Whitehot Magazine

May 2012: Louise Bourgeois at Freud Museum


Louise Bourgeois, Janus Fleuri, 1968 
Suspended over Freud's couch at The Freud Museum London
Courtesy The Easton Foundation Photo: Ollie Harrop, (c) Louise Bourgeois Trust


Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed
Freud Museum
20 Maresfield Gardens
London NW3 5SX
8 March to 27 May 2012

“The truth is that Freud did nothing for artists, or for the artist’s problem, the artist’s torment – to be an artist involves some suffering. That’s why artists repeat themselves – because they have no access to a cure,” Louise Bourgeois wrote in a 1962 essay called “Freud's Toys”. Despite its setting in the Freud Museum, the sculptures and previously unpublished writings in The Return of the Repressed undermine reductive psychoanalytic readings of her work. At the same time, they show us how Bourgeois's attitudes to her art and to psychoanalysis were mutually formative, even though it was only the former which had the potential to be a “cure”.

The exhibition was inspired, in part, by Philip Larratt-Smith's discovery of over 1000 letters and notes written by Bourgeois, most during her thirty-two years in therapy with Sigmund Freud's student Henry Lowenfeld. Bourgeois's work has only been exhibited in modern galleries before, with the 2007 Tate Modern retrospective encompassing the breadth of her career, which spanned over sixty years. In the gallery's stark white spaces, the sexually charged nature of her work was both personal and inextricably immersed in twentieth century artistic developments like surrealism. Here, the domestic setting puts a microscope to the personal and biographical. Rather than attempting to recreate her famous installations such as The Red Room, Larratt-Smith creates new ones in the comparatively tiny but ornate rooms of the museum, where Freud lived and practised in 1938, the year before his death.

While the notes on display show Bourgeois's internal, ongoing turmoil, her work resists any fixity of meaning. Psychoanalysis wields a great explanatory power, and Bourgeois used it to understand her own creative process as both “cathartic” and “sublimating”. But many of the works here deny certain, steady meaning, while at the same time referencing key Freudian images and inspirations, such as the myth of Janus. A photograph of Freud looks down imperiously on the first four works in the sitting room downstairs. Exhibited here are works which show her obsession with the double-faced figure Janus, the god of doors, who looked both into the past and into the future. One piece, which resembles a fetish-mask, has four separate knitted faces. The viewer is forced to circle it, rather than staring at it passively. Against the museum's gloomy Queen Anne-revival decor, Bourgeois's vitrine pieces are strikingly dramatic, with an untitled piece from 1998 featuring a torso covered in thick stretch glossy black fabric, with comically swollen breasts. The lower half tapers like a shoehorn, on which balances from a thread a small flesh-coloured cushion with a slit in it. Across the room is another misshapen torso form, this time swaddled in a baby-pink fabric, with a knife again balanced across the lower half. Bourgeois's perception of the female body seems inextricably linked to the invasiveness of childbirth and reproduction.

Louise Bourgeois, Cell XXIV (Portrait), 2001
Steel, stainless steel, glass, wood and fabric; 177.8 x 106.7 x 106.7 cm
Courtesy Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read
Photo: Christopher Burke, (c) Louise Bourgeois Trust

In Freud's study, where the “toys” or objects are, her 1968 brass sculpture Janus Fleuri hangs suspended from the ceiling, above Freud's famous couch, like a dream or an awkward suggestion. The hermaphroditic sculpture has two penises on either side, with a vagina-like indeterminate softness in between the genital. Bourgeois has described this as a “self-portrait”, but in its new context, it almost disappears, amongst the other objects. It acquires a new kind of delicacy - its similarity to the other objects in the room making it hard to spot initially. But when looked at,  its male and female parts seem contradictorily natural, inseparable and chimeric. Bourgeois continues to evade fixed meaning, in another sculpture called Cell XXIV (Portrait), placed upstairs. In the “cell” of the glass case, three heads with two faces each are suspended, with mirrors below in each corner which show a different configuration and angle each time the viewer moves. The cell might be containing, but freedom can be had in ambiguity and new ways of seeing.

Despite Bourgeois's repetition of feminine forms, it was her father who was the focus of her most complex feelings. His ten-year affair with her personal tutor and her mother's death when she was 21 gave her a life-long fear of abandonment, according to many psychobiographical accounts of her work. Her letters, displayed upstairs, also make him sound Janus-like. He was cruel to  her and her mother in private, while presenting a generous face in public. The “family romance” continued to play out into her adulthood, with Bourgeois addressing her three children in one note: “You need a mother. I understand but I refuse to be your mother because I need a mother myself.”  Accordingly, a later work displayed in Freud's former bedroom features the trademark truncated female form with several of her own pink berets sewn on and puffed up to resemble breasts, a wittily grotesque view of women as both passive and helplessly giving.

Psychoanalysis failed as a cure for the anger, despair, and loneliness she felt, but it also allowed her to refashion her personal narrative through her work through her long career. Art to her was “manipulation, without intervention”. There are moments of relief – on the mezzanine floor, a Virgin Mary-like figure kneels inside a dome, holding a red ball. Red often had negative associations for the artist, but here the figure handles the ball, as if controlling it. Her wet-on-wet gouache paintings, which came later in her life, are also engorged in a soft pink wash with only deep red traces recalling the past. Larratt-Smith's curation uses a narrow selection of work to show how her obsessions fit with Freudian themes and meanings. But even then, we see Bourgeois breaking free of these strictures, challenging schematic readings, and choosing to embrace complex, irreducible works like Janus Fleuri as her most self-representative art.

Zakia Uddin

Zakia Uddin is an East London-based writer who has previously written for Time Out, Londonist, Dazed & Confused, The Guardian, and The Wire.

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