Louise Bourgeois and Psychoanalysis
6 April 2022
Louise Bourgeois has long been associated with psychoanalytic themes, weaving between sexuality, death, memory, and reparation throughout her extensive career. Initially assisting her parents in the family business of restoring tapestries and creating drawings for templates used in the workshop, Bourgeois eventually studied art and was put on the path of sculpture after the advice of fellow French artist Fernand Léger. Bourgeois’ oeuvre is richly diverse, from large construction masterpieces such as Maman (1999) and Spider (Cell) (1997), to an array of prints and eerie yet inviting fabric compositions like Couple I (1996). Her artworks regularly included found and personal objects, stitched together material, and sculpted, moulded pieces that echo themes of destruction and reparation. Dabbling in the unconscious and working towards reforming and reworking materials, Bourgeois enacts many tenets of psychoanalytic thought, creating an extensive body of work that aims to reflect and recognise the self.
Louise Bourgeois, COUPLE I, 1996, Lent by the Artist Rooms Foundation 2013. Photo: Christopher Burke. © The Easton Foundation
Psychoanalysis is the art of working and reworking material, whether this material comes from one’s past, in the form of trauma, or in the present (Webster, 2021). Art, and especially sculptural work mirrors this working with material, it responds to the physical properties but also the affective potential, and uses the material at one’s fingertips to destroy, to recreate, and to work through problems. Bourgeois herself spoke of her own relationship with an ongoing working and reworking of material, letting previous works ‘sit until I could use it to make new work’, explaining that her creations 'had to reach a certain state of familiarity. Then I could incorporate it in a new work. I had already worked on it, and this prepared it to be worked on further, once I had assimilated it, digested what I myself had done’ (Kuspit, 1996). This process of work and creation, followed by a period of reflection and recollection, a coming-to-terms-with, and eventually incorporating this past experience into the now, is evocative of the psychoanalytic process. Bourgeois’ prolific artistic career was buttressed by a decades-long stint undergoing psychoanalysis, following her father’s death in 1951. Her installation Destruction of the Father (1974) deals more overtly with Oedipal themes, awash with phallic and biomorphic structures in a stage set-like design of a patriarch at his dinner table. The soft red glow emanating from within the cavernous display evokes a pulsation, as though the feast and indeed destruction of the father depicted is still fresh, the blood still flowing, as the folds of the curtains and the movement of uneven moulded surfaces suggests. Bourgeois invites us in to witness the scene as she does, her creative process a form of processing her own relationship with her father, and this time she is in complete control of the tools of expression.
Louise Bourgeois,The Destruction of the Father, 1974. Photo by Ron Amstutz. © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society, NY
Bourgeois’ artistic journey began in France, before she moved to the United Statesin 1938. Over the course of a decade-spanning career she worked with a multitude of materials and forms, and her creations remained staunchly personal. An intimate exploration of life, Bourgeois spoke of modern art as being ‘about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected…Art is a way of recognizing oneself’ (Kuspit, 1996). Not only did Bourgeois undergo psychoanalytic therapy sessions, but she also spoke of the therapeutic effects of creating artworks, explaining that ‘when I draw it means that something bothers me, but I don’t know what it is. So it is the treatment of anxiety’. A reflective and therapeutic process of creation perhaps allowed Bourgeois to deal with some of her most troubling traumas and musings on themes such as guilt, death, and destruction, and her Cells series speaks to an attempt to exert control over some of these emotions and experiences. The Cells series constitutes over fifty pieces, each utilising the confined walls of the cell structure as a carefully curated space. Evocative of a highly controlled experiment, Bourgeois seizes power of all variables, including exhibition space, importing her own boundaries and borders to the artworks. Speaking on her initial efforts in creating the Cells, Bourgeois spoke of wanting ‘to create my own architecture, and not depend on the museum space, not have to adapt my scale to it’ (Bourgeois, 1988). Within the Cells, Bourgeois arranges a myriad of materials, from marble sculptures to found objects, along with some of her personal items, with an emphasis on fabric. In Cell XXV (The View of the World of the Jealous Wife) (2001), Bourgeois weaves floating figurative female forms with two large marble balls, positioned as if to evoke a phallic image, piercing through a love-triangle that perhaps alludes to the one Bourgeois witnessed in her own family as a child. Her father was engaged in an affair with Bourgeois’ English governess, a recurrent theme within the artist’s oeuvre.
Louise Bourgeois, Cell XXV (The View of the World of the Jealous Wife), 2001. © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021. Photo: Christopher Burke.
Returning over and over again to key moments and emotions in her life, Bourgeois’ art encapsulates the working and reworking of psychoanalysis. She kept working and reworking until her death in 2010, never ceasing her quest for recognition of the self, an engagement with her unconscious as prolonged as many psychoanalytic therapy journeys are.
Bourgeois, L. et al. (1998) Louise Bourgeois: Recent Work. London: Serpentine Gallery.
Kuspit, D. (1996). “Louise Bourgeois: Interview with Donald Kuspit”, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings.ed Stiles, K., & Selz, P. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Webster, J. (2021) “A Dangerous Method: Jamieson Webster on Louise Bourgeois and psychoanalysis”. Artforum. https://www.artforum.com/slant/jamieson-webster-on-louise-bourgeois-and-psychoanalysis-86266