Pink is feminine – Louise Bourgeois in the Lower Belvedere

More than just colossal spiders! Sabine B. Vogel on the art of Louise Bourgeois, currently on view at the Lower Belvedere.

Louise Bourgeois, Roof Song, 1947 Foto: Eeva Inkeri, © The Easton Foundation / Bildrecht, Wien 2023 Privatsammlung, New Jersey.

Between the Upper and Lower Belvedere, in the middle of the baroque garden, a bronze giant spider by Louise Bourgeois is hidden between the hedges. The artist is famous for these sculptures. Spiders serve her as a tribute to her mother, who worked as a restorer of tapestries.

In the Lower Belvedere, the magnificent show “Persistent Antagonism” now focuses on her mother or rather motherhood up to the influence of her psychotherapy on her work. However, it is not her sculptures but, for the first time in Europe, her paintings that are the focus of this magnificent show. Around 60 of a total of 100 well-known paintings are set in an impressive dialogue with selected sculptures.

Louise Bourgeois in the studio of her flat at 142 East 18th Street in NYC, c. 1946 Photo: © The Easton Foundation / Bildrecht, Vienna 2023 and VAGA at ARS, NY.

Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911. In 1938 she moved to New York, where she died in May 2010. She painted from the moment she moved until 1949. After that, she never picked up a brush again.

Later graphic cycles are also included in the exhibition. The combinations impressively show the artistic development. In the paintings, one repeatedly recognises motifs that later determined her sculptures. Above all, it is unmistakable in this dialogue how much the themes spring from her childhood, largely obvious in the paintings, transformed in the sculptures.

The early paintings are dominated by a diffuse sadness, later anger and humour are added. Again and again she paints trees, spirals, skyscraper-like forms on extremely narrow vertical formats. Some things appear surreal in the paintings, such as the house as a head on a naked woman’s body, which, combined with her “cells”, reinforces the inherent ambivalence between protection and prison.

Louise Bourgeois, Cell (The Last Climb), 2008 Foto: Christopher Burke, © The Easton Foundation / Bildrecht, Wien 2023 Sammlung National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

It is worth visiting the exhibition for the last of her “cells” alone, which she completed in 2008 shortly before her death, so impressively does the cage-like sculpture with the original staircase from her New York studio stand in the baroque marble hall – what a fantastic contrast!

The last room is dedicated to the themes of the Oedipus complex and phallic symbols. On the way back to the exit, the paintings can then be looked at again under an instruction by Bourgeois, which is quoted as the hall text:

Colour is stronger than language. Colour is a subliminal communication. Blue represents peace, meditation, escape. Red is self-assertion at all costs – regardless of the dangers in battle – full of contradiction and aggression. It symbolises the intensity of the emotions at play. Black is grief, remorse, guilt. Retreat. White means: back to the start. It is renewal, the possibility of a fresh start, all over again. Pink is feminine. Pink means being liked and accepted.”

Ausstellungsansicht Louise Bourgeois. Unbeirrbarer Widerstand, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, 2023 Foto: Johannes Stoll, © The Easton Foundation / Bildrecht, Wien 2023