Louise Bourgeois and Balzac's Eugénie Grandet

How Balzac's novel related to Bourgeois' life and art
Louise Bourgeois. Photograph: Robert Mapplethorpe
Phillipe Dagen traces the influence of Honoré de Balzac's novel Eugénie Grandet on the work of sculptor Louise Bourgeois:
In the last weeks of her life Louise Bourgeois, who died last May, was still working, her energy focused on the heroine of Balzac's novel Eugénie Grandet, whom she saw as the archetypal daughter broken by an odious, all-powerful father. Born in 1911, into a Parisian family almost as conventional as the one Balzac described in 1833, Bourgeois would have suffered a similar life of painful resignation, had she not become an artist and subsequently moved to New York.

"I love that story. It could be the story of my life," she told an interviewer in September 2009. In keeping with this rationale, her work, particularly in the closing decades of her life, drew on autobiographical elements, with her father in the role of the domineering adulterer who thought women were doomed to a subservient position. Her installations, sculptures (bronze spiders), drawings and engravings relate directly or allude to her youth and family life.

Grandet is thus the ultimate incarnation of a tragic destiny and Balzac's home in Paris the place for the last rites of exorcism that Bourgeois had prepared. She wanted her final work, still as powerful as ever, to be shown in this house, rather than a big museum or gallery. Obviously because it is Balzac's home, but also because the place is just right, with small, rapidly oppressive rooms, narrow staircases and gloomy wood-panelled passages. The works themselves feel cramped. The exhibition at Maison de Balzac, Paris (until 6 February) starts with an imaginary portrait of Grandet, which might well be a self-portrait of Bourgeois herself at the age of 20. [Read more]