Mamelles is a large-scale wall relief across which a series of female breasts are moulded, and is the first version in an edition of six. In its monumental size and structural form, Mamelles may be based on the idea of a classical frieze, running horizontally across a wall. However, this convention is subverted in the choice of subject and the work’s lack of a straightforward narrative.
Made of synthetic rubber, it has a tactile quality common to Bourgeois’s sculptural work since the 1960s, when she began working with a diverse range of material such as bronze, plastic, plaster and latex. Working with the malleability and physical properties of such media has enabled Bourgeois to create works which reference human anatomy in a direct and sensual manner. Unlike the unspecified bulges of Avenza (Tate T07781), Mamelles is explicit in form, with sixteen striking pink breasts undulating along its length, protruding into the space of the viewer. It exemplifies Bourgeois’s manipulation of individual components of the human body, dislocated from their original function to create an image loaded with symbolic potential.
As a wife and mother, Bourgeois has been preoccupied with themes of motherhood and female sexuality since the 1940s. The breasts appear to be at once a symbol of woman’s nurturing role, while also exposing the female body as a sexualised object, stripped bare and vulnerable. Bourgeois herself has said that the work ‘portrays a man who lives off the women he courts, making his way from one to the next. Feeding from them but returning nothing, he loves only in a consumptive and selfish manner.’ (Kotik 1993, n.p.). The artist has gone further to locate this idea more specifically within the character of Don Juan, noting that ‘Mamelles points out that Don Juan’s need to sleep with many women meant an inability to love.’ (Bernadac 1996, p.132) In this way, the artist appears to be both in league with, and critical of, this notion of all-consuming masculine desire. The strange conflation of a masculine viewpoint within a work which, in visual terms, appears highly femininised is typical of Bourgeois’s complex and highly personal practice. This reached a climax in the important The Destruction of the Father 1974 (Robert Miller Gallery, New York), an environment of latex breast-like forms related to Tate’s Avenza of 1968-9.
Charlotta Kotik, ‘Louise Bourgeois: An Introduction’, Louise Bourgeois: Recent Work, exhibition catalogue, New York 1993, n.p.
Marie-Laure Bernadac, Louise Bourgeois, Paris and New York 1996.