Louise Bourgeois – Freud Museum

 ‘An artists words are always to be taken cautiously.’ -Louise Bourgeois 

Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed

The Dangerous Obsession, Louise Bourgeois, 2003

Over the course of the past few months the Freud Museum in Hampstead has been holding a retrospective of Louise Bourgeois’ work entitled The Return of the Repressed. This exhibition is hosting not only her artwork but also newfound writings based on her multifarious and ambivalent experiences within the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. The historical resonance of the location steeps the show in psychoanalytical theory. While the exhibition takes place in Freud’s former home, it is the relationship between Bourgeois’ work and Austrian psychoanalyst Melanie Klein that weighs heaviest. The Return of the Repressed is a deeply personal exhibition that provides a glimpse into the inner workings of the highly influential French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. Bourgeois believed that the art of the 20th century was extremely self-referential; looking at her journals and the works in this exhibition reaffirms this conviction. Her work is based on personal memory, emotion, and the reactivation of childhood souvenirs, using various materials in a myriad of shapes.

Upon entering the Freud Museum, I was drawn towards the garden where one of Bourgeois’ sculptures, Maman, rose out of the ground. Maman rises like a full breast as it crouches in Freud’s sun soaked garden in London, looming over the grass, it protects a sack of precious eggs. Like Maman,Bourgeois’ work weaves a surreptitious web, gathering the viewer up into its menacing embrace. Maman is meant to be a portrait of Bourgeois’ mother, although it is more threatening than modest and maternal; reaffirming the polarities found within Bourgeois’ work. Her practice doesn’t ever seem to embody one particular mode of thinking; instead it oscillates between the concrete and the abstract, navigating the grounds of surrealism, abstract expressionism and minimalism. One of the things I love about Bourgeois’ art as provocation is that it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to shock the viewer; instead, this exhibition has a profound resonance. The longer I stayed in the Freud Museum, the more unsettling and at times uncomfortable I found the work, yet it still holds me in a trance, enticing me to dive deeper into the psychology of Bourgeois’ practice.

Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the RepressedMaman, Louise Bourgeois, 1990s

Bourgeois’ work doesn’t merely appeal to our narcissistic need to explore personal inner turmoil, nor is it simply a representation of psychoanalysis in art history. To assume that her artwork is a form of self-therapy does not do the work justice, and it undercuts the importance of her work. At times during this exhibition the evident link between psychoanalysis and the artwork almost becomes a fault; making it difficult to disassociate her work from the Freudian context, narrowing the scope with which the viewer can understand each work.  However, Klein’s theories of the part object relate heavily to Bourgeois’ work and should not be ignored.

Bourgeois’ work provides a spatial and psychological field of attraction and repulsion for the viewer; each piece has a commanding presence, which speaks volumes, especially in the context of Freud’s former home. The placement of the works, most obviously Janus Fleur which hangs above Freud’s couch, allows the viewer to contemplate each piece and its relation to both the practice and theory of psychoanalysis, as well as the role psychoanalysis plays in art history. The apt placement of Janus Fleur is the most striking curatorial tool employed in this exhibition, resulting in multiple connotations regarding sublimation and our sexual desires that fill Freud’s theories.

Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the RepressedJanus Fleur, Louise Bourgeois, 1968

Just like Janus, the two-faced god, Bourgeois’ work is dripping with dualities. Janus Fleur, is perhaps the most obvious example of this. It is a compelling depiction of sexuality, bursting and then deteriorating into a heap of ambiguity, accentuating the oft-erotic connotations found in much of her work. Bourgeois seems to have an inexhaustible arsenal of sexual oppositions and permutations. A bronze sculpture, depicting what could be two flaccid penises linked by a central almost indistinct area evoking female genitalia and pubic hair; Janus Fleur links masculine to feminine as a penis becomes a breast, becomes a clitoris, becomes a knee.  Made in 1968, the sculpture chimed with the prevalent trend towards phallic representations in contemporary American Art.[1]

Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed

The obvious link between Klein’s theory of the part object and the representation of the body-in pieces, ‘runs, like an insistent thread, a sustained subtext.’[2]It becomes clear that artwork that can be defined as a part-object – the muddling up of body parts, and the sometimes messy placement of part object upon part object or material fragment upon material fragment is the site of infantile bodily drives. Cell XXI embodies both the polarity of Bourgeois’ work as well as developing Klein’s theory of the part object. Here, yet again, we have both male and female forms; it is difficult to define what you are seeing. Hung in a cage that allows observation, while at the same time evoking the perception of captivity, Cell XXI doesn’t quite rise to the status of an object; instead it remains closer to a thing.[3]Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to have an apposite ending. ‘This unsettling sense of an incomplete project resonates with our own contemporary situation.’[4]I’m not arguing that the actual work of art is unfinished; instead that it is creating a disconcerting sensation of an infinite struggle between two polarities.

Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the RepressedCell XXI, Louise Bourgeois, 2000

It may be the discovery of Bourgeois’ psychoanalytic writings that the exhibition is based on, but it is the power of her work to extrapolate and utilise psychoanalysis as a tool that entices the viewer. Bourgeois doesn’t merely use psychoanalysis as a means to an end when producing work. Instead it is a device that allows her to captivate her audience, draw them in, and instils an overwhelming sense of maternal comfort layered with a menacing afterglow.

-Megan Conery

[1]Artists like Yayoi Kusama, Eve Hesse, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, all employed the use of the phallus at this time.

[2] Michelson, Annette. 48. ‘Where is Your Rupture? Mass Culture and the Gesmtkunstwerk’ (October, Vol. 56). The MIT Press. 1991.

[3] Fer, Briony. ‘Eva Hesse; Studiowork’. Edinburgh Fruitmarket Gallery. 2009.

[4] Fer, Briony. 15. ‘Eva Hesse: Studiowork’. Edinburgh Fruitmarket Gallery. 2009.