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Donald Kuspit on The Benefit Of Art According To Louise Bourgeois: “Art Is A Guarantee of Sanity”

Art Is a Guaranty of Sanity, 2000, Collection Museum of Modern Art, NY

By DONALD KUSPIT, February 2020

The issue of Louise Bourgeois’ art is whether art did secure her sanity, or at least assure her that she was sane, at least while making art, rather, than as I will argue, offered her respite from her insanity, which, as she realized, was incurable, but could be managed or kept under control by being converted into or exorcized in art.  Just as Picasso said his grotesque Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 was an exorcism, and with that an attack on the prostitutes who gave him gonorrhea, so Bourgeois’ bizarre dolls, many agonized self-portraits, as in Rejection, 2001, others showing couples morbidly entangled in coitus, as in Couple I, 1996 are an exorcism.  But where Picasso sadistically attacked the other, namely women, as the works of his surrealist period, 1925-1932 show, Bourgeois, a woman, masochistically attacks herself, more pointedly her body, and even more pointedly her skin, as the torn fabric of La Nausée, 2001 shows.  She may sew the tissues of her skin together, as in the upside down head of Cinq, 2007, but the cuts remain conspicuous, scars left from the self-destruction, the self-wounding.  The upside down head suggests the old trope of the world turned upside down, that is, gone mad, but for Bourgeois the self has turned upside down, that is, gone mad.  

Cinque, 2007

“The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego,” Freud wrote, adding that “it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface,” that is, the skin, as the psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu emphasized in his discussion of the skin ego, the container of the body ego.  Such works as Maison Fragiles, 1978, in which Bourgeois reduces the female body to simplistic invisibility—a minimalist structure of black sticks, a shell containing nothing, emptied of any signs of self, a devitalized abstraction of a figure, a body stripped of breasts and curves and any other features conventionally associated with the female body, a hollow woman, a geometric form suggestive of an anorexic body, certainly a body unrecognizable as organic or human, a body that is an empty house, a body housing no soul—suggest that Bourgeois has a severely disturbed body image.  La Nausée confirms her disgust with her body, more broadly her self-disgust.  Clearly Bourgeois has difficulty containing herself, let alone knowing who she is.  Sometimes she is The She-Fox, 1985, sometimes she is a lioness, as in Nature Study, 1984-2002, sometimes she castrates men, as Fillette (Sweeter Version), 1968-99 suggests, taking possession of their penis as though in penis envy, more generally appropriating the phallus that is the symbol of their power, sometimes she is just a hysteric, as Arch of Hysteria, 1993 suggests, all of which suggest that her self is in perpetual crisis, each transformation holding off a breakdown.

Arch of Hysteria, 1993

And breakdown she does, twice in her life, once in 1932, when her mother Joséphine died, and she attempted suicide--tried to drown herself--and again in 1951, when her father Louis died, and once again saw no reason to live, remarking that her life was “beyond hope of repair.”  Her husband Robert Goldwater, the prominent art historian, died in 1973, compounding her losses, all profoundly personal, for they were what psychoanalysts call primary objects, certainly seriously significant others.  It is worth noting that Louise Bourgeois never thought of herself as a surrealist, as she has been called, or a neo-primitivist, as she has also been called, but rather a symbolist, as she said to me, citing Goldwater’s book on symbolism, and denying that his equally influential book on primitivism was relevant to her art.  All of these deaths shook her sense of identity, undermined her sense of self, and she blamed herself for them, unconsciously and not so unconsciously, for she acknowledges her envy of them, and with that her wish to kill them, especially Goldwater, her “rival,” as she said, and her father, as The Destruction of the Father, 1974 makes clear.  More generally, she acknowledged her Persistent Antagonism, 1946-1948 and “aggressive pulsions.” 

Fillette (Sweeter Version), 1968-1999

Born in 1911, she was 21 at the time of her mother’s death, and had just began to study calculus and geometry at the Sorbonne.  In response to the depression induced by her mother’s death, and to stave off its disintegrating effect, she stopped studying mathematics and began to study art—a life as well as mind changing event, a turn away from objectivity towards subjectivity.  In response to the death of her father—she was 40 at the time, the time of the mid-life crisis, when one “finds oneself halfway along our life’s path,” as Dante realized when he found himself lost in depressingly dark woods facing the Gate of Hell with its inscription “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”—she became deeply depressed, so much so that she seemed to have suffered a psychotic break, as her numerous notes about the feelings she had at the time strongly suggest.  In response to this psychotic depression—a suicide in principle if not in physical practice--she began therapy with Dr. Leonard Cammer and eventually psychoanalysis with Dr. Henry Lowenfeld.  This intense analysis lasted 15 years, from 1952 to 1967.  She continued to see him—he was always there when she needed him—until his death in 1985.  

Spider, 1997

It was psychoanalysis, not art, that guaranteed Bourgeois’ sanity, that permitted her to function as an artist, gave her the ego strength to be continuously creative, even when suffering from insomnia, a symptom of death anxiety, that is, as long as one was awake and could be creative during the night one would not die in one’s sleep.  Bourgeois’ insomnia drawings are a testimony to her will to live, and psychoanalysis gave her the strength to do so by giving her the sense of self she lost when her mother and father died.  They are our primary self-objects, as the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut called them, reminding us that there is no self or subject without an object or other, that is, we identify with others to become ourselves.  The self is bipolar, as Kohut convincingly argues, and without their empathy one cannot endure and flourish.  No person “can survive psychologically in a psychological milieu that does not respond empathically to her, than she can survive physically in an atmosphere that contains no oxygen,” Kohut argues.  Perhaps Bourgeois felt that her mother and father were not especially empathic, suggesting why she thought little of herself, especially of her body.  It may be one of the reasons she thought of herself as a monster—a predatory Spider, 1977, weaving a web to trap others, to catch them or embalm them, or like a cannibal consume them, getting from their bodies the emotional nourishment she didn’t get from their souls. 

Lacking empathy, one responds with narcissistic rage, as Kohut says—the rage that informs Bourgeois’ envy of her mother and father, indeed, of anyone and everyone, from Louise Nevelson, whom she felt stole her ideas, to her mother, whom she thought was more “competent” than her, to Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, who like her father were “charmers” and fakes, which is why they got further in the art world than she did.  Man or woman, competitor or confidant—she felt that Lowenfeld was smarter than she was, and envied him his knowledge of psychoanalysis which she had studied, at one time thinking of becoming a therapist, and acknowledged responding to him as aggressively as she responded to her husband—one fell victim to her envy and rage.  She notes her father’s fits of rage—she clearly identifies with him—and envies his intimate, sexual relationship with her English tutor—the mistress she clearly wanted to replace, and envied.  The malice evident in many of her works is reified rage.  But then the atmosphere in her family home must have been empathic enough to creatively breathe.  “Psychoticism is a personality pattern typified by aggressiveness and interpersonal hostility,” according to the psychologist Hans Eysenck, adding that it is “linked to increased vulnerability to psychosis.”  Bourgeois’ psychotic episodes, so to speak, suggests that she was a psychotic personality, and psychoanalysis enabled her to control or manage her psychotic tendencies, and to artistically act them out, mastering them by aesthetically encoding them, more broadly expressing them—expression is representation--and thereby exorcizing or purging them, as I suggested, and, perhaps more pointedly, getting the empathetic attention of others, of strangers who make her feel less estranged from herself by appreciating it.

The Destruction of the Father, 1974. Collection Glenstone Foundation, Potomac, MD

If we identify with the dead, and blame ourselves for their deaths, that is, feel guilt as though we killed them, and thus want to kill ourselves or die with them, as some psychoanalysts think, then Bourgeois suffered excruciating guilt at the death of her parents, certainly a traumatic event.  And if guilt is an aggression against oneself, and Bourgeois’ primary problem was her aggression, as Lowenfeld thought and she acknowledged—it was responsible for what she called her “self-defeatism” and “insecurity complex” and her sense that she was “nothing since you are only a woman” and “want to be a man,” “for having a penis is rewarded by both pleasure and standing”--then her depression at her parent’s death was a kind of masochism, the self-torture that inaugurates self-destruction.  Using Freud’s distinction between “Mourning and Melancholia,” Bourgeois could not successfully mourn her parent’s deaths, finally separating from them and accepting their loss, because of her “delusional expectation of punishment,” bringing with it “a painful lowering of self-regard,” a “self-reproach representing unconscious hostility toward the lost object, which has been shifted onto the survivor’s ego through a process of identification.”(1)  If depression hints at death, then Bourgeois’ depression was a suicidal death wish—it is on the record that she thought of suicide, as previously noted—as well as a murderous death wish.  Certainly Bourgeois’ art is fraught with self-torment and self-contempt as well as, less convincingly to me, self-love.  Broadly speaking, Bourgeois seems to have used her art to rescue herself from suffering—particularly the emotional unhappiness her body seemed to have caused her, more generally the contempt she felt for herself because she was a woman, in part an internalization of the unconscious contempt many misogynist men feel for women, having in part to do with their difficulty in separating from or disidentifying with their mother, the first object we all identify with--by externalizing it, in whatever distorted terms, distortion being a form of defense as well as exaggeration.  As she wrote, “organizing” a sculpture is “like a treatment for the sick”—for her sickness.  This suggests that her works have much in common, or a convincing affinity, with the art of the insane, so celebrated and emulated by many modern artists.   

Keeping a record of her feelings throughout her life—she notes her recurrent “anxiety attacks,” her “violence unconscious,” her “fear of violent parental intercourse,” her feeling of being “at the bottom of the well,” her wish “to eat to kill, to devour, to come—to kill the mother to incorporate the father to take/his strength and to be killed as a punishment”—and especially during the course of her psychoanalysis—which she was in for virtually half her life—kept her sane enough to make paradoxically meaningful art, that is, to be idiosyncratically creative enough to convey her feelings in socially convincing form.  “Art is a guarantee of sanity,” she famously declared, but less well known is her idea of what it means to be sane:  “To be an artist,” she wrote on August 27, 1984, “is a guarantee to your fellow human, that the wear + tear of living, will not let you become a murderer.”    

Le Trani Episode, 1971

Finally, I would like to suggest that for Bourgeois art serves to perform what the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion calls the alpha function.  Distinguishing between “raw, concretely felt experiences which can only be dealt with by expulsion,” which he calls beta elements, and, “on the contrary, alpha elements, which lend themselves to storage in memory, understanding, symbolization, and further development,” Bion argues that “the mother’s capacity to bear anxiety projected into her by the infant”  transforms the beta elements into alpha elements.  The bad feelings are projected into the mother’s good breast by the nursing infant, which contains them in the act of nourishing the infant.  The so-called container-breast is an alembic in which the lead of deadly incomprehensible feelings is transformed into the gold of comprehensible living thought.  “If the interchange between the infant and the breast is good, then the infant not only reintrojects its own projections made the more bearable, but she also introjects the container-breast and its capacity to perform the alpha function…An identification with a good container capable of performing the alpha function is the basis of a healthy mental apparatus,” that is, one that can withstand and process anxiety, and with that understand and control feelings.  I think that all her artistic life Bourgeois struggled to become a good breast, as The Feeding, 2007 suggests, and to be a good, nourishing mother, as The Good Mother, 2007 and Maman, 2008 suggest, and to have a good marriage and good family, as The Family, 2008 suggests.  All looks rosy, not to say intensely libidinous, but the hard breasts--hard-hearted? (they certainly don’t look as if they have the milk of human kindness)--in Le Trani Episode, 1971 certainly don’t look lushly soft, gushing with love.  But it is all rather childish, a game played with dolls, as The Reticent Child, 2003 makes clear.  

The Good Mother, 2008

I suggest that Bourgeois’ is an art made by a child, as her breast works strongly suggest.  Her art reminds me of Baudelaire’s remark that “genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will,”(3) and also of Freud’s remark that all mental illness is regression to childhood.  We see the giant looming breast, gloriously in our face but also threatening us, almost overwhelming us, its insistent, intimidating presence arousing anxiety as much as love.  Demanding that we pay homage to it, worship it even as it rolls over us like a juggernaut, it is a child’s monstrous vision of a breast, the breast that Philip Roth perversely metamorphosed into by enviously identifying with it.  It certainly doesn’t look like it can contain our hopeless feelings.  One can’t help but wonder if it’s giving us blood, as the hellishly red stream that flows from it suggests, rather than milk as bright and as heavenly light.  Are we sucking its life blood like little vampires or are we being given a blood transfusion to save us from some sickness threatening death?  We certainly look pitifully small and vulnerable, pathetic trivial creatures unsure of our lives.  Comparing Bourgeois’ soft and hard breasts, the many breasts in Mamelles, 1991 and the many breasts of her Spiral Woman, 1984—versions of the Magna Mater—it seems clear that Bourgeois is profoundly ambivalent about being a woman, and, more broadly, a so-called borderline personality, oscillating between the extremes, unable to convincingly integrate them.  

Ste. Sébastienne, 1947

A breast is what psychoanalysts call a part object; there are not many whole objects in Bourgeois’ art, and those that are seem make-believe, artificial—dolls.  In two Untitled sculptures, one from 1953, the other from 1954, she piles part object on part object to make a haphazard body, a totemic figure with no identity and individuality.  Her bloody red large breasts are rendered in what the art therapist Rita Simon calls “the Archaic Massive style, in which “large-scale and vibrant color give an effect of convexity and weight to simple forms.”(4)  Bourgeois’ fulsome breast is a conspicuously curved, heavy, simplified form, emblematic, as Simon says, of “emotional reality.”  The solidity of her sculptured breasts conveys a sense of “concentrated energy,” another feature of the Archaic Massive style.  “The vitality of color”—Bourgeois’ red—“gives an effect of massive form”—the massive form of the breast—“pressing beyond its outlines.”  “Expressionism is a recent version of Archaic Massive art,” Simon writes, suggesting that Bourgeois’ images of the breast are expressionistic, ambiguously abstract and representational, a point she made clearly at the beginning of her career with her St. Sebastian, 1947, implicitly the bleeding red heart in the breast of a man who gave his life to Christ, just as Bourgeois gave her life to art, reminding us that she said “art is her religion.”  WM


(1)Elizabeth L. Auchincloss and Eslee Samberg, eds. Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts (American Psychoanalytic Association; New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2012), 56-57

(2)Hanna Segal, Dream, Phantasy and Art (London and New York:  Tavistock/Routledge, 1991), 51

(3)Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London and New York:  Phaidon, 1995), 8

(4)R. M. Simon, The Symbolism of Style:  Art as Therapy (London and New York:  Tavistock/Routledge, 1992), 87

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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