Saturday, 11 August 2012
Robert Mapplethorpe - Louise Bourgeois
The photo, everyone knows. Louise Bourgeois, 71 years old, wearing a mischievous grin, with a latex and plaster phallus tucked under her arm like an oversize evening clutch. When Robert Mapplethorpe photographed Bourgeois in 1982 holding her iconic sculpture Fillette (Little Girl, 1968), he captured the artist in a wry, gleeful moment; she appears menacing and aloof on one hand, nurturing and grandmotherly on the other. While the notorious photo is instantly accessible, Bourgeois, for all her renown, remains elusive.
Louise Bourgeois - Fillette, 1968
Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic 1982 portrait of Louise Bourgeois, who died recently at 98, speaks volumes about Bourgeois’ free-spiritedness, grace, tenacity and the kinky perversity of her work. In it, the 71-year-old sculptress looks like a shaman seductress, one of Munch’s vampiric castration queens, a maker of voodoo dolls and a diva grandmother rolled into one. Under her arm she casually cradles her 23-inch long, seven-inch circumference latex-over-plaster sculpture of a phallus, Fillette (1968). In French the term means "helpless little girl." While Bourgeois was no little girl, there’s something radically vulnerable about how she’s holding the work -- she almost seems to pull back the sculpture’s foreskin and give the thing a little tickle. Bourgeois said this gnarly abstract penis, with ovular testicles and a hook at the top, was "the shape of my husband, the shape of the children" (she had three sons). "I wanted to represent something I loved," she said. "I obviously loved representing a little penis." Little? Anyway, as Bourgeois later said, "It’s very complicated." Indeed it was. As she said, "I have nothing against the penis. It’s the wearer."
Is Louise Bourgeois smiling because she no longer has to envy the penis, now that she has one in her clutches? You are looking at Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous photograph of Bourgeois in 1982, carrying Fillette, a sculpture she made in 1968. Speaking about the work in 1998, Bourgeois said, "When I wanted to represent something I loved, I obviously represented a little penis." But Fillette is not such a little penis -- a clitoris, as the title suggests. It is huge, almost as huge as the giant phallus a naked woman carries in a picture painted on an Attic vase by the so-called Painter of Pan. As Peter Webb tells us, such enormous phalluses were dedicated to Dionysus, and ritually carried in ceremonial processions by naked women, who often straddled them to ensure fertility, and as Webb adds, "for more immediate pleasure." It was clearly an act of worship, in which the apotheosized penis -- the erect penis as a sacred totem and fertility symbol, and thus of the generative or creative power of nature -- was put to practical personal as well as religious social use.
Fillette is Bourgeois at her most dialectically perfect, for it combines beta and alpha elements in a singular yet universal form even as it shows their difference and opposition. Fillette is the all-powerful phallic breast, caught in the act of asserting its power. Contained by Bourgeois’ receptive mothering arms in Mapplethorpe’s photograph, it nonetheless remains aggressively raw -- not exactly a pet on a leash, as the Greek woman’s phallic breast seems to be -- suggesting that it remains young and fresh however often it is used. Bourgeois’ phallic breast -- phallus with a nipple, as it were -- has the power to perform the alpha function, which is the fundamental act of creative origination, but it seems to have been just created itself, which is why it remains mired in materiality.
Donald Kuspit - The Phallic Woman