Moira Jeffery: Final farewell to grande dame of art

IF IT is right, or indeed possible, to celebrate a death, then the death on Monday of the artist Louise Bourgeois, at the age of 98, is indeed a cause for celebration. That the grande dame of American art was in fact a tiny, imperious Frenchwoman who came to tower over both male and female contemporaries was only one of the remarkable things about her.

Born on Christmas Day, 1911, and still working until just two weeks before her death, she was that rarest of creatures – a woman artist who lived her creative life to the full and died as active, famous and universally respected as she ought to be.

If the often inward-looking art world has lost one of its most important and distinctive figures, then it's important to understand that subsequent generations of women have both lost and found their Picasso this week: a figure of inspiration, ferocious energy and mischief whose influence stretched well beyond the confines of art, a bona fide grand old woman to match the grand old men that fill their history books.

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A quick roll call of some of the most influential female figures in visual art this century makes undeniably grim reading. There is the American sculptor Eva Hesse, lost to a brain tumour at the age of 34, at the height of her powers, in 1970. The young photographer Francesca Woodman, a suicide at only 22. Diane Arbus, the documentary photographer, dead by her own hand before she reached 50.

After a while it becomes impossible not to suspect that greatness in women artists is allowed only in retrospect, and only then if they also fit the trajectory of brilliance cut short by tragedy. Each of these figures was talented and innovative but each has come to be dominated by their untimely end.

Once you understand this dynamic, you begin to see it everywhere. The notion of burning brightly (and briefly) is a commonplace romantic idea but it is a destructive one that impacts particularly on women: every poet only a true poet if she is a suicidal Sylvia Plath; every film star a great actress only if she is a troubled Marilyn Monroe.

The art historian Linda Nochlin wrote a famous essay in the Seventies, titled "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?", her argument being that the whole notion of "greatness" was a myth in itself and that art history was made by institutions as much as people.

I hope, however, it might be harder to write that essay now that this century has finally seen the true maturing of women's artistic potential. The life and death of Louise Bourgeois presents one of only a handful of female artists' careers in which we've been presented with the whole lifelong picture and concluded with a dignified end: no dimming of the creative light, no ruinously destructive marriage, no illness or suicide attempts, no defeat by the pram in the hall, that traditional enemy of art.

What we know about the artist's biography are those tales she chose deliberately to tell in her work, for she was an inveterate maker of her own myth. Bourgeois was born into a French family of tapestry restorers, and made the conflicts of her early life into the heart of her sculpture and painting. There was her tyrannical father whose affair with Louise's English tutor Sadie was to enrage and fascinate the artist all her life. And there was the patient, industrious mother she paid tribute to in Maman, the 35ft bronze spider that dominated Tate Modern's Turbine Hall when the museum opened in 2000.

Bourgeois studied at the Sorbonne and then escaped into art. She was taught by Ferdinand Lger and was a friend and admirer of figures such as Brancusi and Duchamp. She married the US art historian Robert Goldwater and moved to New York in 1938, where she brought up three children. She had recognition as an artistic innovator in her mid-career in the 1960s and, in her last three decades, the kind of global recognition that few artists achieve.

Bourgeois never shied away from the big questions, particularly that of sex. She recognised its drive in her own life and in that of her family. The most famous picture of her was that taken by the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, a mischievous old lady clutching Fillette, her latex sculpture of giant male genitalia.

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On the day of Bourgeois's death the British artist Tracey Emin, who was collaborating on a new project with her, gave a tribute to her artistic longevity. Great male artists, she said, produced a tremendous ejaculation in middle age. A great woman artist like Bourgeois proved that women could come and come again. True or not, it was very unsuitable language for the teatime news: you knew that Bourgeois would be laughing.

Bourgeois though was no humorist, she produced ferocious art without pity and without consolation. There are a great many consolations for us, though, in the artist reaching such a grand old age: not least that unlike two "tragic" greats, the writer Virginia Woolf and the photographer Diane Arbus, her life story is unlikely to be turned into a Hollywood movie starring the drearily insipid Nicole Kidman.

We will never regret what might have been, and we will never need to create a male hate figure – a Ted Hughes to her Sylvia Plath – to acknowledge her greatness. She did it all and she did it right to the end.