Elevate Difference

Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine

“You have to be very aggressive to be a sculptor,” Louise Bourgeois announces at the start of The Spider, The Mistress and The Tangerine, a fascinating, but flawed, ninety-nine-minute documentary about the Parisian-born artist’s life and work.

Later, she confesses that aggression alone is insufficient and implies that trauma and loss are equally essential. “I make in my work unconscious connections. All of my work of the last fifty years has found inspiration in my childhood,” she says. Indeed, as the now ninety-seven-year-old Bourgeois ruminates on the past, her pain is obvious, clearly visible to the viewer. Robert Storr of the Yale School of Art says it best: “She generates energy, psychological energy, and she sucks up psychological energy.”This makes Bourgeois a complicated character. A wildly successful artist and sculptor—she was the first woman to have a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; she represented the U.S. at the 1993 Venice Biennale; and she was the first artist to fill Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern—her work has been exhibited throughout the world, from Havana to Tokyo.

That her impetus to create comes from emotional turmoil wrought eighty-plus years ago, is surprising—and revealing. In fact, her father’s incessant womanizing, including a ten-year relationship with the family’s live-in nanny, continues to wound his disappointed daughter. In addition, a memory involving her father’s running commentary—in which he compared a beautiful tangerine to the daughter he found less than comely—still has the power to bring Bourgeois to tears.

As we voyeuristically watch this response, the elegant Bourgeois we see on screen is juxtaposed with the person she sees in her mind’s eye—a tiny being filled with insecurity, self-loathing, and doubt. That said, Bourgeois can also be imperious, and we simultaneously hear her sharp-tongued replies and demands. “You need to read between the lines when I talk,” she quips, her impatience evident.

And herein lies the film’s major flaw. In allowing viewers to read whatever they want into her statements, we’re left to wonder about an enormous number of things. How, for example, does Bourgeois feel about the feminist art movement and groups like the Guerrilla Girls that have made her an icon of female ascension? Her thoughts on women’s liberation and other 20th and 21st century movements would have allowed her on-screen persona to become more fully-dimensional. In addition, she says virtually nothing about either motherhood—she bore three sons—or marriage, leaving the viewer to wonder how she juggled the multiple demands on her time. A passing comment about her career taking off after the deaths of her father and spouse is not explored, leaving a crater where explication could have gone.

These flaws are substantial. Nonetheless, Bourgeois’ sculptures—whether constructed of cloth, glass, metal, stone, or wood—are so majestic that spending time in their presence is enriching. The film ends with a panoramic look at her world-famous Maman pieces, enormous spiders Bourgeois says represent her mother. The magnificent giant arachnids combine playfulness with something terrifying, emblematic, perhaps, of the artist herself.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, July 15th 2009

It's a much richer experience to watch the documentary after having read biographical materials. LB is one of my very favorite sculptor and I have great respect for her but she's always exploited her childhood traumas in interviews. It's almost as if she feels some sort of obligation to explain her work in slightly melodramatic terms even though the work is so strong on its own. The first time I read a biography I was disappointed to learn that a nonagenarian could still be a damaged little girl.

This film was fantastic. I was really happy the filmmaker showed her as such a multidimensional human being, and really gave you a sense of how she put her self and her experiences into her work. It provided a new perspective through which to view sculpture.