Louise Bourgeois, Torso, Self-Portrait
Torso, self-portrait is a work of critical importance within Louise Bourgeois’s oeuvre. Created in plaster in 1963-64 and later cast into a bronze edition of 6, this piece has been reproduced in every major publication on the artist, discussed widely by art historians, and chosen for inclusion in all major retrospective exhibitions of the artist’s work. With the plaster version today preserved in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York and examples from the bronze edition in prominent collections across the globe, Torso, self-portrait is a truly emblematic sculpture from a crucial stage in Bourgeois’s career. Along with a handful of important works of the period – including the nest-like Fée couturière – this piece announced a departure from the rigid architectural forms of the 1940s and ‘50s towards a more organic and amorphous figuration. Both hard and soft, male and female, fierce and protective yet homely and vulnerable, this piece denotes a wonderful collusion of bodily and psychological opposites in an aesthetic language that marries together modernism and the burgeoning postminimalism of 1960s New York. It is a true masterpiece of sculptural invention that bridges the realms of psychoanalysis, gender studies, and art history as borne from brutal self-examination and artistic sublimation.
Bourgeois’s works of mid-1960s coincided with the most intensive phase of the artist’s 30-year-long psychoanalysis. Having sought therapy following the death of her father, which prompted a period of deep depression and dislocation from the burgeoning artistic elite in New York, Bourgeois withdrew from her practice. After a long hiatus, the work that emerged in the early 1960s was marked by an intensely psychological and corporeal dynamic, in part fueled by the artist’s deep interest in psychoanalytical theory, particularly the work of Melanie Klein. Though maintaining the sense of fragility familiar to the carved wooden Personages of the late 1940s and early ‘50s, these new works instead displayed a vulnerability derived from their soft organic forms; bodily forms that harked back to a primordial state of being. As outlined by art historian Mignon Nixon: “The body of work Bourgeois initiated in the late fifties and early sixties – at the time she contemplated graduate study in psychology of art and becoming a child therapist – concerns the beginnings of subjectivity. In this work she contrived to retrieve a primal origin: to ask, in effect, What is it like to be at the very beginning of sculpture? of subjectivity? Of a relation to the other? … if Klein’s writings offer a particular purchase on this imaginative exercise, it is because she ventures to describe the origins of subjectivity, the very process of its emergence. For the question Klein asks is, in effect, What is it like to be at the beginning of life?” (M. Nixon, Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art, Cambridge, Mass. and London 2005, pp. 176-79).
Of this period, Bourgeois’s series of womb-like Lairs present a protective inner world of nascent corporeality, while pieces such as Amoeba and the present Torso, self-portrait communicate both fleshy vulnerability and aggressive protectiveness. As expertly outlined by art historian and long-time friend of Louise Bourgeois, Robert Storr: “Though not strictly speaking one of the lairs, the roughly contemporary Torso, self-portrait, 1963-64, is wary and closed in upon itself – in effect, battle ready. This wall relief, whose silhouette nonetheless approximates that of the fully three-dimensional Fée couturière, is a kind of homely armour – a breastplate, to be exact: the torso’s form is girded by two parallel ranks of toothy plaster lozenges that essentially reproduce the piece’s tapered contour… Flesh and only flesh, shelters flesh. With two globular breasts at the top and two larger ones at the bottom that might also be buttocks, Torso, self-portrait represents the self-transformation of [an] exposed ‘belly’. Powerless to evade predatory glances, the woman she personifies seeks safety behind a makeshift armour of scales, each one of which reiterates her endangered sexuality” (R. Storr, Intimate Geometries: The Life and Art of Louise Bourgeois, London 2016, pp. 312-13).
- 1st Century B.C
- c. 1888-92
Belvedere Torso, Museo Pio Clementino, The Vatican, Vatican CityImage: © Bridgeman Images
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Torso of Neptune, 1622 The State Hermitage Museum, St PetersburgImage: © The State Hermitage Museum/ photo by Vladimir Terebenin
Auguste Rodin, Woman Rubbing Her Back with a Sponge, The Metropolitan Museum of ArtImage: © Bequest of Curt Valentin/ Bridgeman Images
Naum Gabo, Model for ‘Constructed Torso’, Tate Collection, LondonImage: © Tate, London 2020
Artwork: © The Work of Naum Gabo © Nina & Graham Williams
Constantin Brancusi, Male Torso, Cleveland Museum of Art, ClevelandImage: © Cleveland Museum of Art, OH, USA/ Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection/ Bridgeman Images
Artwork: © Succession Brancusi - All rights reserved. ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020
“Though not strictly speaking one of the lairs, the roughly contemporary Torso, self-portrait, 1963-64, is wary and closed in upon itself – in effect, battle ready. This wall relief, whose silhouette nonetheless approximates that of the fully three-dimensional Fée couturière, is a kind of homely armour – a breastplate, to be exact: the torso’s form is girded by two parallel ranks of toothy plaster lozenges that essentially reproduce the piece’s tapered contour… Flesh and only flesh, shelters flesh. With two globular breasts at the top and two larger ones at the bottom that might also be buttocks, Torso, self-portrait represents the self-transformation of [an] exposed ‘belly’. Powerless to evade predatory glances, the woman she personifies seeks safety behind a makeshift armour of scales, each one of which reiterates her endangered sexuality.”
Louise Bourgeois and the Architecture of Memory
Speaking about the present work with MoMA curator Deborah Wye, Bourgeois described this piece as “the way I experience my torso… somehow with a certain dissatisfaction and regret that one’s own body is not as beautiful as one would like it to be. It doesn’t seem to measure up to any standard of beauty” (L. Bourgeois cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Louise Bourgeois, 1982, p. 69). Here, she expresses a corporeal dissatisfaction that alludes to established canons of classical beauty as laid down in art history. Designated a ‘self-portrait’ this work offers an insight into Bourgeois’s psychological mindset at the time of its creation – her competitive sizing-up of her male predecessors. The present work confronts the canon of the classical torso, indeed, the fragmented torso, as discovered during the Renaissance in excavations of Ancient Greek statuary through to its later adoption as a Modernist trope in the work of Rodin or Brancusi, whose own corporeal fragments implied the burgeoning germ of a bodily whole. Bourgeois was unconcerned with the implication of corporeality made whole, however, instead embracing the body as a set of regressive genital metaphors that undermined ‘beauty’ and challenged the hegemony. Taking her cue from Surrealism, whose proponents certainly embraced genital metonymy, Bourgeois wields swelling breast-like forms, vaginal clefts and clitoral ridges to articulate a primordial and sensuous femininity that dismantles the modernist purity and elegance of the previous generation of male artists.
Influential curator Lucy Lippard picked up on Bourgeois’s pioneering bodily forms and included her work in the landmark exhibition, Eccentric Abstraction at the Fischbach Gallery, New York in 1966. Alongside Eva Hesse, Lippard located Bourgeois within a new strain of postminimalist artmaking that was amorphous, organic, corporeal yet possessed an off-beat freshness the defied established categories of abstract sculpture. Akin to Hesse and works of hers such as Untitled or Not Yet from 1966 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), Bourgeois’s work of the period confronted and subverted the hard-edged and predominantly male modernist ideals of sculptural form. Works such as Torso, self-portrait thus brilliantly represent the disintegration of these paragons, as detached and sleek minimalist forms give way to an expressive and overabundant intensity of physical and emotional allusion.