Exhibition of Louise Bourgeois's art and writings explores her complex relationship with Freudian psychoanalysis

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Exhibition of Louise Bourgeois's art and writings explores her complex relationship with Freudian psychoanalysis
Louise Bourgeois, The Destruction of the Father, 1974. Latex, plaster, wood, fabric, and red light. Collection Glenstone Museum, Potomac, MD © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Photo: Ron Amstutz.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Jewish Museum presents Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter, an exhibition that explores Bourgeois’s complex and ambivalent relationship with Freudian psychoanalysis. Curated by Philip Larratt-Smith, the exhibition showcases a selection of Bourgeois’s psychoanalytic writings — many of them presented to the public for the first time — along with nearly 50 works from throughout her career, including the Personages of the late 1940s; the organic forms in plaster and latex of the 1960s; the pivotal installation The Destruction of the Father (1974); Passage Dangereux (1997), the largest of the artist’s Cell installations; and the fabric sculptures from the last 15 years of her life. The exhibition will be on view at the Jewish Museum from May 21 through September 12, 2021.

Larratt-Smith said, “Bourgeois’s psychoanalytic writings profoundly recalibrate our understanding of her artistic trajectory and motivational impulses. They do not explain or demystify her art, but rather represent a freestanding corpus of writing that display her unusual literary gifts and underline her enduring engagement with analysis. They highlight the centrality of her Oedipal deadlock as the traumatic kernel of her psychic organization. And they complicate the narrative of early childhood trauma which the artist herself fostered, encouraging instead a more nuanced appreciation of this relationship which she often spoke about.”

In the late 1940s, Bourgeois struggled to balance her ambitions as a creative artist and her obligations as a mother and wife, and suffered from a host of physical and psychological ailments, such as insomnia, agoraphobia, compulsive thoughts, and aggressive and suicidal impulses. She was already in a fragile state when her father’s death in 1951 plunged her into a deep depression. In early 1952 she entered analysis with Dr. Henry Lowenfeld, a former disciple of Freud and, like Bourgeois, an emigré from Europe. Her analysis would continue for the next 33 years, most intensely from 1952 to 1966, and thereafter in an on-off fashion until Lowenfeld’s death in 1985. Bourgeois also steeped herself in psychoanalytic literature, reading Freud, Melanie Klein, Karen Horney, Anna Freud, Hélène Deutsch, Marie Bonaparte, Otto Rank, Wilhelm Reich, and Wilhelm Stekel, among others. During the most intense phase of her immersion in analysis, Bourgeois effectively withdrew from the art world: she had no solo shows from 1953 until 1964, and her art making came to an almost complete halt from 1955 to 1960.

As part of the analytic process, Bourgeois started writing down dream recordings, process notes, and other texts on loose sheets of paper, some of which she would share with Lowenfeld. This vast written record was discovered in the artist’s Chelsea home in 2004 and 2010. Its existence is somewhat at odds with the fact that Bourgeois distrusted words and did not believe in the talking cure. She always maintained that making art gave her access to her unconscious, and that her art required no verbal exegesis or defense. For as much as the writings shed light on the linkage between her psychic life and her forms, they do not explain her art any more than her art illustrates the writing. Instead they constitute a parallel body of work that at times took the place of her visual output. The function they fulfilled for Bourgeois was multiple: they were a tool for the analytic hour; they had a therapeutic value as a means of calming herself down and releasing anxiety; they gave her insight into the work she had already made, and more broadly into her forms, processes, and motivations; and they enabled her to define her emotions more precisely by fixing them in time. In literary quality and historical importance the psychoanalytic writings bear comparison with the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, the journals of Eugène Delacroix, and the letters of Vincent van Gogh; along with her diaries, they establish Bourgeois’s status as an artist-writer of the first rank. They represent an original contribution not only to the field of psychoanalysis—a discipline effectively cofounded by women—but also to that of feminism. They provide a unique perspective on such topics as symbol formation, the family romance, maternal and paternal identifications, mourning and melancholia, and sublimation. The psychoanalytic writings attest to the fact that for Bourgeois art making and psychoanalysis were not distinct activities but points on a single continuum, so that at times it is hard to define where one ends and the other begins.

Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter frames Bourgeois’s engagement with psychoanalysis through the lens of the Oedipus complex, which is both the cornerstone of Freudian psychoanalysis and the traumatic kernel of her psychic organization. Bourgeois’s work is often told from the point of view of a young girl, and she often said that the artist did not go through the rites of passage. The psychoanalytic writings make plain the lingering hold this Oedipal deadlock exerted on Bourgeois, and in particular her eroticized and often anguished fixation on her father. This ambivalence would be replayed in her subsequent relationships with men, including Freud, whom Bourgeois never met but nonetheless internalized as a father figure. Bourgeois critiqued the father of psychoanalysis for his blind spots about female sexuality and for failing to understand the creative artist. Yet her writings reveal the extent to which Freudian concepts and practices—whether directly or indirectly, whether through his own writings, those of his followers, or Bourgeois’s longstanding analysis—informed and enriched her art making. To call Bourgeois “Freud’s daughter” is thus to invoke filiation and resistance, likeness and dissent, and to highlight the central importance of psychoanalysis in the making of her mysterious and idiosyncratic sculptural output.

Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter is curated by Philip Larratt-Smith, Guest Curator, and coordinated by Shira Backer, Leon Levy Assistant Curator, The Jewish Museum.

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