The Cells of Louise Bourgeois

Laura Stamps

"The spiral is an attempt at controlling the chaos. It has two directions. Where do you place yourself […]? Beginning at the outside is the fear of losing control; the winding in is a tightening, a retreating, a compacting to the point of disappearance. Beginning at the centre is affirmation, the move outward is a representation of giving, and giving up control: of trust, positive energy, of life itself. "- Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois (Paris 1911 – New York 2010) was a real daddy’s girl as a child, but when she discovered that her father was having an affair with her nanny, she transferred her affections to her mother Joséphine Fauriaux, a mother who was ill and whom she would eventually nurse for years at home. Joséphine died when Louise was 21. Louise was so desperate that she attempted suicide by jumping in the river behind her parents’ furniture restoration workshop. It was her father Louis who saved her. This event would only heighten the conflict of loyalties she had felt for many years, and at the same time provide a lifelong source of inspiration for her art.

Bourgeois the sculptor

Bourgeois’s teacher, the painter and sculptor Fernand Léger (Argentan 1881 – Gif sur Yvette 1955) was the one who managed to convince her that she was a sculptor. Her early sculptures were made of classic materials like bronze and marble. Slowly but surely, however, she began to experiment with other materials. She started to use latex and jute and, much later, old clothes that had belonged to her mother. Although the above details of her childhood might suggest otherwise, Bourgeois’s life was not in fact full of troubles and affliction. A legendary photo portrait shows a grinning Bourgeois holding her latex penis La Filette (The Girl) firmly under her arm. The photograph was taken in 1982, the year of her major retrospective at MoMa in New York. The moment when, after many decades in the shadows, she was showcased as probably the most important American sculptor of the twentieth century. A humorous symbol of her victory over her (male) critics?


It was not until 1986, at the age of 75, that Bourgeois began to make her Cells. She would eventually produce 38, making them the most important element of her later work. They are like cages in which all kinds of things are displayed. In one, part of her parents’ furniture restoration workshop will be displayed, complete with carpet weaving loom. Another will contain a bedroom, or all kinds of garments on hangers. Looking into a Cell, one has the sense of entering a memory or an inner space. And although these are Bourgeois’s memories, they always contain things that remind us of our own past. In this way, she manages to create universal sculptures based on her own personal experience.


The Gemeentemuseum’s collection includes the piece Cell XXVI (2003). It contains three delicate underskirts and a jute spiral doll in front of a mirror. What strikes us is that the mirror is slightly distorting. The doll is not only not properly reflected, we cannot see our own reflection in focus either. A similar thing happens with the three underskirts. Although they are worn against the bare skin, they also disrupt our view of it. However intimate, there is always a barrier between ourselves and others; part of yourself always remains hidden. The jute doll also presents a contradiction. It is not clear whether we are looking at the inside or the outside of a body. Are we looking at someone who operates on their ‘gut feeling’? Or is this a body twisting and turning and becoming entangled?

The Cells are like a refuge for the soul. Intended to help us rise above it all.