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An unstable childhood proves to be a firm foundation for Louise Bourgeois’ pained creativity, inspiring the anxious, wrenching and fragile imagery that comprises her works in the Hirshhorn’s retrospective. Bourgeois is famous for her massive spiders (one of which perches outside the museum’s entrance) but they aren’t meant to cause fear—rather, the artist sees strength and loyalty in the spider, and echoes of the tapestries her mother wove. Her father, on the other hand, is a great source for anxiety, and many of the works were created to exorcise the demons of the miserable childhood he gave her. Psychoanalysts would find a wealth of material here, particularly in The Destruction of the Father, where a collection of cylinders representing children perch around a table to dine upon the abstract remains of the patriarch. Beyond the Freudian, Bourgeois can be recognized as a feminist icon for her series of “house women,” which explore the frustration and desperation of wifedom in pre-Feminist Mystique America.

THE EXHIBITION IS ON VIEW FROM 10 A.M. TO 5:30 P.M. DAILY, TO MAY 17, AT THE HIRSHHORN MUSEUM AND SCULPTURE GARDEN, INDEPENDENCE AVENUE AT 7th STREET SW FREE. 202-633-1000.