fri 19/07/2024

Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed, Freud Museum | reviews, news & interviews

Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed, Freud Museum

Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed, Freud Museum

The artist's psychoanalytic writings frame works obsessed with psychic trauma

Louise Bourgeois: 'A Dangerous Obsession', 2003All work: Louise Bourgeois Archive, New York, © The Easton Foundation.

Louise Bourgeois tirelessly, obsessively documented her 32 years of psychoanalysis.

Before the discovery of her secret cache of personal musings – sheaves of hand-written notes outlining dreams and psychic burdens, doodles and self-excoriating lists – nobody had any idea that the celebrated French-American artist, who’s often been associated with Surrealism, had undergone such protracted, intensive therapy, even though it’s really all there in her work in terms of its feverish Freudian symbolism.

But since the discovery of her psychoanalytic writings (two boxes discovered in 2004, and two just after her death, aged 98, in 2010) some rather big claims have been made for them: they must surely take their place, says her literary executor Phillip Larratt-Smith, alongside the autobiography of Cellini, the journals of Delacroix and the letters of Van Gogh. Maybe so, and a two-volume monograph will shortly be published that contains a selection, but on the basis of what is featured at the Freud Museum, maybe not, and in any case, it’s rather difficult to read them all as they are presented here, on the walls and framed and placed in glass vitrines.

Loose Sheet, 1962“I am sixty two years old and I have dragged myself from day to day, the result of an anxiety that only work as a sculpture has appeased”, she begins on one closely scrawled leaf. On another, perhaps a little more prosaically, she lists seven ways to “end it all”, whilst another, longer list (pictured right) a certain self-obsessive petulance makes itself apparent beneath the anguish: “I want to get/I want to keep/I want to say/I want to feel/I want to see/I want to learn”, and so it goes on, rather tediously, until we get to the final word, presented as if it might, in an ideal world that can never exist, be the sum total of demands fulfilled – “mastery”.

This is really stuff that any depressed or unhappy person might have written. It doesn’t particularly add to the work, and you could even argue that in some ways it diminishes it. Bourgeois’s work is always about the expression of a psychoanalytically framed anxiety, but here the source of its mystery is stripped bare. No doubt all these jottings will be of autobiographical interest to people who like to blur the lines between an artist’s work and the cult of their celebrity, but beyond the prurient interest it’s difficult to see much art historical value in it: unlike the letters of Van Gogh they give little away about the actual process of creating.

Few can doubt that at her best, Bourgeois created arresting psychodramas – impressive theatrical tableaux such the Duchampian Red Room, 1994, and, to a lesser degree, The Destruction of the Father, 1974, the first of her installations to feature stuffed fabric sculptures. It would have been rather ambitious to get any of these seminal pieces into the Freud Museum, besides which, as a domestic space and former home of Sigmund Freud, there isn't enough room. In the garden, there is, however, one of Bourgeois’s large bronze spiders from her Maman series, which, with its reproductive, egg-containing sac spied through long, articulated legs, exudes undeniable menace but also betrays the tender vulnerability of its maternal condition.  

Untitled, 2010

Pregnancy and motherhood feature in many of Bourgeois’s works in this exhibition, which are sparsely dotted throughout the two floors of the museum. They express the anxiety of motherhood as the usurpation of the self. In two sketchy watercolours executed in washy, seeping, blood-red paint, we witness two suckling babies angrily demanding the disembodied Kleinian breast. In a more tender but nonetheless disquieting piece, a small stuffed doll is to be found beneath a glass bell jar (main picture: A Dangerous Obsession, 2003). Her head is bowed as she cradles her bulge – a fragile glass dome in glowing red – perhaps in wonder at the life she has created, perhaps in fear and trepidation, or possibly all three. Like a specimen she is trapped, but she is also protected in this hallowed, separate space – a soft, pliable doll symbolising something of the innocent virtue of a Madonna, the sacred embodiment of motherhood. 

Untitled, 1999Multiple Janus-heads and engorged sexual parts make their appearance, too.  A stuffed fabric head has four grimacing faces; a figure with a tiny, pink, faceless head and outrageously large pneumatic breasts is prostrated on an instrument that resembles a bellows; a massive torso is covered in flesh-coloured stuffed berets resembling a tumourous growth of breasts; and another stuffed prostrate figure has a knife for a head, angled over the body to neatly illustrate a castration anxiety (the mutilated figure is already missing one leg, as are other figures in the exhibition).  

Meanwhile, pendulous breasts are barely distinguishable from engorged penises. One of Bourgeois’s most famous pieces, the hanging bronze Janus Fleuri, 1968, has been hooked, like a hunk of butcher's meat, from the ceiling to hang just a foot or two over Freud’s famous couch. Its leg stumps and wound-like genitalia, part female, part male, appear as a gesture of mocking defiance, raging against the analytic process whilst also obediantly complying with its demands to expose the most hidden parts of the self. It's the only work which attempts a direct dialogue with its setting. 

As with almost every confrontation with Bourgeois, I come away feeling the heat of a rather overcooked sensibility, with its sometimes too literal expressions of psychoanalytic symbolism. In fact, I feel as I felt when I visited the artist’s vast Tate Modern retrospective in 2008: this is an artist who has surely had too much psychoanalysis.  


That's a really interesting review - though I actually enjoyed the exhibition in this setting. After all, where better to display the work of "an artist who has surely had too much psychoanalysis"?!

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