Woman’s Rites: A Review of Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine

Kenneth Crab Jul 3, 2008

Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine
directed by Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach, Art Kaleidoscope Foundation, 2008

With an oeuvre anchored in longevity and suspended by contradiction, 96-year-old Louise Bourgeois may be the most singularly fascinating contemporary artist, if by no means – and therein lies part of her poise – an art world éminence grise. When bringing up this distinction in the documentary Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine, she facetiously tells the filmmakers it applies to her son Jean-Louis. Bourgeois herself comes off as too stubbornly childlike to warrant such a lofty, complacent laurel.

She professes that her childhood has provided the endless resource of magic, mystery and drama from which her work draws inspiration, and which the film is hard-pressed to unveil. Its three-part structure refers to the three towers in the inaugural Bourgeois exhibit at London’s Tate Modern in 1999: “I Do, I Undo, I Redo.” Suggestive of a children’s game and redolent of a deceptive simplicity, this formula encapsulates her key aesthetic principle. The primal power of Bourgeois’ sculptural pieces – from the clustering of Personnages and Cumuls to the containment of Confrontation and Cells, with her signature spiders (“my most successful subject”) as the perfect organic embodiment of both qualities – is a matter of serial, ritualistic concentration. There is no synthesis, and no art-as-therapy.

Over half a century after her father’s death, Bourgeois continues to channel the childhood trauma left by his ten-year liaison with a live-in mistress, hired to teach the children English. She remains equally scarred by his cruelly derisive treatment of her, and bursts into tears upon reenacting how, at the dinner table, he would draw a pattern on a tangerine, carve it out and open the peel into a phallus-sprouting male shape, which he then displayed to demean her by comparison in front of all present. (Her series of sewn figures seems to issue a reconstructive counterpoint to this humiliation.) Bourgeois says she inherited her father’s sick heart and her mother’s intellect – the spider’s ability to meaningfully assemble the reality surrounding her. She describes the artist’s privilege in terms of establishing connections to one’s subconscious with the purpose of self-realization. (“Know yourself,” she quotes Montaigne, eagerly adding “in order to be happy.”)

The filmmakers’ coverage of Bourgeois’ life and work benefits from a comprehensive access to archival material and a comfort zone of familiarity with her. (Co-director/producers Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach started visiting their subject in 1993.) At odds with the scope of her career, though, they tend to tilt toward a somewhat scattershot, overly analytical approach. (This may be partially due to the acclaimed Cajori’s death in 2006, which left first-timer Wallach to complete the project.) Early on in the film, Bourgeois demonstrates how sculpture is an act of benign aggression by twisting a piece of fabric. Later we find out that her parents owned a tapestry business and see old footage of women wringing wet woven goods in a similar gesture. The average discerning viewer would probably note the parallel without being presented a blatant superimposition of the two images.

Bourgeois adamantly divulges that she favors grasping the world through creative assemblage rather than interpretive analysis, yet The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine fails to heed this preference in its historical framing of her portrait. All too often it reduces the weight of Bourgeois’ life experience to a shopworn mold of personal biography and imposes a symbolic, identity politics-based reading on her work. Yes, a dramatic split between maternal and paternal influence determines her take on art as a balancing act between ideas and emotions, but such broad intimations hardly circumscribe the range of her artistic pedigree. And yes, she rose to prominence in tandem with the reappraisal of figurative aesthetics and the whiplash of feminism, but her sprawling sculptures cannot be pared down to militant signposts. The film proves most revealing when least assuming, committed to simply document Bourgeois handling her pieces. Her physical relationship to their brittle solidity conveys a more embedded subjectivity than the psychological explanations she cuts short or tiresome suggestions of female empowerment she dismisses.

Like a prize piece of old lace, Bourgeois’ stand-alone body of work absorbs the history of a century. Its expansive yet delicate force incorporates the ravages of two World Wars and bridges two continents, refracting her family life as a sister and daughter, wife (to Robert Goldwater) and mother, while trailing her status as both an insider (and survivor) of leading art movements and a consummate, sui generis outsider to the scene. Heralded as the first woman whose work was given a retrospective by the Museum of Modern Art (in 1982), she was, as Robert Hughes wrote at the time, “certainly the least-known artist” to be granted this honor. Since then Bourgeois has become a distinguished and recognizable presence in the art world’s public eye, but her sculptures continue to bear out the tangible unknowability of a primordial past. You can absorb the Proustian traces of this past in her full-career retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum (from June 27 to September 28), to which Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine serves up an enticing if stalwart introduction.

—Kenneth Crab

Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine is playing at the Film Forum through July 8.

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