Nearly ten years after Louise Bourgeois moved to New York from her native Paris, she embarked on a series of approximately 80 carved and assembled wooden sculptures known as Personnages, which embody the essential themes and obsessions of all her subsequent work. Described by Bourgeois as her first truly mature artistic effort, these life-size, semi-abstract, vaguely anthropomorphic sculptures created between 1945 and 1955 functioned as surrogates for real people close to her—some departed, some forsaken, and some eminently present. Seventeen of these Personnages—including Dagger Child—were featured in a solo exhibition at New York’s Peridot Gallery in 1949. The installation underscored the sculptures’ figurative quality. Shown without bases, the thin, freestanding, vertical forms inhabited the room in small clusters like visitors conversing while perusing the exhibition. Bourgeois considered this spatial arrangement a critical component of the presentation because she intended to create a “reconstruction” of her past with this display of surrogates. Motivated by homesickness, a churning resentment over familial betrayal dating from her childhood, a desire to connect with loved ones, and a wish to control those who perturbed her, the Personnages were as much conjured as they were carved, nailed, and painted. The presence of autobiographical references, the symbolic content of abstract form, and the staged interaction between objects in space—all enduring motifs in Bourgeois’s art—were conjoined in this early, pivotal exhibition and, in their fusion, perfectly anticipated her haunting installation work of the 1990s, which invokes psychological conditions of the body through architectural metaphors.
The Personnages had clear associations with avant-garde art of the late 1940s, particularly in their totemlike structures, which can be read as a three-dimensional correlate to the totemic forms in the early work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Mark Tobey. At the time that Bourgeois created these sculptures, she was exhibiting regularly with members of the soon-to-be-christened New York School. And as a European émigré she was well versed in the Surrealists’ fascination with the “primitive” in relation to the unconscious. Regardless of such shared concerns, Bourgeois has always spoken with an unmistakably unique voice, one that struggles to articulate the vicissitudes of her life. Femme Volage, for instance, is a self-described self-portrait. With this in mind, it is possible to see the Personnages also as stylized images of the sewing tools—needles, bobbins, and so on—that in Bourgeois’s visual vocabulary have come to symbolize her parents, who were tapestry restorers.