An Empty Bottle of Shalimar: The Art of Louise Bourgeois

Robert Mapplethorpe
Louise Bourgeois
photograph on paper
© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation
Image from the National Galleries of Scotland (

Louise Bourgeois is undoubtedly one of the 20th Century’s most important artists.  She passed away in 2010 at the age of 98, leaving behind hundreds of drawings, objects, and sculptures that have captured the imagination of generations.  Bourgeois moved from her native town of Paris to New York in the 1940’s, shortly after she married the art historian and curator, Robert Goldwater, and embarked on a career that is amazing in its duration as well as in the diversity of styles and media she employed to give form to her distinct visual language.

Dreams, childhood memories, sexuality, and motherhood are among the many themes present in Bourgeois’ art.  Although it is easy to wax nostalgic about one’s past, to sentimentalize the search for meaning within fleeting sensations, Bourgeois falls into none of those traps; to the contrary, Bourgeois invents fragile and often menacing objects that invite viewers into the dark shadows of her mind.  Though highly personal, Bourgeois’ art remains legible for those who do not share her story through well chosen subjects that speak a universal language of loss, desire, and explore the mysterious machinations of the unconscious.

Bourgeois’ parents and her relationship to them are the primary sources of inspiration for her art.  She was traumatized by her discovery of an affair between her father and her English governess and stultified by her mother who, though intelligent, chose to not acknowledge the infidelity.  The pain of feeling unworthy of her father’s love and her mother’s steely disposition produced an anxiety and loneliness that she captured in each and every one of her works of art.

Among the most famous series Bourgeois produced was Cells (I-VI) that she began in the 1980’s and was finally exhibited in 1991 at the Carnegie International, a biennial exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.  Each work represented an enclosure such as doors, sheds, metal cages, into which Bourgeois would place objects of significance to her.  In Cell II (1991), Bourgeois encloses a mirrored table within a circle of old doors.  Upon the table are a sculpture of wringing hands, expressing worry and anxiety, with empty or nearly empty bottles of Guerlain’s famous perfume, Shalimar.

Louise Bourgeois
Cell II (1991)
mixed media
Collection of the Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh
Image from

The mirrored table could be a lady’s vanity where she would display her bottles of perfume.  Shalimar could be the scent her mother wore throughout Bourgeois’ childhood.  The mirror reflects the hands, contorted with distress, as are the stylized glass bottles, doubling the impact of both.  The wooden doors connect together as though they have joined hands, confining the memories and emotions associated with the objects inside, unwilling to release.

The simple placement of an empty bottle can evoke so much.  Jacques Guerlain created Shalimar in 1921 on the heels of the end of World War I, when Bourgeois would have been 7 years old.  With notes of vanilla, bergamot, and iris, it is a perfume in the category of “Oriental” that was immensely popular at the time.  Shalimar epitomized elegance, taste, and romance.  It was the story of the Mughal emperor who built the Gardens of Shalimar for his great love in Lahore, and then the Taj Mahal, that inspired Guerlain to put forth this enduring classic.

A perfume, inspired by the story of ideal love, is used up, has dried away in Bourgeois’ sculpture.  Yet the involuntary memory stirred upon smelling the perfume, much like Proust’s experience with tea and the madeleine, is irrepressible.  This is the power of scent.  All that is left are the tortured memories that do not wish to go away.

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