I Transform Hate into Love: Louise Bourgeois at the Jewish Museum
Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter at the Jewish Museum
May 21 – September 12, 2021
1099 Fifth Avenue, at 92nd Street
New York City, thejewishmuseum.org
I had heard of the “bloody Sundays,” as the salons hosted by Louise Bourgeois at her Chelsea townhouse were termed for the intimidating quality of her critiques on art brought by visitors. The phone number was listed and I called to ask permission to attend. “Yes, three o’clock” she herself answered and slammed down the receiver. A full house assembled in her parlor, admitted by an assistant who was also filming the proceedings. We sat on a faded banquet and on an odd collection of chairs against the walls in an L-shape. There was a small table in the middle offering a box of supermarket chocolates, a bottle of whiskey that no one touched, and some plastic cups.
The room looked unpainted down the decades, the back garden a dense thicket of green, and a large inspiration board was heavily layered with all manner of invitations and images. When Louise slowly entered from the kitchen through French doors with the aid of a walker, her damp, short hair combed back, wearing a white long-sleeved Helmut Lang T-shirt, the room fell silent. She sat at another small table with some fresh watercolors in a white plastic cupped container off to the side, suggesting she had been working there recently. Visitors gradually came forward with an example of their art and sat at the small table facing her and so went the afternoon. Steeled a bit, I got up and placed a smallish bronze figure on the table between us. Her sole remark was “Impressive” and I felt lucky it had escaped her wrath.
Hurtle forward to the Jewish Museum 2021. Freud’s Daughter is the first exhibition in the United States to focus on the Bourgeois’ psychoanalytic writing, shown with a selection of her art from all its epochs curated, and artfully installed, by Philip Larratt-Smith, her literary archivist for eight years. An example of his installation prowess is the small utility closet that he recommissioned for three early wood Personages, (1946-1954) now cast in bronze which nestled within light grey walls reminiscent of the kind of enclosed spaces favored by the artist.
In 1952, at age forty, during an intensifying psychological crisis, Bourgeois began psychoanalysis with Dr. Henry Lowenfeld, seeing him four to five times a week until 1967 and then off and on until his death in 1985. For eleven of those years she had no solo exhibitions, and from 1955 to 1960 she seems to have made no art at all. During this time she read extensively from psychoanalytic literature, transcribed dreams, scrutinized her psychic life with its inner truths, kept journals, and notated ideas for art.
Her sample jottings on loose sheets displayed here include the following: “3:15 am. olives, radishes with salt and butter. I would like to eat some anchovies for something salty.” “he talks like a bottle of glue. she talks with a hatchet,” “when i do not ‘attack’ i do not feel myself alive,” “futility of effort, failure, loss.” A diary page notes, “All day sitting in a chair/I could not lift a feather/nor make a phone call/depression……” These personal writings show the viewer that her sculpture emerges from an inner, psychological life instead of from a one-dimensional intellectual approach. It a challenge to current norms that such intimate materials, revealing her naked distress and violence, are presented to a male-dominated public sphere where armor is the rule and the vulnerable is attacked or ignored. In this way we can see that her art takes a stand for another perspective and values.
Freudian theory framed the challenging events of Bourgeois’s life, its hidden emotions and anguish. Although many aspects of Freud’s theories have been contested, there’s general agreement that he brought into prominence the idea of the unconscious, a focus of great consequence for culture and the individual. Freud’s contemporary Erich Fromm, though a psychoanalyst himself, has said that most people resist the idea of unknown parts of themselves and moreover, if everyone knew what they could know about themselves, it would shake society to its foundations. Freud’s empirical recovery of his patients’ repressed wishes, fantasies, emotions and instincts was thus very radical, embraced by cultural avant-gardes but off-putting to a world intent on bending humans to the machine and consumption.
For Freud, self-knowledge meant becoming conscious of what is unconscious, a difficult process that is both emotional and intellectual. This lifetime process pays off by releasing energy from the efforts of repression, energy available to be awake and free. His most controversial and misunderstood idea, the Oedipus Complex, involves psychic work with a prime symbol of authority and fertility, the phallus. Some have extended its Freudian meaning to point out that his correlative theory of penis envy symbolizes female social envy of the freedom, power, and prestige of men under patriarchy at the cost of the subordination of women. “Part of the argument of this show,” according to Larratt-Smith, “is that Louise’s work and Louise’s writings, represent a contribution, and in some sense a corrective, to classical Freudian psychoanalysis.”
Bourgeois’ art neither illustrates theory nor manifests neurosis, as Freud might believe. Instead one could say, alchemy points toward a process in which the autobiographical and unconscious is rendered into artistic form. The process, occasionally described by contemporary artists, is a kind of trance while working in the studio, that allows the unconscious to flow outward to confront the materials, while bringing into play techniques and decisions exercised by aesthetic power. In both cases the ego is subordinate to other energies. T.W. Adorno argued that real art entails risk-taking, genuine experimentation, bringing to life fresh perceptions, new feelings and alternative values, in a struggle for individuation–all qualities that Louise Bourgeois exemplifies.
The artist often remarked that her childhood never lost its magic, mystery, and drama. The materials of memory and the unconscious ignited the physicality of her sculpture that could include a gamut of found and appropriated objects and materials. Her techniques, including sewing, carving marble and wood, and modeling clay and plaster, arose from uncovering expressive possibilities of these materials. “I transform nasty work into good work. I transform hate into love.”
A Cell sculpture in the exhibition, Passage Dangereux (1997) is an approximately 28 foot long, theatrical cage, made from woven iron mesh with a locked doorway, that the viewer walks around and enters visually. It includes the materials metal, wood, tapestry, rubber, marble, steel, glass, bronze, bones, flax, and mirrors. The art work is populated with objects such as chairs hanging from the ceiling (a French custom in attics), the raw depiction of a sex act in steel and bronze , a small bronze spider (symbol of her mother’s industry and protection), a tiny child’s school desk, a tapestry from the family workshop, a large wood electric chair, and others.
Experiencing this artwork is somewhat akin to being in the midst of a dream with its condensed vibrations, with objects that light up a larger realm than the individual. The artist stated that her cells represent “….different types of pain; the physical, the emotional and psychological, and the mental and intellectual. Each cell deals with the pleasure of the voyeur, the thrill of looking and being looked at.”
Arched Figure No. 3, (1997) is constructed with a thick slab of steel partly revealed, partly covered by a sewn volumetric female form in black fabric. Its backward arching figurative pose simultaneously connotes hysteria and sexual ecstasy. Knife Figure, 2002 made from fabric, steel and wood forms an amputated coral-colored cloth figure with a large, sharp kitchen knife poised over it, threatening violence. Mother and Child, (2007) made from dark blue fabric and thread, constructs a rounded, voluptuous female torso with a tiny dark blue head tranquilly resting on its maternal middle. These sculptures reveal the body as a sensing, feeling entity whose knowledge and wisdom channel significant experience.
By the time of her death in 2010 at age ninety-eight many considered Bourgeois the foremost female artist of our time. She managed to give suffering a voice in complex yet accessible sculptures that summon the sting and bite, the vitality and shock of earlier modernists. Philip Larratt-Smith has noted how Bourgeois is a symbolist and storyteller. As she herself said, “The connections that I make in my work are connections that I cannot face. They are really unconscious connections. The artist has the privilege of being in touch with his or her unconscious, and this is really a gift. It is the definition of sanity. It is the definition of self-realization.” Empowered by Bourgeois’s writings and sculpture we can say more: that the unconscious provides a foothold from which to imply critique of the culture, asserting a tangible resistance to an administered society and its suppression of the individual, from the deepest registers of the psyche, a utopian anticipation of social freedom.