Louise Bourgeois, Ageing, and Maternal Bodies

Feminist Review 93 (1):27-45 (2009)


This article explores late works by contemporary artist Louise Bourgeois that illuminate current concerns about ageing maternal bodies and the ambivalent responses of fear and loathing that they provoke. In 2003, Louise Bourgeois made an installation for the Freud Museum in Vienna entitled The Reticent Child, on the subject of her own earlier pregnancy and birth of her son, one of several works featuring maternity and fertility which Bourgeois has created in old age. In Nature Study 2007, made at the age of 96 years, she depicts carnal couples and pregnant and birthing figures embodied in brilliant pinks and scarlet reds. Bourgeois represents women as the powerful agents of the maternal function, marking a return to motherhood as a central topic of her earlier work. Edward Said posited sources of cultural meaning as ‘the whole notion of beginning, the moment of birth and origin … reproductive generation, maturity’, and ‘the last great problematic … the last and late period of life, the decay of the body’. What does it mean for Bourgeois to return to the theme of birth in her nineties and how does it resonate with contemporary anxieties about the ageing maternal body? If the space of the gallery is a safe arena for a woman artist to present sexuality and maternity in old age, how are older women who break codes of fertility represented elsewhere? In a culture which is hostile to the conjunction of ageing women with motherhood, I shall argue that Bourgeois’ late maternal works can help to undo the taboo on older mothers.

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