Fragile Goddess by Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois

Fragile Goddess, 2002, Fabric, 31.7 x 12.7 x 15.2 cm, Private Collection, © Easton Foundation / ARS, New York, NY Courtesy of Barbara Gross Galerie

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(M)other of All Living

Commentary by

Pregnant with possibility, Louise Bourgeois’s Fragile Goddess is a striking sculpture that resonates with a long history of visualizing the fertile female body. Yet, the phallic form at the top of the torso also suggests a blurring of gender identities, allowing the artist to question concepts of masculinity, femininity, sexuality, and power. For Bourgeois, the mother’s body was the source of both triumph and trauma. While the mother was, according to Bourgeois, integral to the human psyche, she was also often displaced and dominated by the father. Consequently, the mother represented in Fragile Goddess is a source of power, but also a site of repression.

This liminal representation of motherhood is found in Genesis 3:16 and 3:20. Woman is condemned to suffer in childbearing, but she is also praised as the ‘mother of all living’. When Adam names the woman in Genesis 3:20 he chooses the name chavvah or ‘Eve’, which probably means something like ‘life-giver’. This name, and the epithet that accompanies it, stand in stark contrast with the preceding punishment of v.16.

Where does this celebration of maternal power come from?

One possibility is that the Bible’s first woman was once a fragile goddess. In the ancient Near East, goddesses (Eve’s ancient neighbours) were often responsible for earthly fertility and life. One Canaanite goddess in particular shared a similar epithet to Eve, albeit even more celebratory: Asherah was recognized as mother of the pantheon, the ‘mother of the gods’. Perhaps, then, in the figure of chavvah, we have evidence of Bible writers’ efforts to diminish divine feminine power by attributing the impressive title of ‘mother of all living’ to a human female whose maternal body had already been shown to be under the control of God.

 

References

Bernadac, Marie-Laure. 1995. Louise Bourgeois (Paris: Flammarion)

Wallace, Howard N. 1985. The Eden Narrative, Harvard Semitic Monographs, 32 (Atlanta: Scholars Press)

Wyatt, N. 1999. ‘Eve’, in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2nd edn, ed. by Karel van der Toorn, Pieter W. van der Horst, and Bob Becking (Leiden: Brill), pp. 316–17


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