Arguably the most visually austere and poignantly succinct of Bourgeois’ Personages, Needle Woman conveys a quiet stoicism that belies the precarious fragility of her slender form. Needle Woman stands alone, her elegantly slender figure bowed slightly as if silently yearning for connection. She balances gracefully on a single point, the fragility of her spindly, needlelike form and precarious pose counterbalanced by the fortitude of her bronze exterior. The austerity and simplicity of her lithe, spare figure finds emotional impact in its reductively abstract yet distinctly anthropomorphic presence. The absence of form makes Needle Woman into not only a surrogate for those missing, but also an intimate portrait of alienation and loss.
Needle Woman captures Bourgeois at a traumatic moment of transition. Having just uprooted her life in war torn France and relocated to the New York, Bourgeois’ cultural displacement formed the very impetus behind these wooden sculptures. This acute sense of loss that Bourgeois felt upon leaving her home in France was exacerbated by a loss of childhood naïveté, which was destroyed by her father’s repeated infidelity, by her mother’s chronic illness and ultimate death, and by the World Wars of the early Twentieth Century, which ravaged Europe during these years. Inspired by the foreign, modern skyline of New York City and desperate to overcome the homesickness that she felt for the people and places that she left behind in France, Bourgeois found catharsis in sculpture. She relished the concreteness of the three-dimensional medium and felt that the physical tangibility of sculpture was inseparable from emotional intensity whether the sensibility was one of tranquility or tension.
Needle Woman’s lithe figure resembles a sewing needle, a simple shape that conjured intimate memories from her childhood and of her mother. Bourgeois’ memory of her mother was informed by her mother’s labor as a seamstress for the Bourgeois family tapestry business and by her matriarchal role as caretaker of the household. For Bourgeois, the emotively laden act of sewing as a means to repair and mend became a cathartic metaphor for her artistic practice – a practice that incessantly followed a tripartite logic of creation, destruction, and reparation: “When I was growing up, all the women in my house were using needles. I’ve always had a fascination with the needle, the magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair the damage. It’s claim to forgiveness. It is never aggressive, it’s not a pin.” (Louise Bourgeois cited in Robert Storr, Intimate Geometries: The Art and Life of Louise Bourgeois, London, 2016, p. 526) Bourgeois’ reluctance to part with the Personages and her eventual decision to canonize them in bronze reflects her inability to fully overcome and extricate herself from the psychological traumas of her youth.
Needle Woman invokes an encyclopedic host of influences and allusions and yet pursues a conceptual and visual direction that is all her own. Bourgeois’ Personages draw upon Surrealist biomorphism and ceremonial totems of primitive African and Oceanic tribes. Needle Woman is deeply evocative of the stark modernist forms of Brancusi’s Bird in Space and of the elongated figures of Giacommeti. Arriving in New York in the early 1940s with aspirations of becoming an artist, Bourgeois found herself in a world dominated by the New York School and Abstract Expressionism. Bourgeois’ highly introspective and rigorously reductive Needle Woman contrasted sharply with the extroverted, gestural, distinctly American machismo of Abstract Expressionist painting. The fragile elegance of Needle Woman’s form embodies the inherent tensions between comfort and danger, fragility and stability, reparation and destruction, connection and alienation, which underlie Bourgeois’ mythology as artist and storyteller.
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