Louise Bourgeois's Dark Vision Reanimates a Romanesque Church in Rural France

Louise Bourgeois's Dark Vision Reanimates a Romanesque Church in Rural France
A fabric sculpture of the Virgin and Child at the Louise Bourgeois Church
(Photo by Ben Sutton)

BONNIEUX, France — On the road out of Bonnieux, a postcard-picturesque hilltop village in the South of France with torturously narrow roads and squat stone structures, a marker at the top of a sinuous street that is simply and mysteriously marked “Ô” leads the occasional curious traveler down a steep alley. At the bottom sits the Couvent d'Ô, a former convent whose chapel has, since 2004, housed a series of sculptures created specifically for that space by Louise Bourgeois. Now known as the Louise Bourgeois Church, this peculiar project was commissioned by the convent’s owner, Jean-Claude Meyer, a banker, collector, and close confidant of French president François Hollande. It remains a little-known pilgrimage site for lovers of the French-American sculptress.

The solemn Romanesque church was decommissioned in 1906,  and later served numerous functions — including as a split-level stable and schoolhouse — until it was lovingly restored by Meyer in 1998. Within are housed five works by the late artist (which do not belong to Meyer, but are rather on very long-term loan from the artist’s estate). The pieces take up many of Bourgeois’s trademark tropes while riffing on conventional church fixtures. Upon entering the building (call ahead to make an appointment with the groundskeeper, as opening hours vary from season to season) visitors first find an apparent holy water font hewn from flesh-toned rose marble. Inside, instead of blessed water, seven breast-like forms reminiscent of Bourgeois’s breakthrough 1974 installation “The Destruction of the Father” jut into the empty basin. Around the corner, Bourgeois created a confessional of sorts using many of the materials that appeared in her series of cell installations — the upper rim of its oval form etched with words like “resurrection” and “revolution.” With its interiors plainly visible through fence-like walls, this confessional truly has nothing to hide.

One of Bourgeois’s iconic spiders occupies the next alcove, but it neither crouches at the center of the room nor towers over viewers as they walk between her legs. Instead, a comparatively tiny bronze arachnid sits gripped high on the far wall, its distant and guarded siting suggesting both caution and mischief. Nearby, a more traditional symbol of motherhood — a Virgin and Child rendered in pink cloth — sits under a glass dome on a high shelf, the small figures’ features rendered childlike and creepy by the pink-hued textile’s mesh. At the front of the church’s high, arched central space, in the place of an altar, Bourgeois — who, being too old to travel, never set foot at the site, but created works based on extensive photos and videos of the space taken by an assistant — placed a bronze crucifix whose horizontal bar ends in hands, one open and the other clenched. Its religious symbolism is deeply ambiguous, both inviting and forbidding, much like the cage-evoking confessional.

As a spiritual space shaped by a singular artist’s vision, Bourgeois’s church diverges from the likes of both Henri Matisse’s still-in-use Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence a few hours east on the French Riviera and the abstract, non-denominational Rothko Chapel in Houston. Her sculptural interventions in the moving Bonnieux building remain reverent without being deferential, taking up the beautiful site’s incontrovertible Christian imagery and processing it through a idiosyncratic and complex myth system, to present faith as simultaneously nurturing and confining. The divine icons are invested with earthly frailty and vulnerability, without an attempt to mask or overpower the palpable gravity of the centuries-old architecture.