (1968), tucked in the crook of her arm like a baby. Made from latex layered over plaster, it is most obviously a phallic form, but can also be seen as a female torso. The Janus Fleuri (1968) series saw Bourgeois use the more traditional material of bronze to create hanging sculptures that are a hybrid of male and female genitalia. 

After her husband’s death in 1973, Bourgeois taught at the School of Visual Arts, among other New York art schools. (She also famously ripped out the kitchen stove in their home, establishing it as a working artist’s—rather than a domestic—space.) The Destruction of the Father (1974) shows her to be a pioneer of installation, an artform she explored further from 1991 until her death. The Cells are a series of disquieting architectural environments, each filled with objects from the artist’s past and sculptures that she made. After her 1982 retrospective at MoMA brought her mainstream recognition, Bourgeois, at age 81, represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1993. 

Throughout her life Bourgeois was plagued by insomnia. A series of pencil and ink drawings, often annotated with epigrammatic phrases, produced out of her whirling night-time thoughts from 1994 to 1995 were exhibited at Daros Collection in Zurich, Switzerland in 2004. In her final two decades she was also a prolific printmaker, creating over 1,000 compositions. She also began working with the clothing and textiles she’d amassed over her lifetime, making fabric books, collages, stuffed figures and heads. With this work, she revisited themes of restoration and reparation that recalled the tapestry workshop of her childhood and the close relationship with her mother that was so central to her art-making. Untitled (1996), from Bourgeois’ series of ‘pole’, pieces feature her own clothes. Suspended from a steel pole on cattle bone ‘hangers’, delicate silk undergarments and a black sequin dress, retain memories of when they were worn and serve as poignant reminders of contact with the wearer’s skin.

In the years leading up to her death, Bourgeois continued to hold her weekly ‘salons’ for art world figures, writers, and aspiring artists. Starting at 3pm on Sunday afternoons, she administered ruthless but perceptive critiques and gave feedback. “She wasn’t just witty. She was wicked. She liked making trouble in an interesting way”,  remarked art historian Linda Nochlin.

Bourgeois died aged 98 on 31 May 2010. She is widely recognised as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. 

Louise Bourgeois’s giant spiders are amongst her most famous works of art.

One of the first of the series, made of steel, was installed at the Brooklyn Museum in 1994, nearly fifty years after she made her first drawing of a spider in 1947

Maman, the largest in the series, is made of steel and marble and stands at over 10 metres tall. It was created for the Tate Modern’s first Turbine Hall commission in 2000. Subsequently cast in an edition of bronze, stainless steel, and marble, the monumental Maman is being displayed in 2022 by NEON and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre at the SNFCC for the first time in Athens.

With twenty marble eggs in its abdomen, the sculpture embodies ideas of maternal protection. Bourgeois stated that Maman was symbolic of her mother, a weaver and tapestry restorer, with whom she was very close and whose early death propelled Bourgeois into using art to explore feelings of loss and abandonment. My best friend was my mother, and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful as a spider. 

The body of the spider, with its womb like enclosure and eight legs, creates a unique architectural experience that acts as a metaphor for the home and its complicated web of human relationships and woven interdependencies. Maman also reflects Bourgeois’s ambiguous, contradictory, and complex feelings about her own experience of motherhood. Dominating its surroundings and teetering on rangy, segmented legs, it evokes fear and suggests entrapment. Two decades after its first presentation, Maman continues to challenge our psyches and revisits questions of intimacy, co-existence and shared predicaments. I have failed as a wife, as a woman, as a mother, as a hostess, as an artist, as a business woman… as a friend, as a daughter, as a sister, I have not failed as a truth seeker.  This ongoing quest for truth is more compelling than ever. 


Our gratitude to Dimitris Daskalopoulos, founder of NEON for his continuous support as well as to Andreas Dracopoulos, Co-President of the  Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) as the SNFCC’s participation in the Maman installation is made possible by a recent grant from the SNF for the SNFCC’s operations and programming.

Elina Kountouri
Director NEON


-Louise Bourgeois, Maman (1999) presented by NEON and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center at the SNFCC, Athens Greece, 2022.

Photograph: Nikos Karanikolas © The Easton Foundation/ Licensed by OSDEETE/ ΟΣΔΕΕΤΕ, Athens, Greece and VAGA at ARS, NY, USA