Marina Warner in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Louise Bourgeois, 2007, p. 186.
Conceived in 1984 and cast in golden porcelain in 2007, Nature Study is an iconic sculpture that foregrounds ambiguous and powerful maternity, the foremost theme of Louise Bourgeois’s seminal oeuvre. At once male and female, anthropomorphically animalistic, headless, and self-referential, Nature Study incites a rich ground of gendered and art historical allusions enmeshed within the specifics of a psychobiography that narrates the entire arc of the artist’s seven-decade long career. Cast in delicate porcelain and glazed in resplendent gold, the present work represents a strikingly fecund self-portrait of the artist as dog-goddess, protector, and Magna Mater. With examples in other materials residing in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (bronze, gold patina); Glyptotek, Copenhagen (rubber); The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (rubber), this extraordinarily evocative work collectively comprises a masterpiece of Louise Bourgeois’s oeuvre.
Upright and vigilant like a watchful guardian, Nature Study offers an extraordinary recapitulation of countless artefacts of powerful maternal statuary found across the history of early civilisation. At once the large breasted forms of ancient fertility goddesses and primitive earth mothers seem to coalesce with an intimation of the Egyptian Sphinx, Ancient Greek caryatids, and the classical statuary of the Roman Mother Cybele to deliver an archetype that simultaneously draws on these historical signifiers of femininity as strong, fertile, maternal, and protective. Developed over years in varying types of media, ranging from plaster, red wax, bronze, and cast rubber, the present Nature Study stands in dialogue with the monumental black granite She-Fox of 1985 housed in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Here the hybrid figure represents the artist’s mother as she stands guard over her daughter. In both works, as observed by Marina Warner, “Bourgeois’s vision of a magna mater in animal form with no face, her neck a savage stump, transmute female power (a sphinx, a harpy) into tumescent maleness” (Marina Warner in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Louise Bourgeois, 2007, p. 186).
Ferocious and defensive maternity is the overarching theme of Bourgeois’s highly acclaimed late work: as with Nature Study, it lies at the very core of her monumental spider sculpture entitled Maman, the familiar French word for Mother. Vincent Honoré explains: “Maternity is a recurrent theme in Bourgeois’s work and her view of it is complex and changeable. It frequently centres around the culture of the tragic, guilty mother, at once protective and predatory… She rejects 'the representation of ideal motherhood still almost exclusively made up of self-abnegation, unstinting love, intuitive knowledge or nurturance and unalloyed pleasure in children', preferring a powerful mother whose modernity draws on classical roots. In Maman, motherhood assumes a potentially ferocious guise; the figure of the Medusa is not far away” (Vincent Honoré in: ibid., p. 170). Honoré’s allusion to Medusa is particularly pertinent for an interpretation of Nature Study, a headless yet phallic animal form that is both bulging masculinity and ferocious femininity combined. Bourgeois’s hybridisation of human and animal anatomy and her melding of gendered power tropes plays to an ambivalent identification with motherhood and the artist’s lasting contention with her own father. By incessantly interrogating and working through the spaces of her anxiety, Bourgeois’s work forms a psychological reflex of confrontation and expulsion in response to the fears that internally threaten to overwhelm and consume.
Entrenched in the mythology surrounding her parentage and upbringing, Bourgeois retrospectively replays, reprises and replicates her unabated memory of the psychological distress that devastated her youth. Born in Paris, she was daughter to Josephine and Louis Bourgeois, proprietors of the restoration and tapestry repair business that first fostered the young artist’s nascent creativity. Nonetheless, family life was fractured and unsettled. Her father was authoritarian, philandering, belittling and often cruel, while his infidelity with Louise’s live-in English tutor Sadie, of which her mother was fully aware, incited an enduring sense of betrayal and abandonment.
During her late teens Bourgeois left school to take full-time care of her mother; chronically ill with a lung condition, Josephine was adored by her daughter. Her death in 1932 heralded a profound trauma that the artist would never truly surmount. The perverse triangle of familial relations and traumata of her youth found its most searing expression in the highly celebrated work Bourgeois initiated during the 1980s. Marking a return of the repressed, these works, as wonderfully communicated by the present Nature Study, invoke the materials, psychological spaces and symbolic forms inextricably bound to the primal experiences of Bourgeois’s childhood and resultant ambiguities she felt towards paternity, maternity, love and power.
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