Sleeping Figure belongs to the Personages, a group of more than eighty totemic wood sculptures Bourgeois made between 1945 and 1950. The artist characterized these works as surrogates for family and friends, many of whom she left behind in France when she moved to New York in 1938. In this case, she reduced the human figure to three long oval shapes, flanked by thin poles. She once said of her sculptures, “The look of my figures is abstract, and to the spectator they may not appear to be figures at all. They are the expression, in abstract terms, of emotions and states of awareness.”
Gallery label from 2023
Though Bourgeois has described Sleeping Figure as "a war figure that cannot face the world and is defensive," likening its face to a mask and its arms to lances, the work's narrow, tapered shape suggests vulnerability and its jutting limbs seem to support rather than defend its body. Sleeping Figure belongs to The Personages, a group of more than eighty totemic wood sculptures the artist made in New York between 1945 and 1950. Bourgeois has characterized these works as surrogates for the family and friends she left behind in France when she moved to New York in 1938.
Although she was never formally part of the Paris-based group, Bourgeois knew many Surrealist poets and artists and shared their interest in primitive art and the unconscious. In spite of these affinities, her work can be understood as a rejection of the male-dominated movement. While the form of this figure is phallic, its gender is ambiguous—a departure from Surrealism's objectification and fragmentation of female bodies.
Gallery label from The Erotic Object: Surrealist Sculpture from the Collection, June 24, 2009–January 4, 2010.
What do these shapes remind you of? For the artist Louise Bourgeois, they represented her friends and family. Bourgeois grew up in France and moved a long way to live in the United States. She missed home and made sculptures like these to feel less lonely. She would group different shapes together and sometimes even included objects representing herself. In this work she is the object in the middle, and the smaller oval shapes attached to her are her sons. If these figures could talk, what might they say to each other?