LOUISE BOURGEOIS: THE SPIDER, THE MISTRESS AND THE TANGERINENR
The artist Louise Bourgeois is best known for her spiders, large metal sculptures she calls “Spider” or “Maman,” or “Ode à ma mère.” No one who has stood beneath a Bourgeois spider, such as the one at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., is likely to forget it. They’re the most sensual creatures ever forged from metal. In the documentary Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine, Bourgeois says the spiders are her mother. It’s a remark that explains the artist’s connection to the deepest reaches of her own psyche—to her past—and to the archetypal Feminine, which the egg-bearing spiders represent.
The late Marion Cajori, a co-director of Louise Bourgeois, also directed Chuck Close, a sublime documentary about the portrait artist released late last year. Cajori’s co-director, Amei Wallach, is an art critic who conducted the interviews for Louise Bourgeois; she completed the film which she and Cajori had begun in 1993. The two documentaries are similar in the sense that they are organic explorations of the artist and the work; the filmmakers do not rely on talking heads to explain these connections, but rather on their own extensive knowledge and contemplation of their subject. This is evinced in the new documentary’s visual style: The camera travels in, around and above Bourgeois’ installations and large pieces of sculpture so that for the casual observer, the filmmakers’ informed eye gently instructs. For the sophisticated viewer, it is like looking at Bourgeois’ work in the company of a good friend.
Cajori’s camera also occasionally ventures where people cannot, providing a bird’s eye view of Bourgeois’ towering wood houses, her “rooms” and “cells,” which are treasure troves of symbolic objects—music cases, liquid-filled glass bottles, oversized mirrors—often arranged around mundane objects or furniture. Because the artist’s work appears to emerge directly from her dreams, these overhead shots are ingenious: They incorporate in our view of the piece the strange angles of our nightmares—and perhaps those of Bourgeois. During the course of the documentary, which takes place in Bourgeois’ studio and in her home, where she worked for most of her life, she gives tours of the “rooms” and “cells.” She comments on the memories attached to the objects, or the colors she’s employed, and we have a momentary glimpse of the things that haunt her.
Bourgeois is the quintessential artist—erudite, irascible and vulnerable. She espouses her theories about art, criticizes other artists’ work, and concludes that she works to please herself. As the documentary unfolds, we understand the ostensibly unrelated words of the title. The “spider” is obvious to anyone who knows Bourgeois’ work, but perhaps “the mistress” and “the tangerine” are not. They’re autobiographical, and they appear in many forms in her oeuvre. When Bourgeois was a child, her father hired a nanny who later proved to be his mistress. She slept in his room, while Bourgeois’ mother occupied another room. Bourgeois has nothing good to say about her father, whose rages she vividly recalls. Later, she describes the dream in which she says she rid herself of him: The family is at dinner when her father’s eyeballs fall to the floor, and a cat eats them.
The tangerine is also a memory Bourgeois has of her father. In a chilling scene in the documentary, she draws on a tangerine with a black marker as her father did when she was a girl. Then she uses a knife to carve along the lines she’s drawn, splaying the fruit’s skin. Her father would say that the fruit was his daughter. When Bourgeois takes the filmmakers into “The Parents’ Room,” an installation that looks like a bedroom, Wallach asks about the color scheme, which is bright red. Bourgeois’ response is that red is the color of blood—and, she adds, of violence.
Bourgeois was already in her 80s when Cajori and Wallach began filming her, but the childhood memories are obviously still palpable, and they continue to inform her work. While Bourgeois mostly responds well to the voyeuristic process of filming, she sometimes scolds the directors for asking an uninformed question. The tours of the “rooms” invite intimacy, yet the artist remains an enigma. Like the camera, which faithfully and objectively records everything in its field of vision, Bourgeois serves as an observer of her own work, a tour guide of sorts, leading the filmmakers from one point of interest to another. She identifies objects, speaks of their provenance, and comments on shape and color, but in the end there is no seeing inside her—which is as it should be. Only if she remains mysterious can we can imagine ourselves in her rooms.
Cajori and Wallach mostly shy away from pundit talking heads in Louise Bourgeois, although there are brief interludes with The Guerilla Girls, an activist group that supports women artists, and with Bourgeois’ son, as well as a few friends and curators. These scenes are more a rest from the artist’s intensity than they are valuable commentary. They’re followed by a quick return to Bourgeois, and to her reminiscences of her scholarly husband Robert Goldwater, or the birth of her sons, or her seemingly mundane admission that she has trouble sleeping. At night, Bourgeois draws houses until she tires and falls asleep. You think: She’s in her 80s and the elderly have trouble sleeping. Then Bourgeois spills out the drawings on a table; they’re simple, elemental, one house or a group of houses. It is the closest the filmmakers come to knowing Bourgeois, whose dreams and nightmares will undoubtedly be rendered in wood or metal or stone when she awakens.