Louise Bourgeois and Gaston Lachaise: A Shared Passion for the Female Form

“Contrary to Don Juan, and to what many feminists may feel, Lachaise did not exploit women but enjoyed them. To be a sex object is a flattering experience.”—Louise Bourgeois 

The ever-influential sculptor Louise Bourgeois, known for her expressive, corporeal sculptures, is forever intertwined with fellow Parisian expat Gaston Lachaise. Inspired by his bold, obsessive approach to the female form in sculpture and works-on-paper, Bourgeois developed her own visual language to describe humans, including figures with multiple breasts, impossibly curvaceous torsos, and not-so-subtle genitalia. In her text “Obsession,” which appeared in Artforum in 1992, Bourgeois explained the source of Lachaise’s fixation: his model, muse, raison d’etre, and wife Isabel. The essay is more relevant than ever now—the missing link between the two artists—as their works are shown side by side at ADAA’s The Art Show, in Cheim & Read’s fantastic thematic exhibition, “Gaston Lachaise and Louise Bourgeois: A Juxtaposition.”

The son of the cabinetmaker who designed Gustave Eiffel’s apartment in the Eiffel Tower, Lachaise was born in Paris in 1882, and began to study sculpture at the age of 13. He went on to the Academie Nationale des Beaux-Arts, exhibited internationally, and was named runner-up for the Prix de Rome twice, before meeting the American, Isabel Dutaud Nagle. He left Paris in 1905, never to return, and spent his life in devotion to Isabel and her opulent lifestyle. Bourgeois explains, “To finance this woman’s endless demands, Lachaise made everything from cement plaques for a house on Long Island to zodiac designs for elevator doors to a spread-winged seagull for Arlington Cemetery—the gamut from hardware to monumental sculpture.” She notes, though, that these later works inspired by Lachaise’s insatiable desire for Isabel, depicting women with exaggeratedly voluptuous bodies, display “his fullest expression as an artist.” 

Born in Paris a generation later, Bourgeois also fell in love with an American and moved to the United States. Art was her coping mechanism, and a means of expression; she often talked about her work as a mode of dealing with pain, and famously said “art is a guarantee of sanity.” Lachaise’s works were crucial sources of inspiration for Bourgeois, especially in her frequent explorations of body parts and fertility. While his works may be read as perverse objectifications of women, Bourgeois was able to interpret them otherwise, stating, “it is a compliment to grant the sex object such power that it can trigger such passion.” Seeing works by Lachaise and Bourgeois juxtaposed, the pair emerge as kindred spirits, and their shared passion for the female form is renewed.

Gaston Lachaise and Louise Bourgeois: A Juxtaposition” is on view at Cheim & Read, The Art Show, Thematic Exhibition, Booth A1, Mar. 5th–9th, 2014.

Explore ADAA: The Art Show on Artsy.