Louise Bourgeois

13.10.16 - 26.2.17

Passionate, painful, dramatic and extremely personal. The Cells by Louise Bourgeois – higly original spatial scenarios, which she did not start working on until she was almost eighty – took over the Louisiana South Wing.

C. L. Davids Fond og Samling supported the exhibition.

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) was one of the most striking and influential artists of the 20th century as well as a central figure in Louisiana’s collection with the Spider Couple. This sculpture was from 2003, the very year when Louisiana first presented the artist retrospectively. Now it was time for a new major exhibition that concentrates specifically on another of the artist’s most original work categories: The Cells.

The term cell plays on all the meanings of the word – from prison cell to monk’s cell to the smallest biological units of the body. Each work was an independent spatial unit filled with carefully arranged objects which in inter­action with cell walls of glass, wire mesh or old doors create sensory, psychologically tense scenarios. As always with Bourgeois, her personal history, pain and passion were the starting point for the works, which at a general level were about the familiar connection between body, architecture, objects and memory.

The exhibition occupied the entire South Wing of Louisiana and featured 25 Cells on loan from collections all over the world as well as a selection of smaller sculptures, paintings and drawings. The exhibition was the first of its kind and had been organized by Haus der Kunst in Munich in collaboration with Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk.


Louise Bourgeois lived to the age of 98, and in the last twenty years of her career she began in earnest to work in large formats with among other works the Cells after she obtained her first real studio in 1980 in a closed-down garment factory in Brooklyn, New York. The size of the place enabled her to create works on a much larger scale than before, when the artist had worked in her private home.

Objects from the abandoned factory as well as doors, windows and other found elements from containers and clearance work around New York became important artistic material for the Cells. These things, with their clear traces of the passage of time and previous use, were combined with sculptural elements made by Bourgeois herself.


Liv og kunst synes næsten uadskillelige hos Louise Bourgeois. Hendes personlige historie, smerte og lidenskab er brændstof for en kunst, hvor hun bearbejdede sine familietraumer og forholdet til både forældrene og imellem kønnene med lige dele skrøbelig hudløshed og rå nådesløshed. Hendes forældre levede af at sælge og restaurere gamle gobeliner, og som barn og ung hjalp hun ofte sin mor med restaureringsarbejdet.

De mange nåle, tråde, tekstiler og gobelinfragmenter i Bourgeois’ værker havde rod i denne historie. Cellerne rummede også spor af det flossede forhold mellem forældrene, hvor faderens åbenlyse forhold til familiens engelske huslærerinde, som boede i hjemmet, skabte konflikt og satte sig spor i pigen og teenageren Louise Bourgeois.

Et sammenfiltret netværk af følelser som svigt, omsorg, kærlighed, raseri, magtesløshed, utryghed, angst og frygt, der løb igennem hele hendes kunstneriske værk.


It was not possible to enter all the Cells, although that was originally the artist’s intention. We were kept on the margins of the intimate spaces and could not look through openings and cracks like curious voyeurs. With everyday objects familiar to our bodies and our experience – beds, tables, chairs, perfume bottles, clothes – the Cells stood as alien yet recognizable scenarios that freely admit our own interpretations.

The artist herself described the works as representations of pain: “The Cells represent different types of pain: the physical, the emotional and psychological, and the mental and intellectual. When does the emotional become physical? When does the physical become emotional? It’s a circle going round and round. Pain can begin at any point and turn in either direction.


Bourgeois created a total of 62 Cells, including five works she herself regarded as direct predecessors. At Louisiana 25 of these were shown, from the earliest to the last. This was the first time so many Cells had been brought together in one exhibition.

Structures of Existence: The Cells was not built up strictly chronologically, but started with the earliest Cells – as well as a precursor of the series – in the first room. The Cells I-VI have walls made of doors and mysterious rooms to be discovered inside and were created for the Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburgh 1991. These six works were in fact the first ones Bourgeois called ‘cells’. Here they were reunited and shown together again for the very first time since their Pittsburgh debut.


Bourgeois was well-known for her large spider sculptures. Playing on the common fear of spiders, the artist saw
the spider as a caring and protective creature – a weaver, like her mother, who restored historical tapestries in the family’s tapestry workshop. Signifying motherhood and maternal responsibility in general, the spider embracing this Cell carries three glass eggs in its belly.

The web of the spider here became architecture, which contains tapestry fragments and other objects from Bourgeois’s life that recall memory and the passing of time. Two pieces of hollow bone form a pair of glasses were looking through the mesh to the empty chair. One of the tapestry fragments inside the cage depicts a putto in which the genitals had been cut out. As a young girl the artist had helped her mother do this on demand of tapestry owners who wished grapes inserted instead.

For Bourgeois, the spider was an ode to her mother: “… she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and useful as an araignée [a spider].”




  • Born 1911 in Paris, Bourgeois spent most of her childhood in the nearby suburb of Antony, where her parents had a tapestry restoration workshop. Her father had a tapestry gallery on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris.
  • In 1932, Bourgeois enrolled in the Sorbonne to study mathematics, but soon after her mother’s early death the same year, she abandoned math and began to study art at various ateliers, including that of Fernand Léger.
  • In 1938, Bourgeois married American art historian Robert Goldwater and moved to New York City. They had three sons.


  • In the mid-1940s Bourgeois developed her first wooden sculptures. These tall, slim Personages were shown as an environmental installation at the Peridot Gallery for the first time in 1949.
  • Bourgeois participated in several group shows with the so-called Abstract Expressionists, and was in contact with European artists in New York such as Marcel Duchamp and Joan Miró.
  • With the death of her father in 1951, Bourgeois fell into a deep depression and began psychoanalysis. During this period she showed sporadically, but did not have another solo exhibition until 1964 at the Stable Gallery in New York City, where she presented a series of organic shapes in plaster, latex, and rubber.
  • In 1980, Bourgeois met her long-time assistant Jerry Gorovoy, and acquired a spacious studio in Brooklyn where she, almost 70 years old, started working in architectonic scale, as seen in this exhibition.
  • In 1982, Bourgeois was the first woman to have a large scale Retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
  • Bourgeois worked until her death in New York in 2010, 98 years old.