The Subject of Pain

On Louise Bourgeois

Madhu H. Kaza
Black and white portrait of Louise Bourgeois holding Filette.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Louise Bourgeois, 1982. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used with permission.

A few weeks after my father died in late 2017, my mother came to visit me in New York. We spent the time between Christmas and New Year’s quietly in my Brooklyn apartment, but a few days before her birthday I asked if she wanted to visit the Museum of Modern Art. Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, a retrospective of the artist’s work, was in its final weeks there. That morning, a blizzard swept through the city, bringing with it words like “bomb cyclone,” “bombogenesis,” and “winter hurricane.” We listened to the radio as the mayor warned New Yorkers to stay at home. But the subways were running, and the museum was open, and my mother wanted to go. She had been cooped up for two years taking care of my father and needed a birthday.

If you look up Louise Bourgeois, as I think my mother did on her phone, the top search results include photographs of the artist posing with indelicate sculptures. If my mother had asked me why I wanted to take her to see this artist’s work—but she didn’t—I would have thought, Because I want to see it, I would have mumbled some shapeless words, I would not have been aware of any reasonable answer.

“i am not particularly
aware or interested in the erotic of my work.” It makes a nice joke as a possible caption to the famous portrait of Louise Bourgeois by Robert Mapplethorpe. In the photograph, taken in 1982, Bourgeois is wrinkled but not yet definitively old (she would live until her ninety-ninth year). She wears a dark furry coat and she smiles, with a nearly two-foot-long sculpture of a penis tucked under her arm like a purse or an errand. It’s a delightful picture, and there was a time when I tagged Bourgeois’s own words to it and passed the joke along.

In my early twenties, when the art world was new to me, I found myself at a gathering where a sculptor who taught at an art school asked me which artists I liked. I mentioned, among others, Louise Bourgeois. “Everyone loves Louise Bourgeois,” she said, as if I were an eight-year-old who had just announced that her favorite place on earth was Walt Disney World. The professor, a white woman in her forties, would hear nothing more from me; she appeared to know everything I might possibly say. Louise Bourgeois was the feminist myth and icon, a grande dame of the art world loved by all the young women who looked at contemporary art. Never mind that the grandes dames of the art world aren’t the artists. Never mind how unlikely I was in that white cube where we mingled, or how far I’d traveled from my rural Indian childhood to discover lingam sculptures made by a French artist in New York. The professor ranged on to other topics, and I folded myself into silence.

Encounters with art had drawn me out of the silence of my childhood. It was a silence commissioned by my mother, whose few words, when they came, foreclosed conversation. I was a good girl; I got good grades. What more could one say after that? Everything seemed to be fine. I was used to being talked to—among family, teachers, even friends—without feeling addressed. For a long time, in the presence of others I felt my own self to be an abstraction, not quite real. But in college I worked in the gift shop at a museum, my first extended exposure to art. I was surprised to find that among the nineteenth-century American landscapes or portraits of pale-necked, reclining ladies, paintings that did not represent me or anything like my world, I occasionally felt drawn into a rather personal exchange. I did not understand the art, and yet it spoke to me. I was compelled because the paintings were available and in no hurry for my response. My end of the conversation simply required returning again and again to look.

When I first saw the sculptures of Louise Bourgeois in the mid-nineties, I felt not only addressed but summoned, pulled by my hair into a dialogue both intimate and difficult. On the one hand, her commanding bodily, elemental forms registered immediately in my own body and somewhere distant in my cultural memory. But her work also threw me into confusion. Everything was not fine. If that admission was a relief, it also felt like a hazard because her art offered no comforting affirmations.

In the Mapplethorpe photo, Bourgeois looks secure, confident, and bold. She is puffed up in the furry coat that, more playful than sophisticated, is part of her armor. I had been looking at her work for a decade when I met Bourgeois, then ninety-five years old, at her weekly salon in 2006. Anyone could look up her number in the phone book and ask to attend, so that’s what I did. The gray cotton item she wore at her Chelsea brownstone could be called a dress but was essentially a smock. She looked fragile. Her hands were pale. She was small, her voice was thin, and she was alert, terse, and clear. Her house was shabby and cluttered. She said nothing to reassure anyone, but her mind was working, working.

When exhibited the sculpture is displayed vertically, and its feminine possibilities emerge: an elongated torso with stunted legs, or an elongated neck above globular breasts.

A few years ago, I met a man who confounded me with frequent comments on my stature. “Why are you so small?” he would say. “You’re short.” “You’re small!” The first time he asked, “Why are you so small?” I held my tongue. It was such a stupid thing to say that I didn’t know how to respond without quartering him. Though the question, which was not really a question but an assessment of some sort, reflected male aggression and male blindness, I wasn’t offended exactly. We all get to say stupid things from time to time if we are human. But nearly every time I saw this man he would say, “You’re so short,” though each time he would add a refrain, as if he were facing a real enigma, “It’s strange, because you loom so large!” I wondered if he felt monstrous in his own body, if he was aware of taking up too much space. What was this inability to see me, the contradiction he was projecting onto me between my appearance as a small, brown woman and my intellectual, physical, or emotional capacities?

It makes me laugh to take those words and pitch them toward Louise Bourgeois: “She was so small, and yet she loomed so large!” I know these are the kinds of things people do say about her. The equation is all wrong.

the penis sculpture that Bourgeois holds in the Mapplethorpe photo is titled Fillette, meaning “little girl” in French. When exhibited the sculpture is displayed vertically, and its feminine possibilities emerge: an elongated torso with stunted legs, or an elongated neck above globular breasts. Though the mixed-gender construction, the phallic female, is not unusual in Bourgeois’s art, there’s no way around the provocation. “Ceci n’est pas un penis,” I think, pleased with my own levity. I know, however, that though it may wink at us, Bourgeois’s work can’t be explained by cleverness. Fillette possesses swagger, but it is more than a goad. As the Zen saying goes, “Things are not as they are seen; nor are they otherwise.” We cannot squirm away from Bourgeois’s insistence that the phallus is a girl. It’s not just feminine but diminutive—not femme (woman) or fille (girl)—but the intimate appellative fillette.

I imagine Bourgeois herself being summoned as a child, “Fillette! Louison!” I take Fillette to be a self-portrait, if a pointed one, since fillette is also a pejorative term used to call a man a pussy. The sculpture asks us, “What is a girl?” How does the masculine assert itself in her? She is not as she is seen, nor is she otherwise.

In shape and size Fillette, made in 1968, recalls Constantin Brancusi’s Princess X (1915–16), a shiny, abstract, phallic bronze sculpture arched on top of a limestone cube pedestal. In 1920 Princess X was declared obscene and removed from a gallery in Paris. Brancusi insisted that the sculpture was not phallic but, in fact, a representation of femininity, and specifically, a portrait of the heiress and psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte. Bourgeois builds on the ambiguity of Brancusi’s sculpture but charges her work with far more aggression and, ultimately, more pathos. Princess X is smooth and polished, an idealization; Fillette, made of latex and plaster, is coarse, mottled, visceral. There is nothing pretty about it. Like many of Bourgeois’s later sculptures of bodily forms, Fillette was hung from the ceiling when exhibited. The artist enacts a castration, stringing the sculpture up like meat on a hook. Subjected and made vulnerable in this way, the way that women and girls are subjected, the phallus can elicit our sympathy along with humiliation, fear, or rage.

Bourgeois repeats the form of Fillette in the bronze sculpture Fragile Goddess, which she made two years later. Although the body of Fragile Goddess is rotund, at the top of the sculpture a long headless neck rises above full breasts. The column projects out from the voluptuous body as a blunt shaft; the belly and breasts evoke fertility goddesses, but the form as a whole produces disjuncture not harmony. In both works the erotic is undeniable, but not as sexual pleasure. It’s an eros of disquiet, tied to the bewilderment and reconstitution of the feminine self.

goddess brings to my ear the phrase, “fragility of goodness.”

The Fragility of Goodness is a book by the philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum in which she argues, through an exploration of Greek tragedy, that our vulnerability to forces outside our control is bound to our capacity for goodness. Goodness here is not a moral character trait but a reference to the Greek term eudaimonia, which means human flourishing or well-being. An ethical and meaningful life, in this view, includes recognition that we dangle in the world, that we suffer unnecessarily.

“Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” This is Anne Carson in the introduction to Grief Lessons, a translation of four plays of Euripides. The missteps and tragic action of these plays may stem from rage, but rage, Carson tells us, is fueled by suffering. The hero is not simply a human being with a tragic, congenital character flaw. He or she is someone afflicted.

Louise Bourgeois, full of rage and grief, is a tragedian. In Greek tragedies, which tell political stories, the action is at the scale of the family. When I say “action” I mean horror: a mother spears her son, a son slays his father, an uncle boils his nephews and serves the flesh to their father. The members of a family—House of Atreus, House of Thebes—devour one another, unable to escape the pile-up of unburied ancestral memory, what we might call intergenerational trauma. At the beginning a character often recounts some injustice done to an ancestor by an affronted god. Tragedy begins with a cursed family.

I wasn’t surprised by her words, but they caused me a pain, one I’m sure that other highly educated daughters of immigrant women may have felt.

Louise Bourgeois was consumed with the psychodrama of her early life. This included her narcissistic father’s sexual transgressions with her English governess and the illness and early death of her mother. From this childhood wreckage Bourgeois made art in which she herself could orchestrate devourment. She brings the force of vengeance in works like The Destruction of the Father, an installation featuring a claustrophobic cavern of menacing latex and plaster protrusions, both jagged and bulbous, soaked in a lurid red light. As with many of the wrenched and disfigured bodies in her work, the instinct here is sordid: not only to destroy but to dismember. “I make an awful story,” she writes. “Children conspire against the parents / parents cook their children.” She tells us that The Destruction of the Father was made for the sake of catharsis, a response to the inescapable pain of her youth. In an interview she said, “What frightened me was that at the dinner table, my father would go on and on, showing off, aggrandizing himself. And the more he showed off, the smaller we felt.” To look at Bourgeois’s frightful forms is to pull up to the scene and feel its wretchedness within you without being able to say what happened.

my mother and i found the Museum of Modern Art nearly empty when we arrived. There were no crowds to steer through, but soon after we entered the exhibition, she and I separated, ostensibly to take in the show each at our own pace. My mother takes more time with each piece of art but has almost nothing to say in response to it. I cannot bear the silence.

At the entrance of the show, the thirty-six prints that make up Bourgeois’s series The Fragile were displayed. I had read that these were playful works. On first glance they seemed like the drawings of a five-year-old whose imagination is consumed by two objects—mothers and spiders, in this case—and repeats the two forms endlessly. The women figures have smiley faces, drawn from the stick figure tradition, and pendulous breasts that dominate their bodies and sometimes appear in the place of a body. Their faces are rendered with the disfiguring and raw love of a child. The aggrandizing perspective of a child who views her mother as boobs is as comical as it is discordant to see smiley faces on the walls of a modern art museum.

The prints were made by the artist when she was ninety-six years old. Her capacity for regression is astonishing; she was able to draw back from her training to find an expressivity in lines stripped of skill. This undoing may sound easy, but it isn’t. It’s not a matter of technique, but of channeling a drive, a compulsion. It requires ruthless introspection.

The faces of the women in The Fragile take on an aura of derangement when you notice how many of the circles representing faces are not closed. Sometimes they are overdrawn, with the line extending past where the hand should have stopped, so that it sticks out from the head like a hair or a wire. The women in these prints, with abundant, fertile bodies and underdeveloped faces, are unintegrated. They express a persistent longing for an original love, the artist’s unwillingness or inability to transcend loss. Although the spider represents motherhood, prowess, and creativity in much of Bourgeois’s work, the spiders in this series are defenseless. In some of the prints, the spider seems as if it is being blown by the wind or falling. All the spiders have faces; most are drawn with open mouths that give them a startled, sometimes terrified expression. Here they seem more like children than mothers. Within every mother a child in need of a mother.

“the subject of pain is the business I am in,” Louise Bourgeois once remarked. Like Emily Dickinson whose business was “circumference,” Bourgeois circled her subject all her life. Though there was movement from rigid forms to more pliable ones, from monoliths to spirals and rounded bodies, and though she continually experimented with new materials, Bourgeois’s art did not develop on a linear path, but through an orbit of perpetual return. Early on she built a foundational vocabulary of forms and incessantly reworked them over decades. This accounts for the odd temporality in her work: time feels collapsed, and the present work is always invoking an earlier visual as well as psychic moment.

This is among the reasons why I find the conventional description of Bourgeois as a confessional artist perplexing. Confession is premised on a timeline of disclosure, catharsis, absolution. There is no secret being disclosed in Bourgeois’s work. After 1982 the story of her traumatic childhood, including her mother’s illness and her father’s infidelity, was well known. And her work is too totemic, too steeped in archetypical forms to be read in terms of the transparency of confession. She notes, “I never talk literally.… You have to use analogy and interpretation and leaps of all kinds.” Ancient myth provided the ground for Greek tragedies, and then the tragedies, as particular works of art, moved beyond illustrating myth. In the same way, Bourgeois’s past deeply informs her work, but the work does not simply elucidate or encapsulate the past. If that had been the case, she would not have spent decades reshaping the same material. “For a lifetime,” she said, “I have wanted to say the same thing.”

What is striking in Bourgeois’s late interest in speaking about her life is not confession but the desire to narrate, to use language as creative material. Consider Untitled 1944. Painted in gouache, it is a gorgeous abstract white shape against a light-blue wash; it’s an optimistic work. The white lines are exquisite, reminiscent of hair, but it’s not clear that the piece is figurative. Bourgeois describes the image: “Now obviously, this is a self-portrait, and there I am climbing the mountain in my best appearance.” There is nothing obvious about her explanation, and that’s part of the delight. Bourgeois is one of those narrators who tells a story while giving language the slip.

In the book Drawings and Observations, Bourgeois connects Untitled 1944 to Camus’s essay on Sisyphus: “Every day you climb that mountain; that is to say, you try your best. At the end of the day, you realize that you haven’t achieved much and tomorrow will be another day of climbing. That is the existentialist background of the work.” Camus sees in the tragic, futile labors of Sisyphus a human heroism of reckoning with fate and finding a way to embrace life. Camus writes, “If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy.”

I think that for Bourgeois, making art is, in fact, the Sisyphean task of waking up every day, laboring to lift herself out of an emotional abattoir and reclaim the self through art. There is no end to it, no liberation. She is returned again and again to her fear of abandonment, her humiliation by her father, her deep sense of betrayal and loss—the business of pain. One of Bourgeois’s late installations included three towers with spiral staircases titled, I Do, I Undo, and I Redo. This remaking was her work, the continual reenactment of rupture and repair, with the possibility of joy in the process. In this there is eros. Eros as an attendant of pain. Or as Audre Lorde put it: the erotic as a creative life force, a “measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.”

i waited for
my mother on a bench outside the galleries of the show. When she emerged, we rode the escalators down to the lobby and went to retrieve our coats. Neither of us spoke. After we were bundled up, she said, “I’m glad we went. I liked the show a lot, even though I don’t understand it.”

I wasn’t surprised by her words, but they caused me a pain, one I’m sure that other highly educated daughters of immigrant women may have felt. My mother is a smart and accomplished woman; it is hard for me to bear the ways in which she feels barred from making claims about what she sees in an art museum.

From the lobby, the courtyard of the museum looked like a pristine snow globe. Outside the museum’s entrance, we could see the blinking yellow lights of a snowplow and the crouched, awkward shapes of men leaning into the wind as they walked. We watched for a few moments, not yet ready to throw our own bodies against the elements. It was then that my mother pulled out her cell phone to show me a photo of one work from the show that she had particularly liked, The Three Graces (1998–2002). It’s a botanical print of three trees whose branches are intertwined like a loose weaving. The colors are dark, somewhat unusual for Bourgeois. I hadn’t thought much of it; I had glanced and glanced away. “Look,” my mom said, pointing to a small inconspicuous figure penciled in at the bottom: the figure of a girl with long hair, faintly drawn, clasping her arms around the trunk of the central tree. I hadn’t noticed her; I wouldn’t have. And then, because my mother, who knows nothing about art history or Louise Bourgeois, looked closely and noticed this intimate detail, this tiny girl, I felt as if I was going to cry.

Etchings from one of Bourgeois’s last series, I Give Everything Away, include the words, “I Distance myself from myself / from what I love most.” I am reminded of a child playing the Freudian fort-da game, casting the beloved object away and then calling it back in an attempt to master loss. So much of Bourgeois’s work involved reenacting the past and collapsing distances, reeling back in what was lost and never surmounted; the pathos of the work is in its gesture of da, da, da, her repeated attempts to soothe herself. I Give Everything Away was made in 2010, the year she died, and speaks to something else—her own imminent departure: “I leave my home / I leave my nest / I am packing my bags.”

I kept my mother at a distance during her visit and was relieved when she left. I would not throw my arms around her as if she were a tree. I love my mother dearly and need to send her away to bear the fact that one day I, a grown woman, will be motherless. I, too, am playing the game, which on that day will no longer be a game: Fort, fort, fort. Gone, gone, gone.

Madhu H. Kaza is a writer, translator, artist, and educator born in Andhra Pradesh, India and based in New York City. She serves as Faculty Advisor to the Bard Prison Initiative and teaches in the MFA program at Columbia University.
Originally published:
June 28, 2021


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