Louise Bourgeois. Imaginary Conversations

  • 6 May–6 August 2023
  • The National Museum – The Light Hall

Refusing to be content with a single, fixed expression or to be confined by a single artistic movement, the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) explored a variety of styles and techniques that few artists can rival. The exhibition "Imaginary Conversations" stages encounters between Bourgeois and other artists. Some of these encounters took place during Bourgeois’s almost century-long life, while others occur across time and space. This is the first major presentation of Bourgeois’s art in Norway in over twenty years.

Works from her entire career are presented, from her paintings and prints from the 1940s to the Cells she created in her final decades. “Imaginary Conversations” also allows you to experience artworks by over fifty other artists, including Edvard Munch, Marie Laurencin, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Arshile Gorky, Louise Nevelson, Senga Nengudi, Alina Szapocznikow, Seni Awa Camara, Nan Goldin, Robert Gober, and Rosemarie Trockel. Many of the works are being shown in Norway for the first time ever.

More on Louise Bourgeois in the museum guide

From Paris to New York

Louise Bourgeois was born in France in 1911. After first pursuing mathematics, she became interested in art and studied under artists such as Fernand Léger. In 1938, she married an American art historian and moved to New York. From the 1940s on, she constantly explored new materials and techniques, but it was not until 1982, when Bourgeois was seventy years old, that she achieved recognition thanks to a retrospective exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“Imaginary Conversations” showcases an artist who, throughout her entire career, was preoccupied with the artistic and social changes take place in contemporary life, such as representations of the body in the 1960s, feminism in the 1970s, and the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. Themes such as loneliness, love, disease, sexuality, and gender were concerns Bourgeois shared with many artists. These commonalities serve as the basis for the exhibition’s encounters between Bourgeois and the other artists shown.

Howling housewives, house arrest, and skyscrapers

Bourgeois was fascinated by architecture which is apparent in early paintings such as the Femme Maison series (1946–47) and self-portraits from the same era, which depict the artist on the roof of a tall building. The Personage series – anthropomorphic carved wood sculptures – was inspired by New York City’s skyscrapers. Many decades later, Bourgeois would explore the house as a symbolic space in the series of installations called Cells. Bourgeois’s Cells resemble theatre stages with the viewer peering in on sculptures, clothes, furniture, and other everyday objects.

Feminist artist

During the 1960s and 1970s, many women artists, such as Lynda Benglis, Eva Hesse, Yayoi Kusama, Marisa Merz, Senga Nengudi, and Alina Szapocznikov, explored aspects of the female body that were commonly regarded as inappropriate for public display. Bourgeois pursued similar themes, as seen in her cave-like sculptures made of latex and plaster. The unpolished surfaces resemble something organic or bodily, and at times even look like intestines or excrement.

Bourgeois had begun painting still lifes and portraits in Paris in the 1930s. In 1975, she posed outside her house in a multi-breasted latex artwork for a now-iconic portrait. She participated in many feminist art groups and fought for the rights of women artists and their right to depict sexually explicit motifs.

Participating artists:

ACT UP, Anu Põder, Diane Arbus, Hans Arp, Francis Bacon, Alvin Baltrop, Phyllida Barlow, Lynda Benglis, Joseph Beuys, Pierre Bonnard, André Breton, Seni Awa Camara, Rebecca Campeau, Helen Chadwick, Constantin Brâncuși, Marcel Duchamp, Mary Beth Edelson, Louis Michel Eilshemius, Alberto Giacometti, Robert Gober, Nan Goldin, Arshile Gorky, Eva Hesse, Roni Horn, Ewa Jaroszyńska, Yayoi Kusama, Wifredo Lam, Marie Laurencin, Leonilson, Anna Maria Maiolino, Man Ray, Sonja Ferlov Mancoba, Robert Mapplethorpe, Ana Mendieta, Marisa Merz, Edvard Munch, Dora Maar, Senga Nengudi, Louise Nevelson, Pablo Picasso, Carol Rama, Auguste Rodin, Nancy Spero, Alina Szapocznikow, Dorothea Tanning, Rosemarie Trockel og David Wojnarowicz.

Older lady sitting down at a desk in front of a wall covered with different things
Louise Bourgeois in her own home on 20th Street in New York City, in 2000. © The Easton Foundation/BONO, Oslo 2023
Photo: Jean-François Jaussaud

The salon

In the 1990s, Bourgeois began holding weekly Sunday Salons, where young artists gathered to meet the artist for conversations in her home.

For the exhibition, the National Museum has installed its own version of Bourgeois’s salon, where you can experience rare video recordings from Bourgeois’s gatherings. You can also participate in talks and creative workshops in the salon.

Come 20 May, fashion expert Elise By Olsen and journalist Charlie Porter will take a closer look at Bourgeois from a fashion perspective. The artist Jennie Bringaker will also invite visitors to experience her performance Overwhelmed during the exhibition period.

Other activities include creative sculpture workshops for children, where you can build your own Personages sculptures. 23 May, you can join us to watch the Academy Award-nominated documentary All the Beaty and the Bloodshed where we follow one of the world’s best known photo artists, Nan Goldin, as she fights to bring pharmaceutical companies to justice for the part they play in the ongoing opioid crisis in the United States. Scroll down this page for more events.

Spiders and witches

Throughout the exhibition period, you will be able to see Bourgeois’s monumental sculpture Maman (1999) in the Palace Park, a short walk from the National Museum. You can also experience another Spider in the exhibition in the Light Hall.

You can also see other sculptures by Bourgeois at Tjuvholmen and in the Ekebergparken sculpture park in Oslo.

In 2010, Bourgeois created the memorial The Damned, the Possessed, and the Beloved together with the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Located in Vardø in the High Arctic county of Finnmark, the memorial commemorates the victims of the seventeenth-century witch trials there. Finnmark is the county in Norway that passed down the most death sentences for alleged witches. The memorial is located on Steilneset in Vardø, where ninety-one people were burned at the stake.

“Louise Bourgeois. Imaginary Conversations” is co-curated by Senior Curator at the National Museum, Andrea Kroksnes, and visiting curator Briony Fer.

The exhibition is a collaboration with The Easton Foundation and is supported by the DNB Savings Bank Foundation. The National Museum and the DNB Savings Bank Foundation have collaborated for several years on presenting Louise Bourgeois’s art in Norway, including through the long-term deposit of seminal Bourgeois works in the National Museum’s collection.

Explore the exhibition in 3D

The exhibition is a collaboration with the Easton Foundation and is supported by the DNB Savings Bank Foundation. The National Museum and the DNB Savings Bank Foundation have collaborated for several years on presenting Louise Bourgeois’s art in Norway, including through the long-term deposit of seminal Bourgeois works in the National Museum’s collection.

Pictures in header video:

Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1997, Collection Easton Foundation. Photo: Maximillian Geuter © The Easton Foundation / BONO, Oslo 2023

Louise Bourgeois in her studio in Brooklyn, New York i 1993, in front of Saint Sebastiene (1992). Photo: Philipp Hugues Bonan. Courtesy of The Easton Foundation © The Easton Foundation / BONO, Oslo 2023

Louise Bourgeois, Celle VIII, 1998, Collection Easton Foundation. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Andreas Harvik © The Easton Foundation / BONO, Oslo 2023

Louise Bourgeois in her latex sculpture Avenza (1968–69) in 1975. Photo: Mark Setteducati © The Easton Foundation / BONO, Oslo 2023

Louise Bourgeois, The Destruction of the Father, 1974–2017. Glenstone Foundation © The Easton Foundation / BONO, Oslo 2023

Louise Bourgeois in her home in New York in 1965, with several of her Personages sculptures, among them Femme Volage. © The Easton Foundation / BONO, Oslo 2023