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An Obscure Object of Desire

The Must-See Work in London

Louise Bourgeois in front of Sainte Sébastienne in her Brooklyn studio (1993). Photo: © Vera Isler. Art © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

BY Louisa Buck
contemporary art correspondent

Published
In Must See

The first provocation is the title. Fillette means “little girl”, and yet this sculpture seems to be anything but. One of Louise Bourgeois’s most notoriously explicit works, it is a giant phallus made from plaster and latex, measuring more than half a meter in length. The bud-like tip is pierced so that the sculpture can be suspended from the ceiling, —it is both hanging and erect at the same time.

Louise Bourgeois, Fillette (Sweeter Version) (1968-99, cast 2001). © Tate, London 2019 © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The edition installed at Tate Modern, Fillette (Sweeter Version) (1968-1999)—which is on long-term loan from the Daskalopoulos Collection, brutally dangles from a hook like a piece of meat. It is on display in a gallery where it is surrounded by classic Surrealist works by Dalí, Magritte et al—all of which appear tame in comparison.

But Fillette is probably best known in a rather different guise, and one which chimes more closely with its name. In a portrait photograph of Bourgeois taken by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1982, the mischievous, grinning septuagenarian artist, resplendent in a tufted monkey-fur coat, tucks an earlier version of Fillette under her arm and holds it gently in place with her right hand.

The gesture is both tender and functional, she could almost be carrying a large umbrella or a rolled-up newspaper (but, at the same time, there’s also the possibility that she might be surreptitiously tickling its glans with her forefinger).

For while there is much in her work that refers to her troubled relationship with her philandering father, as a wife and the mother of three sons, Bourgeois also viewed masculinity as something more vulnerable. “The phallus is a subject of my tenderness,” she said. “Everything I loved had the shape of the people around me—the shape of my husband, the shape of the children. So, when I wanted to represent something I loved, I obviously represented a little penis.”

But Bourgeois was also the mistress of perversity. Look closer at Fillette as it dangles in Tate Modern and it soon becomes evident that it is more gender fluid than it might first seem. Viewed from below there is a distinctly vaginal opening at the foot of the shaft between the two testicles, which in turn also have a firm roundness that from certain angles renders them distinctly breast-like. As she put it: “Often I merge the imagery—phallic breasts, male and female, active and passive.” 

Whether lovingly cradled or brutally dangled, phallic or vaginal, this wonderfully, willfully contrary work epitomizes Bourgeois’s intense and mixed feelings towards motherhood, masculinity and sexuality in general. “Though I feel protective of the phallus it does not mean that I am not afraid of it. You negate fear like a lion tamer,” she said.   

It was this mixture of fearfulness and fearsomeness that I experienced when I was lucky enough to visit Bourgeois in both her Chelsea home and Brooklyn studio in the early 1990s. Small in stature and softly spoken, she was also terrifyingly forceful in her passion. As she declared, in a strong French accent, that “everything is based on fear: fear to be betrayed, fear to be trapped, fear to be dependent”, she clutched my forearms so forcefully with her tiny hands that she left bruises. We will not see her like again.

Louise Bourgeois, Fillette (Sweeter Version) (1968-99, cast in 2001), Tate Modern, London

 

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