Freeing the savage beast within

Shocking, disturbing, obscene: Louise Bourgeois's sculptures disect the female condition. By Iain Gale

Thirteen years ago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York staged a show that threw the critical establishment into a spin. Louise Bourgeois was a 71-year-old artist who, it seemed, had appeared on the international art scene fully formed, with an addictive, enigmatic brand of sculpture that boldly defied classification into any of the neat schools by which we have been conditioned to understand the progress of 20th-century art. Of course, Bourgeois had always been there, but she had never been accorded the praise that was her due, submerged instead by succeeding maelstroms of largely fatuous critical conflict between the current vogue and the impending boom. Caught off-guard, the critics struggled desperately to place her in an art-historical context, linking her, quite rightly, with Giacometti, Breton and Duchamp. But, in their search, they missed the point. Bourgeois, like all the best artists, has always been her own person. If you missed her show in Oxford last autumn, there is currently another chance to experience the essence of her disarming originality at the Arnolfini in Bristol.

With a suitable sense of the bizarre, Louise Bourgeois was born in Paris on Christmas Day 1911. Studies at the Beaux Arts and the ateliers Bissiere, Julian and Leger were followed by her marriage in 1938 to the American art historian Robert Goldwater, with whom she subsequently emigrated to the United States. Over the next decade, she worked principally in drawing, painting and printmaking, attending with others, including Mir, Stanley William Hayter's now well-known Atelier 17. It was only in 1949 that Bourgeois began showing sculptures, and it is unfortunate that her graphic work is not featured in the current show. Thus we miss out on the salient importance of her 1947 image La Femme Maison, in which the upper part of a female torso is replaced by a house with a single, waving arm and whose sentiment informs her entire uvre. We fail, too, to achieve any real understanding of the progress of Bourgeois's early art from a simple Nabis-influenced intimiste figuration via her flirtation with Redon-esque insect forms to the first inklings of her abiding interest in Surrealism. Those who wish to investigate Bourgeois's early work in detail should find a copy of Wye and Smith's catalogue of her prints, published last year by MOMA.

What we do have in the Arnolfini exhibition, though, are three important early sculptural works: Breasted Woman, Pillar and Corner Piece. Admittedly, all are recent bronze castings, but the essence of Bourgeois's early ideas is still present. While Pillar, an isolated single vertical form, makes, along with an untitled piece dating from 1954, an interesting comparison with the attenuated figures of Giacommeti currently on show in Edinburgh, Breasted Woman seems likewise to point the way towards perhaps her most familiar work on show here, the extraordinary and important Mamelles, made in 1991.

Cast in bright pink latex, this takes the form of a blatantly vulval, split-open pod within which are revealed a cache of invitingly round and taut-nippled breasts. As a metaphor for male obsession and our subconscious image of womanhood, this sculpture is surely without peer in the art of this century.

The majority of the works in the show date from the 1960s, when Bourgeois was apparently at her most prolific. In the two versions of Soft Landscape dating from 1963 and 1967, Bourgeois appears to be exploring, albeit via a rather more tangential approach, similar concerns to those addressed simultaneously by Claes Oldenburg. It was at this time that Bourgeois seems to have discovered her own distinctive pseudo-anthropomorphic vocabulary, as exemplified in The Quartered One of 1964. The most disturbing piece from this decade is Janus Fleuri, an almost obscene detached pelvis, redolent with suggestions of disembowelment, castration and mutilation. Similar savagery has been a recurring undercurrent throughout Bourgeois's work, undoubtedly informed by the events which coloured her own early life - most significantly, the infidelity of her father. Sadly, the more direct of these, Destruction of the Father (1975), a ghastly vagina dentata of dismembered limbs on a family dinner table, is not included in the Arnolfini show. Nevertheless, its spirit seems to haunt every one of the works before us.

Despite this apparent concern with specifically sexual themes, Bourgeois has managed to stay admirably aloof from attempted appropriation by the hard-line feminist lobby. Undoubtedly, with her physical embodiments of fecundity and vulnerability, entrapment and despair, Bourgeois has much to tell us about the female condition. But, certainly, there is no specifically political content to her art and, equally, her art is deeply personal. "My work," she has said, "is a series of exorcisms." She also has much to say that promises to improve our understanding of the human predicament, regardless of gender.

Today, at the age of 84, Bourgeois consistently demonstrates her power to astonish us. Her 1994 piece Spider - a Brobdingnagian arthropod - has the power to both terrify and delight the viewer, and this is the key to her continuing success. Bourgeois's work engages us with the frisson of the horror film and the fairy-tale. She is an artist of terrible magic, a unique shaman, whose visions, sometimes seductive, sometimes unpleasant, invoke the essence of modern art's mission to remind us that civilisation is merely a means of making sense of the everyday chaos that is real life.

n Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol (0117 9299191). To 13 Oct

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