In 1938 Bourgeois married the American art historian Robert Goldwater and emigrated from Paris to New York that same year. It was here, amongst the cultural and artistic elite, that she began to pursue her artistic ambitions in earnest; with the birth of her first child in 1940, the burgeoning themes of her work truly came into focus. She began producing part-figurative and part-abstract paintings that combined a response to the New York metropolis with a surrealist atmosphere of alienation and isolation. The principal motif that emerged was an amalgam of exposed corporeality and towering architecture as succinctly expressed in the series of Femme Maison paintings made between 1945 and 1947. Described by art historian and curator Robert Storr as “Bourgeois’s hopes for a geometric framework capable of containing her emotional turmoil”, these hybrid edifices encapsulate the irreconcilable differences felt by Bourgeois and, indeed, by women more generally (Robert Storr, Louise Bourgeois: Intimate Geometries, London 2016, p. 119). Although shielded within a supposed haven of domesticity, these figures are nonetheless exposed and defenceless; their protective homes, though ostensibly defensive and anonymous, are also imprisoning vehicles for compliance and conformity. Bourgeois made her art in between taking care of her children; it is of no surprise therefore that many of the very initial themes of her work touch upon ambivalent feelings towards domesticity and motherhood.
The artist’s profound sense of homesickness during the 1940s added a further layer of emotional complexity to her early work; moreover, it was this very specific sense of grief that facilitated Bourgeois’s transition from painting and print-making to working in three-dimensions. The architectonic-anthropomorphic forms of the Femme Maison took on a physical dimension in 1947 with the Personages. Arising out of the artist’s desire to move beyond the confines of the two-dimensional and find an outlet for both her general restlessness (Bourgeois suffered from insomnia) and the force of her imaginative and emotional impulses, Bourgeois claimed the vacant lot on the roof of her building as a real space to think through and arrange the growing legion of monolithic figures that she began making in 1947. Using whatever materials came to hand – for example, cedar boards from water tower cladding, abandoned lumber, shop scraps and readily available balsa wood – Bourgeois cut, chiselled, and scraped these materials into slender totems of differing height and shape. While offering a response to the New York sky-line and as a corollary of the contemporary avant-garde, these pieces moreover served a specific psychical function. For Bourgeois, these portable and totemic forms were the human-scaled surrogates for the family members she so desperately missed. In her own words: “These pieces were presences – missed, badly missed presences… I was less interested in making sculpture at the time than in re-creating an indispensable past” (Louise Bourgeois cited in: ibid., p. 126). Principally painted white or black, and sometimes accented with shades of red and blue, the wooden Personages were figures intended to shore up against the threatening tide of loneliness.
Having to observe the Second World War from afar, the Personages enacted a splitting of Bourgeois’s self from an attachment to her absent loved ones: a process that art historian Mignon Nixon compares to the Freudian “work of mourning” (Mignon Nixon, Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2005, p. 140). Introduced in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917), Freud describes the process of mourning as one in which the grieving party overcomes their loss through a meticulous and painstaking activity of repeatedly sifting through and reliving associated memories. As observed by Nixon, “The ego actively detaches itself from the lost loved one: it severs the bond… The actions of chiselling and hammering, sharpening and filing, scraping, scratching, and puncturing through which Bourgeois produced the Personages evoke this assiduous labour, recalling Freud’s description of mourning as a severing of attachment” (Ibid.). That this process demanded concentrated and painful repetition is not only echoed in the scale of Bourgeois’s project (she created around 50 of these wooden sculptures over a period of 8 years), it is also apparent from the crowd-like groups in which they were arranged, both in Bourgeois’s home and at the first instance of their exhibition at Peridot Gallery in 1949 which included the wooden original of the present work.
Intended as a couple, Listening One is composed from two of Bourgeois’s hewn wooden edifices. Though entirely abstract, the proportions and subtle poise of these forms are wonderfully authentic and undeniably social; though turning inward towards one another, their presence is comforting and contemplative. Indeed, Bourgeois’s psychological attachment to her familial ‘surrogates’ was such that she kept most of the carved wooden originals with her for the best part of her life. Although she had ambitions to cast these works from the outset, bronze was an expensive material for an artist operating under the radar of the male-dominated commercial arena. It was only with the long-overdue recognition brought on by a reappraisal of Bourgeois’s oeuvre in the early 1980s that she was finally afforded the opportunity to fully realise this incredibly significant early body of work. Cast in 1982 and acquired by the present owner in 1983, Listening One is not only among the first of the Personages to be cast in bronze, it encapsulates the very essence of Bourgeois’s series – a body of work that today is rightfully considered a landmark of twentieth-century sculpture.
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