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In 2008, two years before she died at the age of ninety-eight, the artist Louise Bourgeois sat for a number of portraits with her friend the photographer Alex Van Gelder. The result, MUMBLING BEAUTY LOUISE BOURGEOIS (Thames & Hudson, $50), is alternately monstrous and endearing. She gamely dons a mask, holds a knife, paints, peers through a magnifying glass, reclines in bed, and is reflected in a funhouse mirror that pulls her like putty, stretching beyond repair her already gnomic features. A pigeon alights on her head. Her black orthopedic shoes swing off the ground. Her mouth gapes, the sharp yellow teeth — one is missing — like the open gates of hell.

Van Gelder photographed Bourgeois for a 2011 exhibition called Armed Forces, in which her gnarled hands float against a black backdrop like severed abstractions. His sensibility finds aesthetic satisfaction where others might find grotesquerie; last year in London he exhibited a series called Meat Portraits, photographs of found and arranged animal entrails and raw meat from a slaughterhouse in Benin. Those drooping and distended sacs and organs bear a nontrivial visual relation to Bourgeois’s own tumescent and tumorous sculptures, which would not be out of place in a horror movie. He writes in Mumbling Beauty that Bourgeois was “a consummate performer in front of the camera,” and I have no reason to doubt that she found the distortions and disturbances of the camera to be good and mischievous fun.

Photograph of Louise Bourgeois © Alex Van Gelder. Courtesy Thames & Hudson

Photograph of Louise Bourgeois © Alex Van Gelder. Courtesy Thames & Hudson

In Dance to the Piper, de Mille describes the paradox of the ballerina’s body, which “has been disciplined to look unlike a human body” but “must remain a body and can never be anything else”:

It therefore represents the body as we wish it were, not one of our bodies well-used, but a dream body liberated from trouble. It is the epitome of all the elements we consider most attractive — lightness, fleetness, strength, ease and, above all, fulfillment.

Few of us will ever know what it is like to inhabit a dream body liberated from trouble. But all of us who receive the mixed blessing of long life will know the trouble of Bourgeois’s nightmare body, a body well used: bones bent with age, skin loose with wear, limbs too stiff or weak to shuffle, let alone dance.

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