Exhibition review: Louise Bourgeois, Art Gallery of NSW

The largest exhibition of Louise Bourgeois' work ever seen in Australia.
Louise Bourgeois. Image is a huge bronze spider taking up the forecourt of an art gallery with columns in the front.

Louise Bourgeois: Has the Day Invaded the Night or Has the Night Invaded the Day? is the must-see exhibition this summer at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW).

The display of the iconic French-American artist’s work is the largest and most comprehensive ever to be presented in Australia and includes an impressive 120 works spanning Bourgeois’ seven-decade career. Head Curator for International Art at the Gallery, Justin Paton, says that, during this period, Bourgeois became a ‘grandmother and hero to artists who were much younger, but who revered her for her work’.  

Bourgeois (1911–2010) spent her youth in a village outside Paris helping with her parents’ successful tapestry restoration business. She studied mathematics at the Sorbonne, but when her mother died in the early 1930s, she abandoned the course and turned to art.

Perhaps most famous for her large-scale sculptures, Bourgeois also created works in fabric, watercolour and text. The exhibition works include all of these media in an imaginative exploration of contrasting extremes of love and hate, calm and chaos, the conscious and unconscious. 

The works are presented in two contrasting areas, spread over two levels within the AGNSW’s new North Building.

On the upper level, the Day of the exhibition’s title is displayed over nine adjoining rooms that spiral round each other. Each room presents a different era of the artist’s life. The first room includes a simple yet sombre self-portrait (1939) that Bourgeois painted seven years after her mother’s death. She had adored her mother, describing her as ‘deliberate, clever, patient, soothing’. In many of her works from the late 1990s spiders are used to represent these traits. One of Bourgeois’ most important pieces, Maman (1999), a monumental bronze spider nine metres tall and 10 metres wide, was created as an ode to her mother. The work is being shown for the first time in Australia, its massive form dominating the forecourt of the Gallery.

Bourgeois spent many years nursing her mother before her death and the relationship was a complex one. This is reflected in Spider (1997), in which a large spider cradles a cage. Inside the cage is a well-worn armchair and many symbolic artefacts representing the artist’s childhood and memories of her mother, including a perfume bottle, a locket and bones. The piece conveys the sense of home as being both a sanctuary and a trap.  

The brightly lit Day section of the exhibition contrasts with the atmosphere in the second half – the Night of the exhibition’s title – which is presented in the windowless Tank space of the Gallery’s basement.

Here the artworks are presented without commentary, although text from Bourgeois’ poetry and rare video and voice recordings provide testimony to the artist’s thoughts and inspirations. It’s an altogether darker and more sombre presentation, befitting the space. The Destruction of the Father is a psychological exploration of the power of the father figure. Bourgeois’ father had many open affairs –including with a family nanny who lived with the family for 10 years – and Bourgeois often felt intimidated by him as a child.

The sculpture, which features latex mounds, cast from hunks of butcher’s meat and spotlit in beams of red light in a womb-like room, are based on her childhood imaginings of dismembering her father. The same sense of psychological complexity is present in many of the works in this underbelly of the Gallery. 

Arch of Hysteria (1993) takes the stereotype of the hysterical woman and turns it on its head by making the figure masculine, its contorted body suspended from the ceiling in either pain or ecstasy. In the piece from which the exhibition takes its name, Has the Day Invaded the Night or Has the Night Invaded the Day? a large mirror embossed with the question also reflects the viewer who is made to question their own views and experience.  

Read: Exhibition review: Deep inside my heart, NGA

The exhibition is at times confronting, but it is also always compelling. The Art Gallery of New South Wales is to be applauded for bringing such an important and profound exhibition to Australia.   

Louise Bourgeois: Has the Day Invaded the Night or Has the Night Invaded the Day? will be exhibited until 28 April 2024.

Art Gallery of New South Wales. Tickets

Virginia Balfour is a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She has extensive experience working in the UK film and television industry as a producer and director, as well as an NGO film-maker in the USA. She is a published author and journalist and lives with her family in Sydney.