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.