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Where's the danger, the shock of the new, in the art of Louise Bourgeois?: Louise Bourgeois Tate Modern 24/40

June 17, 2014

Jonathan Jones

Louise Bourgeois is famous for room-like installations and giant spiders, for being larger than life in her art as well as her personality. She was the first artist to exhibit in the Tate's Turbine Hall, where her colossal, symbolic sculptures kicked off the new museum's reputation for outsized art.

Yet four years after her death in 2010 at the age of 98, the museum that will always be associated with her steel arachnid ,Maman, has just opened a display of some of her smallest works.

All her life, Bourgeois, so renowned today as a multimedia artist, made drawings and prints. A generous selection of these, gifted by Bourgeois' foundation and many never seen before, feature in a new exhibition that has the feel of consecrating an old maitresse of modern art. Works on paper, after all, are a test of seriousness. If Picasso's paintings were entirely lost, his genius would still be self-evident in his series of engravings The Vollard Suite. I am appropriately uncomfortable with what I am about to say next. Louise Bourgeois was no Picasso. If drawing and printmaking reveal the essence of an artist, then she was pedestrian.

The display at Tate Modern starts with something familiar - a suite of drypoint etchings in which she explores the image of the spider she associated with motherhood. What I don't see is much doubt or hesitation. The spider is a symbol: Bourgeois knows what it symbolises; here it is. I miss the tension, anxiety and urgency of great art.Instead of opening her creativity to an unpredictable unconscious, she offers ready-made and preconceived icons of emotion. Aestheticised emoticons. Her style is cartoonish - not naively so, but in a New Yorker way. Where's the danger, where's the shock of the new, in the art of Louise Bourgeois?

In the 1940s, she started adding enigmatic written narratives to her engravings, which at the time had few fans. The myth that was created 50 years later is that she was unjustly ignored compared with the male abstract expressionists who were her New York contemporaries. Yet you only have to compare her early prints with Mark Rothko's paintings to see why he got more attention.

Louise Bourgeois is a comforting artist. She has the same easy narrative meanings and bold unproblematic images as establishment heroes down the ages have tended to produce. As time passes, her images will fade like theirs compared with the real nightmares of modern art.

Jonathan Jones

Until 20 April 2015. Details:


A detail from Ode a la Bievre, by Louise Bourgeois, on show at Tate Modern

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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