Nightmarish, playful, erotic: the revelatory Sydney show of art titan Louise Bourgeois

In the subterranean depths of the Art Gallery of NSW’s Tank gallery, in footage projected on to a wall, octogenarian artist Louise Bourgeois is peeling a tangerine. It’s not a snack but a demonstration of a formative and damaging childhood experience; she starts by sketching the outline of a female figure on the skin in thick black marker, before carving out the lines with a knife and unpeeling the fruit.

The tangerine routine was a party trick that Bourgeois’s father performed when she was a child at Sunday dinners, often in front of guests; “I’m making a little portrait of my daughter,” he would announce. The navel would be left till the end, for a reveal with a twist: not a girl after all but a boy, complete with pithy penis. “Well, I am sorry that my daughter does not exhibit such beauty,” he would declaim.

The young Bourgeois was left mortified; she doesn’t remember if the adults were laughing at her, but it felt as though they were. “And the pain was very great.”

The documentary clip is part of the gallery’s gargantuan summer exhibition of the late French American artist’s work, spanning two levels and almost 130 works. As Bourgeois tells the story, her sculptor’s hands move with confidence over the fruit, and she holds court as only a masterful storyteller can. I am transfixed. By the end, the artist is barely constraining tears; she has regressed to a little girl, wounded and humiliated by her father’s casual, sexualised cruelty.

The episode is revelatory of Bourgeois’s practice, personality and psychology. And it exposes the vulnerable core of a titan of art who was better known for her prickly public persona and terrifying, Lovecraftian spider sculptures. That this clip is buried in the bowels of the exhibition is apposite: we must wade through beauty, muck and analysis to approach enlightenment. Further along the wall is Bourgeois’s revenge-fantasy tableau The Destruction of the Father: a red-lit recess (an orifice, a womb, a furnace or a cave?) in which pale, protuberant forms congregate around a table (or is it a bed?) strewn with joints of meat. Nearby, a spider the size of an army tank – a loving representation of her mother – watches on.

Justin Paton, AGNSW’s head curator of international art, says he feels like “the Tank has been waiting for Louise, or Louise has been waiting for the Tank”. It does feel like a match made in heaven (or as the artist would probably say, hell), not least because of Bourgeois’s preoccupation with cellars, wells, darkness and the abyss.

Open on Saturday, this is the first solo exhibition to be hosted by the AGNSW’s new gallery, nicknamed “Sydney Modern” but still without a name. Paton structured the show around the dichotomy of night and day, taking his cue from a line in Bourgeois’s gnomic print series What Is the Shape of This Problem?: “Has the day invaded the night or has the night invaded the day?” (This is also the gloriously non-catchy title of the exhibition).

Upstairs, across a series of white-cube spaces, viewers tour through the artist’s life and work, from her breakthrough 1940s sculpture series Personages, to two of her iconic cage-like Cell installations, and textile works made in the 1990s and 2000s in homage to her mother’s work as a seamstress and tapestry repairer.

Hands, spirals, breasts, blades and bobbins of thread abound. There are dreamlike paintings of abstracted body parts in fleshy pink watercolours and blood reds; sex, motherhood and gore are everywhere.

Then, descending the spiral staircase to the Tank, you are confronted by a host of potent forms – nightmarish, playful, erotic, tender – without text or explanation: the strange fruits of Bourgeois’s psyche.

Suspended in central position within the room’s matrix of seven-metre-tall concrete columns, a headless golden figure arches backwards as if somersaulting underwater. It’s a show-stopping moment among several, but there are many quieter touches too: a lurking cat with five legs; a spider mid-scuttle up a wall; and small gouache works on paper from the gorgeous, gory series The Feeding (mums will feel it in their nipples).

Paton recommends moving from day to night but there’s a strong case for the reverse: plumb the dank, subliminal depths first, before retreating to the bright domain of personal history and psychological interpretation – which inevitably undercuts the mystery of Bourgeois’s artworks and compromises the viewer’s chance for a primal, instinctual reaction.

Bourgeois’s art was rooted in her childhood, in particular the profound emotional wounds left by her relationships with her parents. She felt abandoned by her mother, who died in 1932 when Louise was just 20; she felt betrayed by her father, a prolific philanderer.

Art, which she came to in her mid-20s after a degree in philosophy and an abandoned study of mathematics, was a means of processing this trauma and her changing relationship to it (she had later success with psychoanalysis, which inflected her art). While she reconciled with her mother (who is famously memorialised in the behemoth spider sculpture Maman, now installed on the forecourt of the Art Gallery’s 19th-century building), she never forgave her father.

Bourgeois seemed to struggle with self-forgiveness too. She cast herself as a “runaway girl”: as a young woman, she had abandoned her family in France, then on the brink of war, to move to New York with her then-new husband, American art historian Robert Goldwater.

They adopted one boy and had two more in quick succession, and Bourgeois’s early artmaking occupied a chaotic domestic space, in which cooking and housekeeping took a back seat. (After her husband’s death in 1973, Bourgeois ripped out the stove, cut the dining table in half to make a work desk, and turned the entire house into her studio, writing on its walls). She didn’t identify as a feminist, but she was lionised by many artists who did, a group of whom petitioned New York’s MoMA in 1973 to give Bourgeois her first solo show – a milestone that arrived frustratingly late in her career, in 1982.

These days, it feels like Bourgeois is everywhere. In Australia this year alone her work has shown at the National Gallery of Victoria, and in upcoming group exhibitions at the National Gallery of Australia and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. And little wonder: raw, rigorous and courageous, her art grapples with nothing less than the human condition.

Bourgeois, who died in 2010, has assumed her rightful place as a giant among artists of any era.

  • Louise Bourgeois: Has the Day Invaded the Night or Has the Night Invaded the Day? is open at the Art Gallery of NSW until 28 April 2024