Louise Bourgeois: Femme Maison
Photographer Jean-Francois Jaussaud’s book, “Louise Bourgeois: An Intimate Portrait”, explores the artist’s life and work over eleven years.
I met Louise Bourgeois during the winter of 1994, at her office in the Brooklyn workshop, a former garment factory located at 475 Dean Street. I first had to undergo a rather strange and funny “interrogation”, a kind of almost administrative questionnaire: date of birth, address, contact details, etc. She jotted everything down meticulously in a small notebook… Very quickly, she noticed that I was living near Choisy-le-Roi, the town where she had spent part of her childhood; she then took great pleasure in having me talk about the city. She asked me to go see the place where her house had been, and tell her about the visit during our next meeting. She gave me an appointment in April 1995 for our first photo session. But she had one condition: “I want to see all the photos and if I don’t like them, I can destroy them!” “
I arrive at the studio in Brooklyn. I had hired an American assistant to give me a hand because I was carrying lighting equipment: the studio was divided into spaces that were bathed in superb natural light, while others were just lit with simple light bulbs. My assistant was named Robert Miller, when I introduced him to Louise, this made her laugh a lot, because it was also the name of her gallery owner!
Louise had prepared herself, specially dressed for her portrait, she was very neat and stylish, not at all like the outfit she usually wore for working in the studio where she layered worn clothes, often covered with a blue or grey smock. I am ready for the first photo: I had chosen the sculpture, “Eyes”, two large, granite balls that are more like breasts. The sculpture stands in the middle of the studio. Louise is very happy, she positions herself in front of the camera, a few words, she turns suddenly, hides her face, in a sudden rage, tells me that it is not acceptable, I am attacking her, “stealing her image ”; she takes refuge in her office… Shock. I think it’s all over, I will just have to repack my equipment and go back to Paris. A few minutes pass, Louise returns, big smile, she has a white cap on her head, stands in front of me with both hands on the granite blocks: “It’s good, now you can do the picture, I’m protected”.
I spend two fantastic days in the studio: I am completely free. I observe, I soak everything up, I breathe the place. Louise comes to see me from time to time, or I ask her for a new portrait; she works, receives, I feel only joy.
Two days later, meeting at the little house in Chelsea, 347W 20th Street, I had promised to show her everything. Black and white contact sheets, colour slides, I spread everything on her table, she looks carefully, smiles … “It’s okay, you can come back whenever you want. “
For the next eleven years, until February 2006, I returned from time to time to visit her. When I was passing through New York and it was possible, I would call her out of the blue in the morning before 9 a.m. to make sure she was the one who answered. “Hello Jean-Francois, you are the French photographer from Choisy? Come today, I will expect you. “
9h30-10 am, her assistant Jerry opens the door, I enter, door closes … I am in Louise’s house, her cell, her theatre, the house takes me in, I let myself be transported. Each room is a scene of battle, work, laboratory, memory … The house observes me, I register its gaze.
Louise has always left me completely free to come and go, a tacit understanding.
I didn’t dare push open all the doors at once, it took a few years, a few visits and a few discussions, to explore the whole house. She told me how, after the death of her husband, historian Robert Goldwater, in 1973, she cut the table where they would dine in half. It is on this table that she works, eats, receives her guests, right next to the wall covered with posters, notes and memories.
Another time, she led me into a bedroom whose door was always closed. Perfectly tidy, bedspread without a wrinkle, it was their bedroom, it had been unused since Robert Goldwater’s passing. She asked me to do her portrait there in the room, then left me alone.
Last visit in February 2006
Louise held a salon every Sunday afternoon around 3 p.m. for 30 years, informal meetings, young artists, writers, collectors or experts of all ages would come. Young artists would show their work and listen to her uncompromising reviews. I was then working with polaroid, instant images immediately revealed, the photos circulated from hand to hand, Louise looked at them, showed them. Very beautiful moments of sharing. It was my last meeting with Louise.
I had planned to go to New York at the beginning of June 2010, to say hello, she passed on Monday, May 31.
I still visit her very often…
“Femme Maison” is the title of a series of paintings and engravings produced by Louise Bourgeois between 1945–1947, a series to which she would often return in her work as an artist.
Text & Photos by Jean-François Jaussaud
Louise Bourgeois’s art, writings, and archival material are courtesy of The Easton Foundation
Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY and Adagp Paris, 2018