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?
Gallery label from 2022/2023
After moving to New York in 1938, Bourgeois began to make totemic wood sculptures that she later called “personages.” These abstracted figures, Bourgeois explained, were “manifestations of homesickness”—stand-ins for the friends and family she had left behind. For this piece, she assembled five elongated figures on a single platform, their close arrangement suggesting an intimate gathering. Bourgeois represented herself as the central figure, with three oval-shaped attachments symbolizing her children. Seen together, the figures’ shapes recall needles or weaving shuttles—tools associated with Bourgeois’s childhood and parents, who ran a tapestry restoration business.
Gallery label from 2019
Unlike many modern sculptors, Bourgeois never abandoned representation, and Quarantania, I is explicitly anthropomorphic. Each of its elements was originally made as an autonomous work: the central figure, Woman with Packages (1947–49), is surrounded by four variations of Bourgeois’s sculpture Shuttle Woman. The intimate arrangement suggests a gathering of close friends or family members in conversation. Approximately life-size, the five figural forms address viewers symbolically as well as physically. Their shapes recall wooden weaving shuttles, traditional instruments associated with the crafts of tapestry making and repair, from which Bourgeois’s parents earned their livelihood.
The individual figures in Quarantania, I are typical of the totemic painted wood sculptures—her first works in three dimensions—that Bourgeois produced in the 1940s and ’50s and which she later called Personages. Despite their formal proximity to other works she was familiar with—by Surrealists and artists from various regions of Africa—Bourgeois asserted that her Personages “had nothing to do with sculpture.” Rather, she said, these works were “manifestations of homesickness” for aspects of the life she had known before moving from Paris to New York in 1938, the year she began making them.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)