Siri Hustvedt

“The Places that Scare You”
Oct 2007

The Guardian, October 6, 2007

“The Places that Scare You”

A tiny, slender woman with long hair tied back in a ponytail, regal posture, a shrewd expression and a forceful walk swept through the Pierre Matisse Gallery, an entourage of young men trailing behind her. She was dressed in black, and her presence acted on the room like a bolt of electricity. "Who is that?" I asked my husband. "Louise Bourgeois." "Oh, of course," I answered. A couple of years earlier, in 1982, the Museum of Modern Art had mounted a major show of her work. Curated by Deborah Wye, the exhibition brought the 71-year-old Bourgeois, who had been showing painting and sculpture in New York since the 40s, into the art-world limelight.

That was the only time I saw her in the flesh. After a couple of minutes, she vanished, followers in tow. My memory of what I felt as I looked at her is vivid - a mixture of awe, fascination, and amusement. There was a theatrical quality to her sudden entrance, as if she had staged it for our benefit.

Louise Bourgeois is now 95 and still making art. Tate Modern will show more than 200 of her works in an exhibition that opens this week. It's a major retrospective that includes many of her most famous sculptures as well as less well-known pieces made during seven decades of intense artistic labour.

The story of Louise Bourgeois's early life has become so enmeshed with her work that many critics have been seduced into biographical or psychoanalytic readings of the art, punctuated with pithy pronouncements from the artist, who is also a prolific writer: "My name is Louise Josephine Bourgeois. I was born 24 December 1911. All my work in the past 50 years, all my subjects have found their inspiration in my childhood. My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama." Or perhaps more tantalising (at least for someone with an analytic bent): "50 years old be kept in the dark - result rage result - frustration from knowing / 10 years old unsatisfied curiosity - rage outrage result rage / kept out / 1 year old - abandoned - why do they leave me/ where are they / 3 month old - famished and forgotten / 1 month old - fear of death."
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