Reviews Performance Published 6 April 2012

Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed

8th March- 27th May

Bourgeois and psychoanalysis.

Carmel Doohan

Contained mythologies.

In his study, Freud’s glasses lie on an open book as if he has just popped out to make a cup of tea and was just a moment ago sitting at his desk as a patient free associated. Ghostly and fascinating, the room has been carefully preserved by his daughter, Anna. Hanging over the patient’s couch is a heavy, undifferentiated, organ shaped sculpture, a blob of bronze and steel that is neither abstract nor figurative, but seems like an unformed thought made into a thing. It hovers over the empty couch; a haunting lump that must be deciphered and decoded.

This is Bourgeois’ Janus Fleuri, one of her most famous works. Yet on first entering the room it is almost unnoticeable. The consulting room is the very opposite of the white cube; it is a already very full of objects. From 1890 until his death Freud collected around 2000 artifacts from ancient Egypt, classical Rome and Greece, the Near East and the Orient (including over 20 Phallus’). He called them his ‘old grubby Gods’ and these were, and still are, displayed in vitrines and cabinets in his study and consulting room and in a thick row along the front of the desk where he worked.

When the University of Art at the State University of New York exhibited these artifacts, the show was reviewed by Bourgeois herself in an essay entitled ‘Freud’s Toys.’ She compared them to a collection of pebbles that her father kept on his desk, telling her that “Every time I have a beautiful moment, it proves to me that life is worth living and in gratitude I put a pebble in a box.”

She speaks of Freud’s collection of sculptures also providing him with reassurance and a sense of control. Like her own 1950’s semi-figurative sculptures- Personages- they are reminiscent of African fetish figures, totems to ward off evil spirits. With the hysterical, the psychotic and the returning repressed frequently visiting his at home, Freud’s room must have, indeed been filled with many dark and dangerous energies.

While pebbles, figurines and theories form of defense against the inexplicable, Bourgeois uses thread, pins, fabric and steel machinery to re-create the shapes of her emotions. Literal as well as metaphorical representation of her memories- her parents owned a tapestry studio- she sculpts and arranges these objects to find a way for her raw impulses and subconscious wishes to be expressed. Confessional and autobiographical till the end, at 98 years old Bourgeois was still obsessively re-enacting childhood trauma through her art.

This exhibition came about, in part, due to the discovery of four boxes of Bourgeois’ writings, found after her death. These were notes and diary entries written as a response to her own psychoanalysis in 2004 and 2010. Many are framed; lists of wants and fears, most discussing her father and mother, the language heavy with psychoanalytical jargon.

Among the writings are soft cloth figures, many with multiple breasts and mirrors showing strange mutating faces. Caged sculptures- part of her series entitled Cells- illustrate the repression of these fragile subconscious images. The words themselves also seem to have a caging effect; the repetition, petrified and obsessive, relating everything back through the prism of the Oedipal triangle traps and deadens.

When the objects stand alone- un-indexed to psychoanalytical theory- the beauty of Bourgeois art is its familiar strangeness. Intricate torn towel bound by tight thread is juxtaposed with lumpily welded steel and scratched, brittle half shapes are interrupted by rounded rubber. The joins are visible while the meanings remain opaque and there is something in the forms that we recognise. Deep within us we understand this alphabet, this is the language of thought before thought; the confused texture of our feelings.

As we stand in his study, we imagine Freud moving his toys around while patients like Bourgeois attempt to arrange their minds. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s theories of play technique suggest that a child moving toys about can have a symbolic meaning analogous to that of speech. Yet she, like Freud, begins with a pre-designed board on which the child and his toy truck must crawl. Displayed in his house, curated among Freud’s sacred objects and theories, it feels as if the cages, vitrines and grids that contain Bourgeois’ strange thought-objects are psychoanalysis itself.

Quoted as saying that the reason she originally studied mathematics and geometry, rather than art, is because she could only find ‘peace of mind through the study of rules nobody could change,’ Bourgeois and Freud seem to share a need for strict systemic order and when their ideas are arranged together the flaws in this concept become apparent. Her sculptures, so idiosyncratic and enigmatic, are stripped of their power by their rigid adherence to his schema and when faced with her work Freud’s theories seem reductive. The overt explanation of every gesture leaves no space for the viewer and no possibility for the evocative shapes to be a point of departure.

So let us try to follow the artist’s wild and wandering dream sequence somewhere else. Through the window we can see a garden and in it, a giant metal spider. Maman is balanced precariously on eight spindly legs and hanging from her underside is a basket-womb carrying a polished white egg. Away from the crowded rooms where all meaning is in the past, the air is fresher. The egg cannot be reduced to a pebble in a box and the spider is poised to jump.

Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed is curated by Philip Larratt-Smith and is on at the Freud Museum until 27th May.


Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

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