Louise Bourgeois, Quarantania, 1941. Seven wooden pine elements on a wooden base, 84 3/4 × 31 1/4 × 29 1/4 in. (215.3 × 79.4 × 74.3 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of an anonymous donor 77.80
ADAMWEINBERG: Quarantania is one of Louise Bourgeois’s earliest sculptures, made just a couple of years after she arrived from France in 1938. With its elongated, almost life-size wooden figures, the work resembles a group of people standing together with arms held tightly at their sides.
“As soon as I arrived in the United States,” recalls Bourgeois, “I began to suffer from homesickness . . . [in my art] I recreated all the people I left behind in France. I’d never have admitted it, but the fact is, I missed them desperately.”
Besides its personal significance, Bourgeois’s sculpture could also be interpreted as a commentary on the horrors of war—are these political prisoners or victims of genocide? During and after the Second World War, many artists turned to symbolic representation and mythic imagery to express the uncertainties of the age. The abstract character of this sculpture summons forth a totemic presence. The sculpture looks like it would be equally at home in a natural history museum as it is in an art museum. Bourgeois and her contemporaries sought a universal language that would transcend time and national boundaries. Some found inspiration in the art of the ancient world, while others explored the rich cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Other artists like Arshile Gorky adopted biomorphic imagery and an improvisational painting style. For them, abstract paintings were a direct way of expressing hidden conflicts and desires stored away in the unconscious.