Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress And The Tangerine

2008, Movie, NR, 99 mins


Art world iconoclast, feminist icon, cranky old Frenchwoman with a sharp tongue and a gothic family history: Artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois is all these things and more. Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach's surprisingly moving documentary -- released to coincide with a major 2008 career retrospective at New York's Guggenheim Museum -- explores a few of the psychological nooks and crannies that make this singular artist so compelling.

Divided into three sections with titles corresponding to "I Do I Undo I Redo (2000)," Bouregois' massive, tripartite installation at London's Tate Modern, Cajori and Wallach's film begins with footage of Bourgeois in her Brooklyn studio in 1993 as she and Jerry Gorovoy, her faithful assistant of 30 years, wrestle with an unfinished piece Bourgeois calls "The Runaway Girl." Bourgeois brusquely deflects questions that offend her sense of herself as something more than a "woman artist," but is surprisingly eager to discuss the direct connections that tie her art to her subconscious -- a haunted place deformed at an early age by the kind of family dynamics that would have made Freud drool. Born in Paris in 1911 to family of tapestry restorers, Bourgeois spent a time as a young child in Chartres, where her father was hospitalized from injuries he received during WWI. He made a physical recovery, but returned to civilian life an inveterate womanizer. It wasn't long before Louise -- and her mother -- realized that their live-in domestic was also his lover. Her mother remained stoic throughout the 10 year affair, but her anger, frustration and jealousy took root in her daughter and never left.

Through a series of interviews, bolstered by commentary by her sons and key art world figures, Bourgeois recounts her career in New York among the Surrealists -- whom she regarded as more father figures to escape (a telling group photograph finds Bourgeois drifting toward the edges of the frame) -- her marriage to the curator and art historian Robert Goldwater, years spent attempting to live as wife, mother and artist, her adoption by the burgeoning feminist movement and her 1980 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art -- the first ever for a woman. But it's Bourgeois' psychological revelations that provide keys to her often hermetic work. During the film's most heartbreaking interview, Bourgeois breaks down as she recounts the cruel dinner-table trick her father performed with a tangerine, the peel of he turned into the lewd figure of a boy which he then derisively compared to his daughter. It's a rare moment of raw emotion and utter vulnerability that leaves you holding your breath. Although she warns against reading too much into the importance of her childhood traumas, it's clear that for Bourgeois each piece becomes a courageous journey into a place still haunted by primal anxieties and terrors. This engaging film throws a sharp light on those shadowy areas while displaying to great effect key pieces from Bourgeois' enormous and diverse body of work, from the large-scale bed chambers, the Brancusi-like figurines and the disturbing soft-sculptures of sexual entanglements to Bourgeois' famous series of enormous spiders, those maternal figures Cajori and Wallach poignantly set to Laurie Anderson's "O, Superman." "Long arms" indeed. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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