Louise Bourgeois and timitidy

Female artists struggle to balance the scale and ambition of their creativity with their maternal and sexual roles, finding themselves in a world of criticism in either role they decide to embark on. Juggling domestic responsibilities with artistic production often result in smaller bodies of work, smaller scales, smaller budgets compared to male artists.

Painter, sculptor, mother Louise Bourgeois is a woman who refuses to live in the shadows of timidity or compromise for her art. Bourgeois has been a magnetic figure for art critics, specifically feminist art historians and theorists since the mid- 1970s. She goes against the narrative of the timid artist, creating pieces which are repellent and sinister as well as erotic and sensual. Her work consists of lumps, bumps, bulbs, bubbles, bulges, slits, turds, wrinkles and holes. The pieces can be slick and shiny, or rough and messy and her themes are highly personal. She expresses, through her art, domestic confinement and transcendence, her interest in a French tradition of hysteria and creativity whilst connecting these personal experiences to larger issues such as gender.

She married an American art historian, Robert Goldwater, in 1938 and moved to New York. In doing so, Bourgeois moved away from a traditional, practical part of her life which was associated with women, memory and her mother, and entered what was to be a more masculine modern, professional and creative culture. She realised that her work was not big enough in this masculine world, ‘there is a timidity in the way the idea is presented’. In 1945, she had her first solo show. She originally titled her paintings in English because she believed that these paintings could have been achieved in France and therefore, could not go by a French name. These paintings, she stated, were American and just like New-York, they were clean-cut, scientific, cruel and romantic. She contrasted her fellow female painters of the 1940s, she was glamorous and elegant, she remained detached from politics, headlines and the news.

One of her major themes throughout her work in the 40s was female confinement in the home. She painted women as houses – femme maison- with the houses for heads, or  the room for bodies. This was a typical trope of Gothic writers in the 40s, of the secret inner room of a woman, which is a source of mysteries, including birth and death.

Bourgeois used female sexuality in her work, but in the 60s, she began to create more androgynous and even masculine art. Her most famous ‘erotic’ work is her latex sculpture Fillette 1968, which plays with the idea of gender. The piece is a 2ft-long phallus, it is comic and diminishing rather than commanding and dominating. She decided to call the piece ‘a little Louise’, using her name as the butt of the joke. In one photograph of the piece, she holds it tucked casually under her arm like a baguette- as if there is nothing obscene about the piece or the act of being so casual with it.

In 1997 Bourgeois exhibited a cage,  perched on top was an enormous spider sculpted in bronze. The legs completely covered the wire enclosure. Spiders became a theme for Bourgeois in both friendly and ominous means. She claimed that all the spider-related art represented her feelings about her mother. Her Maman piece 1999 is enormous and is installed at Tate Modern. This piece clearly shows how she went against the norm of timidity and, using her own language, created art in a more masculine way. Creating something unapologetic, something many people are scared of, something andrognous in a world of female vs male art is something extraordinary. She has disproved assumptions about the careers of artistic women, she is no a timid painter but a loud, proud, mechanic.

Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum

Now more than ever is activism needed. Sex, activism and art have a beautiful relationship. They fight for what is right in a provocative way and it gets the job done.

Guerrilla Girls are no exception to the rule. An anonymous female feminist group of artists dedicated to fighting sexism and racism in the world of art. Originally formed in New York City in 1985, their mission was to bring gender and racial inequality in art to light. Their expression is presented through posters, books, billboards and appearances in public. To remain safe and anonymous, the women chose to wear don gorilla masks and used pseudonyms which refer to deceased female artists. Not only that, they wish to remain anonymous to let their work and the cause that they fight for to speak, not their personal lives or appearances.

In 1985, spring, seven women launched the Guerilla Girls in response to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition ‘An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture’ which presented the harsh facts that only 13 women appeared out of the 165 artists included. The number of coloured artists was even smaller and none were women. The protests started with little success with wheat-pasted posters in only small neighbours. Shortly after, the group extended their focus to explore racism in the world of art too. They began to explore the world of art outside of New York too, addressing sexism and racism internationally and nationally whilst also expanding their focus to film culture too. Studying pop culture and politics, placing ‘tokenism’ at the centre of their concern.

The group conducted ‘weenie counts’, counting artworks’ male to female ratio with less than 5 percent of Modern Art Department art work being from female artists whilst 85 percent was nudes of women.

Why Guerilla not Gorilla Girls? The group commented that they were Guerillas before they were Gorillas, they wished to make their actions public and needed a disguise. A tale which has continued to be used throughout many of their interviews is that a girl who couldn’t spell made the mistake and it stuck. They believed that their masks gave them ‘mask-ulinity’, empowered them.

The Guerilla Girl’s first ever colour poster remains the most iconic of them all. It states, ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’ inspired after their ‘weenie count’. It depicts one of the most famous female nudes in history wearing a gorilla head, it told the world who these women were and what they were fighting for. In 1990, the Guerilla Girls designed a billboard which featured Mona Lisa. They infiltrated the bathrooms of Guggenheim Soho to place stickers on female inequality on the walls. They wanted to leave a mark, something that would be hard to remove easily.

As explored before, the Guerilla Girls wanted to take out film, politics and society too. During the Sundance Film Festival, the girls distributed stickers to the crowds. Since 2002, the girls have designed and installed billboards addressing white male dominance in the film industry during the Oscars. The Guerilla Girls also criticized political figures such as George Bush, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann, addressing events such as the 1992 Presidental election, reproductive rights, gay and lesbain rights and the LA riots.

These women took the world of art by the balls… literally and said, ‘give women a chance because we can do better.’ Art, more now than ever, is the voice we need and if we do not give everyone a space for that expression, change will never come. Guerilla Girls reinvented the F word: feminism and made sure the world of art knew about it.