Louise Bourgeois on Art, Integrity, the Trap of False Humility, and the Key to Creative Confidence
“To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer.”
By Maria Popova
French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (December 11, 1911– May 31, 2010), nicknamed Spiderwoman for her iconic large-scale spider sculptures, is one of the most influential creative icons of the past century. She survived a traumatic childhood, which — as is often the case for great artists — became the raw material for a lifetime of art, and no less than a lifetime of creative tenacity is what it took for her to attain formal acclaim: Bourgeois had been informally admired in the art world for some time, but she was seventy-one when she received her first major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Celebrated as the founder of confessional art, she mistrusted words as an adequate medium for conveying one’s innermost ideas, yet she began keeping a diary at the age of twelve and never stopped. Dualities permeated her work — destruction and creation, anguish and happiness, violence and tenderness, loneliness and communion — but she was, above all, a woman of crystalline conviction and artistic integrity. Nowhere does this come more blazingly alive than in Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews, 1923–1997 (public library) — a remarkable and revelatory volume, which came about after curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist visited Bourgeois in her New York apartment in 1994 for a series of interviews; over the course of them he discovered a trove of previously unpublished notes, letters, fragments, speeches, and poetical writings by this enigmatic, luminous mind.
Bourgeois was also immensely insightful about the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of art, wise beyond her years since an early age — something best captured in the correspondence with her friend and fellow artist Colette Richarme. Although Bourgeois was seven years her friend’s junior, she often took on the role of a mentor and offered advice that was perhaps directed as much at herself as it was at Richarme. In a letter from March of 1938, 26-year-old Bourgeois — still an aspiring artist herself — writes:
You must put the essence of what you want to say into a painting. The rest is arbitrary. Chosen with discernment, but chosen, and choice involves elimination. Once the drawing is established and composed, you compose the other values in the same way.
A few years later, Bourgeois gives herself a more expansive version of the same advice in a barely punctuated passage from her diary:
A painting must not be a battlefield it must be a statement. Set out with something to say and not with the vague desire to say something. Things never simplify themselves they always complicate themselves on the way from the brain to the canvas. Set out, taking your precautions.
You have to realize that you aren’t working in a blind way for the good of humanity in general. You have to set up a scale of objectives and values and work systematically.
In another letter to Richarme from early 1939, Bourgeois offers a timeless piece of advice on the trap of false humility and the key to creative confidence:
To convince others, you have to convince yourself; and a conciliatory or even an unduly understanding attitude — in that it is inevitably superficial — is not helpful to creativity.
In a letter penned shortly after she moved from Paris to New York at the age of twenty-nine, Bourgeois recounts the transformative experience of visiting a Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art — the very institution that would stage her own first retrospective more than four decades later:
There was an exhibition of 400 paintings by Picasso here (forty years’ work). It was so beautiful, and it revealed such genius and such a collection of treasures that I did not pick up a paintbrush for a month. Complete shutdown. I cleaned brushes, palettes, etc. and tidied everything.
I’ve seen some things recently that are so beautiful that I can’t find any strength or self-confidence.
Writing of a newly published monograph of Van Gogh’s work, which she had just received, Bourgeois echoes the same sentiment:
What wealth!! What can one add that is new when there is such genius around? If art is for personal satisfaction only, it is too much of a selfish pleasure.
Meanwhile, her native Paris was mere months away from being occupied by the Nazis — a constant backdrop of impending destruction and devastation which Bourgeois, like all artists creating in a wartime climate, had to reconcile with the creative impulse. In the same letter to Richarme, she laments:
I have been listening to political discussions, conversations whose sole aim is to conceal the frightful term “neutrality.” I assure you, it’s useful living abroad: it helps one to understand how propaganda and false information is circulated for whatever secret purposes.
That summer, writing again to her friend as Paris already lay occupied by the Nazis, Bourgeois captures the malady of American media that afflicts us in ever-proliferating forms to this day:
I don’t know what to say about the behavior of the Americans. On the whole they are irresponsible. The newspapers, without exception, are trying to mold public opinion. The news they carry is correct, but the slant they put on events is tendentious — or, most of the time, false.
Bourgeois saw art as the most potent counterpoint to society’s falsehoods — a supreme reach for truth, which she espoused in her own work and found in the work of the artists she most admired. Much like her compatriot André Gide, who extolled the creative value of sincerity, she believed earnestness and integrity were essential to true art. That is why she saw Picasso — an artist who never compromised in his art, a rare beacon of sincerity amid a culture of cynicism — as her “great master.” In a diary entry from March of 1939, she writes:
Picasso paints what is true; true movements, true feelings. He is sane and strong and simple and sensitive… Picasso is an enthusiast. He says so, and that is why his works are young. Skepticism is the beginning of decadence. It’s a form of abdication and bankruptcy.
Like many diarists — including her compatriot, the great painter Delacroix, who used his journal as a form of self-counsel — Bourgeois urges herself:
Never depart from the truth even though it seems banal at first… All movements painted by Picasso have been seen and felt; he is never theatrical. The Surrealists are theatrical. New York painting, the painting that wants to be or is fashionable, is theatrical. Theater is the image of life and Picasso sees life or rather reality! Keep your integrity. You will only count, for yourself and in your art, to the extent that you keep your integrity.
It is astounding how aptly this applies to writing, journalism, and the media industry as well — the very mecca of agenda-driven opinion-manipulation, which Bourgeois had previously lamented. So much of what passes for journalism, triply so in our day, is “theatrical” — from the customary clickbait of headline composition to the glaringly performative gimmicks of cat listicles. In this new context, Bourgeois’s words resonate as an even more powerful incantation for writers, artists, and journalists alike: “Keep your integrity.”
But integrity is something that takes place as much within the artist as it does around the artist — it is both a function of one’s interior personal commitment and, to borrow William Gibson’s marvelous term, of the “personal micro-culture” in which one immerses oneself. I have long believed that nothing sustains the creative spirit more powerfully than the sense of belonging to a circle of kindred spirits — something seen in such heartwarming affinities as those between Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, Mark Twain and Helen Keller, and Ursula Nordstrom and Maurice Sendak.
Bourgeois, too, intuited this deep connection between artistic integrity and creative kinship. In August of 1984, already well into her seventies, she writes in the diary:
I love all artists and I understand them (flock of deaf mutes in subway). They are my family and their existence keeps me from being lonely.
To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer… Audience is bullshit, unnecessary. Communication is rare; art is a language, like the Chinese language. Who gets it? The deaf mutes in the subway.
Reconciliation is the sweetest feeling.
In another diary entry penned three years later, she revisits the subject with even more piercing poignancy:
You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love. That is why geometrically speaking the circle is a one.
Louise Bourgeois: Writings and Interviews is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover. Complement it with Georgia O’Keeffe on public opinion and what it means to be an artist, Denise Levertov on how great works of art are born, and Henry Miller on why good friends are essential for creative work.
Published August 17, 2015