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Florentine Exhibitions for Louise Bourgeois: Do Not Abandon Me

By Linda Falcone


“There is tremendous anticipation for the Florence exhibition on Louise Bourgeois, one of the absolute protagonists of twentieth and twenty-first century art,” says museum artistic director Sergio Risaliti. “‘Do Not Abandon Me’, her show at the Museo Novecento, occupying almost the entirety of the ‘Ex- Leopoldine’ building.”


Risaliti’s reference to Pietro Leopoldo is a reminder of the Grand Duke’s 1778 decree to transform the fourteenth-century hospital and former convent into an educational institute for poverty-stricken zitelle, or ‘old maids’. The Bourgeois’ show, which runs from June 22 to October 22, marks the museum’s tenth anniversary, and the venue’s meditative architecture and once-spiritual spaces provide a lofty backdrop for Bourgeois’ ‘body-driven’ late works – ‘wet-on-wet' gouaches – produced in the last five years of the sculptor’s life.


“This is an exhibition project I’ve wanted badly,” admits Risaliti, “and it has been six years in the making. It is a great honour for us to collaborate with The Easton Foundation and Philip Larratt-Smith, curator of the exhibition – a great scholar and connoisseur of the work of Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). We’re talking about the largest and most important retrospective of the artist’s gouaches, with a thematic focus on the mother-and-child motif. They explore the cycles of life through an iconography of sexuality, procreation, birth, motherhood, feeding, dependency, the couple and the family unit.”

Louise Bourgeois, CELL XVIII (PORTRAIT), 2000, Steel, Glass, Wood, Pink & Blue Fabric, 81 1/2 x 48 1/2 x 50 1/2"; 207 x 123.1 x 128.2 cm Christopher Burke, © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by S.I.A.E., Italy and VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY


In her gouaches, Bourgeois’ is said to embrace the lack of control characteristic of the technique. As her intense brushwork expands in unpredicted ways, she associates ‘chance’ with childbirth and motherhood themes which, in her conception, is charged with conflict – loss, abandonment, struggle, fierce attachment and regret. It begs the question: ‘How will the whitewashed monastery-museum play womb to Bourgeois’ ‘amniotic-fluid’ works?’


In Risaliti’s words, one of the show’s principal aims is to “build a significant relationship of osmosis between Bourgeois’ creations and the exhibition context.” For those familiar with Risaliti’s usual curatorial endeavours, this idea should be no surprise. “The larger aim,” he says, “is to spread and emphasise contemporary languages in varied contexts within our historical and artistic heritage. It’s about creating a continuous and vital exchange between the magnificence of the past and contemporary imagination.”  


Bourgeois’ sculptures do that job on a greater scale. “In addition to the gouaches and other works by the artist, the cloister of the Museo Novecento [designed by Michelozzo] will host an exceptional installation, Spider Couple (2003), one of the artist’s famous large spiders, made in bronze,” Risaliti explains.


There too, we have the motherhood analogy. Though menacing for many, the spider was – in the artist’s mind – a mother figure. “The Spider is an ode to my mother,” Bourgeois said, “She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver.” Later, the artist would stretch the analogy further, applying it to her own creative process. In her mind, sculpture came directly out of her body, much as the spider spins its web. Still – it is fair to say, Bourgeois’ and her spiders are ambivalent – the threat of aggression or trauma lies in wait; in the depths of her own subconscious, ‘motherhood’ is red, not rosy.

Louise Bourgeois, SPIDER, 2000, Steel and marble, 52.1 x 44.5 x 53.3 cm, Christopher Burke

© The Easton Foundation/Licensed by S.I.A.E., Italy and VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The support of co-sponsors Calliope Arts Foundation and Museo FAMM/Christian Levett Collection, made Spider Couple’s arrival and exhibition possible, and the same can be said of Bourgeois’ Cell XVIII (Portrait), displayed at the Museo Innocenti. This second installation opens another mother dialogue, as the caged figure’s dome-like cape is oddly reminiscent of the museum’s Madonna of Mercy paintings, where the Institute’s foundlings – including toddlers and babes wrapped in swaddling clothes – find protection under the Virgin Mary’s robes.


“Bourgeois’ sculpture brings to mind our large female community, which includes the girls taken in and brought up here,” says Innocenti museum co-curator Arabella Natalini. “It also gives a nod to other female figures who worked at the Innocenti Institute over the course of centuries to ensure that supporting women – and mothers in particular – became a fundamental part of our mission, in addition to promoting the rights of children and adolescents, which characterises the Istituto degli Innocenti today.”

Louise Bourgeois, CELL XVIII (PORTRAIT), 2000, Steel, Glass, Wood, Pink & Blue Fabric, 81 1/2 x 48 1/2 x 50 1/2"; 207 x 123.1 x 128.2 cm, Christopher Burke, © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by S.I.A.E., Italy and VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Support of the exhibition by the Calliope Arts Foundation and Museo FAMM/Christian Levett Collection includes tand a notebook-style publication by TF Press. This curators’ quaderno – published for the exhibition’s inauguration – provides insight on the makings of this much-awaited show, in the words of those who ‘strongly wanted it’.

The complete version of this article was originally published in The Florentine, Tuscany's English-language newspaper in May 2024.


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