Louise Bourgeois: Pandora's Box

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We remember her [Pandora] most vividly because it is she who released human suffering from the box the god'...
We remember her [Pandora] most vividly because it is she who released human suffering from the box the god's entrusted her with, only to leave hope at the bottom. According to Jean-Pierre Vernant11 the mythological figure of Pandora represents the answers to the questions: What is man? Why are there men and women? Why is there good and evil? Why is there image versus reality? It is in this figure of mythos and duality, a figure that embodies the tension between hope and fear, that the main themes of Louise Bourgeois' work may be found. Louise Bourgeois, who was born in Paris in 1911 worked more than half a century in New York. In fact her creative work reflects the century, with its revolutions and world wars, Utopian hopes and crippling disillusionments. Never one to blindly follow fashion in art, she has been compared with such masters of the 20th century as Constantin Brancusi and Vladimir Tatlin, Hans Arp and Alberto Giacometti, and even Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman. Her work is abstract and figurative, realistic and phantasmagorical, and is made from all manner of material such as wood, marble, bronze, plaster, latex and fabric. Probing themes of universal import, it is also highly autobiographical. In fact the personal and traumatic is Bourgeois' most vital material. Throughout the 20th century one might say Louise Bourgeois has created an idiosyncratic symbolic dictionary in which certain personal experiences and fantasies are concretized into expressive images. In the words of the artist, "Symbols are only empty bottles. They function only through what you put in them -- personal symbols mean personal alphabet, our uniqueness is all we have." 3 For example, her use of the spider is not a sign of arachnophobia (terror of spiders), but a sign of the enveloping and diligent mother. In much the same manner, sewing needles are not represented as aggressive instruments but symbols of magic to signify the restoration of losses. And home is depicted not as a refuge, but as an enclosure where one is in danger of losing oneself. These objects thus recover magical properties connected to personal experiences well known since childhood. Childhood, in the artist's words, "has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama".4 In fact, Louise Bourgeois describes herself as a woman without secrets. For her, sculpture is an instrument of exorcism, a place to work through traumatic childhood experiences. In 1982 the artist formulated this principle in her artist's project for Artforum called "Child Abuse" where she says, "Everyday you have to abandon your past or accept it and then if you cannot accept it you become a sculptor." In this project, she disclosed the secret of her life --a tale that reads like a melodramatic novel. Louise Bourgeois grew up triangulated between an adoring but ill mother and an authoritarian father whose mistress of ten years was also Louise's governess. The complex relationship with her father, in which the duality of love and hate were manifested, resulted in a lifelong ambivalence to authority. Within this context it is no coincidence that her creative work is metaphorically compared to the space of memory 5. It can be said that Bourgeois' drawings, prints, and sculptures constitute a unique theatre of memory. Each work is related to one or another important event in her life on the principle of free association. Memories therefore play a leading, not auxiliary, role.
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