Meeting Louise Bourgeois

It's ten to three when I arrive in front of her house.
A guy walks nervously in front of it with something under his arm... a big print, it seems. I lean my two paintings against the stoop and examine the guy. Obviously we are there for the same reason. We break the ice and start chatting. First time? Yes, first time. Nervous? Yes, nervous. You know the urban legend about this? Yes, I do... Like two kids waiting for their first injection we try to support each other...

Rumor has it she used to throw people out of her house, screaming at them. All of a sudden I start regretting I'm carrying that second painting that it's there, hidden under the first one. The guy, Michael, wants to see it... and gasps: "Wow!"
That makes me even more uncomfortable.
But there's little I can do about it now. At three o' clock we will have to enter the little townhouse and meet a legend. And maybe be thrown out with prints and paintings and all.

It's almost three when two ladies join us, then a group of people.
They look very distinguished... they're no artists, I can tell from the way they are dressed and their manners. Maybe critics? Without hesitation they ring the bell and patiently wait until someone opens the door. They go in first. We, the artists, follow in silence... like prisoners to the guillotine.

The house is simple, very different from how I expected it. Not a sign of her work in the room where we are escorted by her assistant. We find her sitting in a corner, silent, austere. Her hands on a little table, looking around with the dignity of her 97 years.

One after the other we shake her hand and introduce ourselves. I'm one of the last.
"Pietro... from Italy" I tell her, gently.
She looks at me very seriously. Not a hint of a smile.
"Of course" she replies, caustic.
I'm taken aback. Maybe the urban legend is not just a legend after-all.
But then she wants to know which city.
"Ah, Torino" she shakes her head knowingly. I smile and promptly disappear. I sit on a couch, while she is submerged by a flow of superlatives from the very well dressed people with very nice manners. I catch words here and there... Superbe... Formidable... Magnifique... La sensation de Paris ... It's the French Mission from Paris, and people from the French Embassy. They are telling her about her retrospective at the Louvre. I don't speak French, but I understand enough to be nauseated by all that reverence. All of a sudden I wish I wasn't there. I make a mental note to curse my friend Amalia who got me into this trouble.

The discussion goes on in French for a while... more superlatives are thrown in it.. Superbe, Formidable, Magnifique...
A lady from the mission shuts us up every time she says a word. "Silence. She's talking". She treats her like a very fragile piece of antiquity. I don't think she appreciates it at all. Yet she listens to them. Not a smile. It's not until the end of the meeting that she opens fire over them: "If you didn't have any work to present, why did you come?"

A master of sarcasm in her work, she doesn't spare anyone.
"You framed your paintings... You must think they are very good, huh?" she asks one of the artists.
And looking at some drawings: "What do you want us to do with these? Pick one as a gift?"

I'm the second to present my work. I still don't know exactly who are the artists and who are the critics among us. I can only tell who are the diplomats. Yet I know that the critics are there. One must be the guy sitting at her right who leads the discussion. As I take my paintings I wonder if he is who I think he is...

I have been in academia long enough to know that if they respect you they shoot at you. If they dislike you they generally ignore you or sarcastically flatter you. So I wonder how they'll receive my work, especially that second painting I'm just displaying in front of them...

Five minutes into my presentation I'm under fire. A gentleman in a brown jacket sitting on the other side of the room starts asking a lot of questions... why this... why that... until he makes me trip, by asking me about a certain German expressionist... and I have to admit my ignorance. Never heard of him. I screen every word he says for sarcasm... but I don't seem to detect any.
Louise Bourgeois listens and nods... I'm discussing "ORANGE HOUSE", and how I want to portrait living paintings within my paintings, which break their own frames and bring their reality to interact with the viewer's reality.

"It's true... He broke the frame," she says passing her finger over the painting, somehow giving her blessing to it. She looks sweet for a moment.
Then she asks me about some details of the image.
Robert Storr, at her right, touches the canvas to see what it's made of. He is whom I thought he was, but I'll discover this only after I finish my presentation.

After talking for a few minutes about "ORANGE HOUSE" and its voyeuristic theme, I pick the second painting, and hold it in front of her. I know we are going to clash on this one.

"This is a work that belongs to a series of paintings on which I'm working right now... where I explore words of my childhood that have for me a strong evocative power... and I investigate the recollections they bring with them. This is 'Pene', the Italian word for penis".

And there I stand, with my gigantic green penis in front of an art legend.

I expect a laugh. But everyone remains silent. I guess they are taking it seriously. Not a giggle.

A little less nervous, like a naughty kid, I go on with my presentation... and say that I got inspired by one of M.me Bourgeois works... Robert Storr catches the connection right away. ``Fillette?" he asks me.
``Yes, Fillette". Now I can only wait for her thunder.

Strangely I feel totally relaxed now, and I keep answering questions.. I explain that there are other words, not only sexual, that I want to paint, like "Scatalascio".

"Is that scatology in English?" Rober Storr asks very seriously.

I hope I didn't hear an "e".

"Escathology?" I reply... hoping he's asking about the Apocalypse and not what I fear he's asking...

"No, Scatology, like coprology?"


As if the penis wasn't enough to talk about now I have to engage also in a discussion about shit with a former curator of the MOMA?!


Le mot de Cambronne comes to mind again. I guess after my penis they are ready for anything.

"No" I say. "It's a word my aunt invented, that has no meaning in standard Italian. It's a big thump..." And to avoid trouble with assonances, I add:"...strong noise," but I'm not sure I cleaned the misunderstanding completely. In any case I go back to my penis and wait for Louise Bourgeois' reaction to all this, while the guy in a brown jacket asks me more questions about the connection between the theme of architecture and the theme of the body.

"Enough... Direct, direct!" she finally says, somewhat annoyed by all my talking with the critic in a brown jacket.

They explain to me she wants to talk to me face to face...

Le mot de Cambronne comes to mind once more.

She wants Robert Storr to find the picture of her sculpture on a book sitting on her table. She pushes the book towards me.

"What touched you about it?" she asks me.

She catches me off guts. But somehow I must have gained some respect with her if she is asking me what I felt about her own work. Yet I have the feeling she is trying to teach me something...

I look at Fillette.

"I saw it like a character of a story... almost an animated character and I took this character and made it into a character of my story."

She looks at me. Very serious again.

"But yours doesn't touch you as much."

The criticism finally is delivered. But it's direct, no sarcasm. I defend my work nonetheless, explaining how I intended it to touch the viewer... But we have opposite points of view... she sees the penis as a fragile feminine attribute, like a little inexperienced girl ( fillette ). My painting is less sarcastic and more humorous, almost an iconography to celebrate male sexuality. It's Fillette undressed, without the vagina it has as a robe. It certainly doesn't mix the feminine and the masculine like hers (if ever, it's a reaction to her sculpture).
Robert Storr notices the iconographic feeling of the series I'm working on and makes a comment about it.

I go back to my seat like a student after the examination, unsure if it was a good or bad performance. It seemed that she liked the first and felt challenged by the second... In any case I'm happy because I took a risk that few would have taken. Art is also about courage.

I wait until the end to chat a bit with the gentlemen in a brown jacket. I'm too shy to ask him who he is, he's probably another stellar name in the art world. I ask him if he liked the work.
He says yes. Afraid he may be just trying to get rid of me, I ask again. "Honestly?"
"Yes, but I wanted to hear more about Graffiti Art."

Graffiti art... of course. I regret he didn't ask about Keith Harings, that I love instead of that obscure fellow... we exchange a few more words. After that I talk briefly with a guy from the French mission...
"Did you like my work?"
Of course ... what else could he answer? I take the compliment with a smile, but I don't trust it too much. But maybe he was honest since as I leave, M.me Bourgeois' assistant also tells me "Good work", without me asking, as a goodbye. She seemed genuine. Probably it didn't go bad after all.

When outside I take my two big paintings under my arm and walk down the street surfing in the wind and wondering what's happening inside, now that we have left. I'm sure they're having a jolly good time talking about us: about the lady with the framed paintings and the guy with the print, about the woman who showed up without any piece of art, because her work was just a concept (?!), and the one with a million photographs... and, for better or worse, between a smile and a giggle, about that Italian guy who dared to show up with a big, erect, irreverent Pene.


Pietro Reviglio -- PENE. Oil on canvas.(2008)



Louise Bourgeois -- FILLETTE. Latex over plaster. (1968)

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April 10, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermilly

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