When Joan Acocella profiled Louise Bourgeois in The New Yorker, in early 2002, the artist had just passed her ninetieth birthday, but she was very clearly, as Acocella put it, “not a dear old lady.” Bourgeois arrived at her fame late in life, and while in her early career she’d been reticent and press shy she’d in her later decades cultivated a flamboyant and confessional manner, exposing the family traumas and betrayals that served as inspiration for her deeply psychological art. By the turn of the century she was “often treated as a character, the art world’s favorite naughty old lady,” Acocella wrote. “She has colluded in this.”
The portraits that the Belgium-born photographer Alex Van Gelder made of Bourgeois in the final years of her life perhaps serve as evidence of this collusion. The two friends first met in Paris in the nineteen-seventies, when Van Gelder was a collector of African art. After keeping in touch with Bourgeois sporadically through the years Van Gelder made a series of visits to the artist’s townhouse in Chelsea beginning in 2008, and fell into a routine of photographing her. (Bourgeois died in 2010, at the age of ninety-eight.) In a new collection of his portraits entitled “Mumbling Beauty,” Van Gelder writes that he and Bourgeois “became more and more inspired by each other,” and “she became a consummate performer in front of the camera.” Under Van Gelder’s direction she is exhibitionist, childlike, savagely playful; she’s shown as a knife-wielding bandit, wearing a sailor’s cap or wraparound sunglasses; she allows pigeons to flap around her head, dons a voluptuous fur coat, bares her teeth and shoves her face right up into the camera’s lens. (By comparison, Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous portrait of Bourgeois wielding her phallic sculpture “Fillette” looks positively polished and demure.) New Yorker article and slideshow here.