On ViewThe Jewish Museum
May 21 – September 12, 2021
““It all comes down to this the artist lives at this level making life out of death”” — Louise Bourgeois, handwritten note, ca. 1964
Much has been written and said about Louise Bourgeois, one of a relatively few American artists whose name is well known not only within the art world, but also to the general public. Yet Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter, currently on view at the Jewish Museum, presents a wealth of new material—in addition to 40 of her sculptures, works on paper, reliefs, and paintings—that makes us look at her art from an unexpectedly different angle. This new perspective is made possible by a posthumous discovery of a large cache later known as her “psychoanalytic writings”—a collection of texts the artist typed or wrote by hand during the course of her approximate 30-year-long psychoanalytic treatment. These notes were written mostly from 1952 and 1966 during a particularly intensive period of her treatment and provide a refreshingly candid picture of the artist’s struggle in her search for subjective truth about her internal world and its realities. Interestingly, Bourgeois turned to making art professionally after the death of her mother and to intensive psychoanalytic treatment after the death of her father, making both occupations into a personal quest to piece herself together after these devastating losses: “I am a collection of wooden pearls never threaded—and perfectly idiotic,” she wrote in 1957, five years after the beginning of her analysis.
Bourgeois’s verve and determination to make headway on this path are evident in an extraordinary typewritten note dated December 3, 1951, nearly a month before the beginning of her analysis. In this note, she wrote about a dream of her mother stating that this dream made her “very tired” and determined to “reach” its “secret.” It also made her very anxious, because she knew that she would “not succeed” in doing so, at least by herself. Her husband was the only one who could help her get to the meaning of the dream, but he was unresponsive, asleep, impossible to wake up even by her pounding with her fists on his chest. Meanwhile, her desperate, “superhuman” effort to reach her mother, who was slipping away, ended in a sudden “climax and satisfaction in a long kiss.” The artist was “surprised” to realize that she “wanted” this kiss, which left “an object like an almond” in her mouth, passed on to her from her mother’s mouth. The object was very hard, perhaps even harder than marble, and the artist thought that “it may be a form of truth,” which she was not equipped to crack: “You know so little,” she said to herself, “you have to try everything you can to learn how to read around you.”
Given the timing of this note and Bourgeois’s indelible urge “to learn to read around herself,” it is tempting to think that this dream presaged Bourgeois’s decision to begin psychoanalytic treatment the following month. As we could infer from the dream, Bourgeois’s mother was the primary object of her bottomless curiosity, with the figure of the father (alternatively, her husband, her analyst, and Sigmund Freud himself) as the helper for getting to the source of the mystery, passed on to her by her mother. Indeed, her relationship to psychoanalysis was conflicted, to say the least. As Philip Larratt-Smith, the exhibition’s curator, noted, Bourgeois “distrusted words and did not believe in the talking cure.”
Looking at the exhibition, it seems clear that the artist communicated her truth through the visually expressive language of her art—mimicry, material, texture, color, size—that often makes a strong visceral impact on us. Her “psychoanalytic writings” are captivating, but they do not carry her weight as an artist. Even though Bourgeois accused Freud of “failing to understand the creative artist,” she continued treatment for three decades and wrote about him also “as a healer, … a very powerful person ….” Juliet Mitchell’s insightful catalogue essay helps us understand this split, explaining that “through carrying her art within her therapy, Bourgeois introduces the actively sexual girl into psychoanalysis—where, so far, in its theory at least, she is still missing.” We can witness this non-conformist sexuality not only in the explicit nature of Bourgeois’s imagery—such as in the gender-bending Fillette (1968), for instance, or in a gender-blending Couple III (1997), a sculpture in which a love-making couple blends together into a dark, towering bulk. Though compelling, Mitchell’s argument is somewhat at odds with Bourgeois’s own critique of Freud as a powerful healer who nonetheless failed to help artists of any gender. The root of the matter may be that Freud looked at art as a spectator and not as a creator.
It appears that Bourgeois found fault in Freud’s understanding of aesthetics, which was limited largely to his theory of sublimation. Briefly, this theory postulated that a person’s libido did not find satisfaction in a sexual aim and rerouted its energy onto a culturally valued pursuit. This rather cut-and-dried conception of artistic creativity tends to separate emotion and reason, and leave art and psychoanalysis on two never intersecting tracks. It hardly applies to Bourgeois, whose best known creations are not beautiful in a conventional sense, but exude violence, primitive rawness and transgressive sexual power. In her catalog essay, Mitchell continues by emphasizing the primacy of the body in Bourgeois’s art by citing the artist: “For me, sculpture is the body. My body is sculpture.” Mitchell also reminds us of the centrality of bodily ego for Freud and, consequently, that therapy only has meaning when it is experienced emotionally by being “felt in… the body.” In this sense, the aesthetic conflict for Bourgeois is better understood not through the process of sublimation, but rather through her attempt to reconcile what a Kleinian psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer called the “obtrusive outside” of the artist’s body and its “enigmatic inside,” in his book co-authored with Meg Harris Williams, The Apprehension of Beauty: The Role of Aesthetic Conflict in Development, Art, and Violence. This conflict is both aesthetic—in that it tries to find balance between ideal beauty and perceived ugliness—and psychoanalytic—with its emphasis on the artist’s internal world and its “objects”(unconscious fantasies, ideas, identifications).
In looking at the exhibition from the point of view of this “fundamental aesthetic conflict,” we become aware of Bourgeois’s tenacious attempt to “transform hate into love,” as she famously proclaimed. This transformation strikes us as a redemptive process of finding a form to speak her internal truth, to make herself understood. If, as Bourgeois admitted, the resistance of material made her feel that she was failing in this endeavor, then maybe her engagement with psychoanalysis was an effort to rescue herself from this disquieting predicament.