Before everyone else
It’s not a good thing to be right before everyone else. The artist Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) whose work is haunted by themes of trauma and femininity only started to gain recognition in the 1970s.
The Met, the Hayward, and Kunstmuseum Basel
Fifty years on, her oeuvre has never been so necessary and three major institutions around the world are staging exhibitions of her work. On 12 April the Metropolitan Museum in New York is inaugurating a show dedicated to her paintings. In London the Hayward Gallery is addressing the subject of her textile works dating from her late period running until 15 May, whilst in Basel the Kunstmuseum is showcasing one of the most ambitious exhibitions on her ever staged, composed of no less than 515 works.
3 years of preparation
Its format, which is truly extraordinary and took three years of intense preparation, is the work of the famous American conceptual artist: Jenny Holzer (born in 1950).
Words rather than images
Jenny Holzer was also right before everyone else. Since 1978 the American has used words rather than images to express herself as a visual artist. Today the trend for everyday objects inscribed with messages of greater or lesser interest has invaded all of our worlds.
Men don’t protect you anymore
In Holzer’s impactful installations she’s expressed ideas about society’s tensions, particularly in relation to women, such as when she wrote the famous line: “Men don’t protect you anymore”.
She came to fame with her slogans emblazoned across spectacular LED message signs taken from the world of advertising. Bourgeois and Holzer, who met several times, share certain obsessions.
Immersive compilation of thoughts
The result is an immersive compilation of the thoughts of Louise Bourgeois.
The most spectacular room is the one dedicated to works painted in red, the French artist’s favourite colour. Violence, blood, motherhood, menstruation… Complete series and illustrations of themes that were important to Bourgeois cover the walls using a principle of repetition that is familiar for Holzer.
Philip Larratt Smith is the curator of the Easton Foundation dedicated to Louise Bourgeois (See here the interview of Jerry Gorovoy, the assistant of Louise Bourgeois). He participated extensively in the development of the exhibition and explains: “when her father died in 1951 she went into a severe nervous depression and started psychoanalysis, which would last 35 years. Although during that period she was unable to produce, up until the early 1960s, however, she wrote a lot and all of her archives have been preserved. Loose papers, personal notebooks (Read here the report about the biography of Louise Bourgeois by Marie-Laure Bernadac).
Jenny Holzer selected some of these writings to reproduce in facsimile and has displayed them in a room using the principle from her series of Inflammatory Essays: phrases are arranged in a mosaic of colours.”
The art historian also explains that since the early 2000s Jenny Holzer has no longer been using her own words. She therefore decided to borrow them from Louise Bourgeois. “Death, love, psychology and other subjects bring them together,” he points out.
During the presentation of the exhibition Jenny Holzer joked that she might have been scared of her elder, in part due to the brilliance of her thought. Louise Bourgeois liked to receive guests every Sunday at her house in Chelsea and we know that she was not always very amenable with them.
The Kunstmuseum is also presenting lesser-known works such as “Twosome” from 1991. This is a kind of tank with a luminous interior which moves over rails. An allegory for the sexual act or for childbirth, this very large-scale piece resembles minimal art.
In the permanent collections Holzer has installed some works by her elder such as a sculpture in white marble placed close to works by Cézanne, in whose work she also appreciates the patches of white left deliberately by the artist on the canvas.
The visit also allows for the opportunity to see one of the most extraordinary paintings of all time, which belongs to the museum: Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ, painted in 1521.
An exceptional artist’s book
To mark the occasion of the exhibition Jenny Holzer has produced an exceptional artist’s book on Louise Bourgeois which only contains images in large format.
Louise Bourgeois x Jenny Holzer. The Violence of Handwriting Across a Page. JRP/ editions. Kunstmuseum Basel. 289 pages. 70 euros.
Until 15 May. https://kunstmuseumbasel.ch/fr/kunstmuseum-basel
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