Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed at London's Freud Museum

By Rhiannon Starr | 12 March 2012
An image of a small sculpture of a woman kneeling holding a red sphere
Louise Bourgeois, The Dangerous Obsession (2003). Fabric, glass, stainless steel and wood© Louise Bourgeois Trust, courtesy Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read. Photo: Christopher Burke

Exhibition: Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed, Freud Museum, London, until May 27 2012

The legend of Louise Bourgeois’ unstable childhood and philandering father is oft-repeated, as the artist openly discussed her work in the context of these formative experiences. It is less widely known that from 1951 – the year her father died – she undertook a psychoanalysis which continued for three decades.   

Recently discovered psychoanalytical writings, in which Bourgeois recorded her reaction to the treatment, are aptly displayed in the final home of Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis. The presentation of these intimate manuscripts, positioned alongside a selection of the artist’s works, offers a fascinating insight into the cathartic nature of the creative process.  

An image of black ink scribblings on a piece of lined yellow paper
Louise Bourgeois, loose sheet (September 13 1957)© The Easton Foundation. Louise Bourgeois Archive, New York
Unlike many contemporary artists, Bourgeois maintained her daily practices of writing, drawing and creating throughout most of her career. Bourgeois’ stream of consciousness obsessively articulates the pivotal themes of femininity, sexuality, isolation and trauma so characteristic of her visual work.

At times her words flow freely over the page, while other thoughts coil tightly in upon themselves or spiral out of control. Illustrative sketches occasionally appear, such as a diagram which charts the proportion of her feelings of “love” and “aggression against” her children, her husband and herself.

The autobiographical confessions which make much of Bourgeois’ artwork an uncomfortable experience to view are arguably even more explicit in her words. Painfully, she notes an inability to “establish reasonable and peaceful relationship with [son] Jean-Louis” and to “reach intimacy with [husband] Robert”. She neurotically lists her desires, her fears and her perceived failings: “I have failed as a wife / as a woman / as a mother / as a hostess... as a friend / as a daughter / I have not failed as a truth seeker”.

An image of a silver cage with a sculpture of three dark grey heads hanging inside it
Louise Bourgeois CELL XXIV (PORTRAIT) (2001). Steel, stainless steel, glass, wood and fabric© Louise Bourgeois Trust, courtesy Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read. Photo: Christopher Burke
In light of these manuscripts, the candid nature of her art can be understood as an act of exorcism: a desperate struggle to pour her anxieties into tangible forms. Many of her three-dimensional pieces are constructed from sentimental fabrics such as clothing and blankets; the hand stitching a testament to her hope of combating a deep-seated fear of abandonment through physical repair, to “keep things together and make things whole”.

Poetically suspended over Freud’s psychoanalytical couch is the 1968 hanging sculpture Janus Fleuri, a piece Bourgeois often referred to as her favourite work and “perhaps a self-portrait”. The reference to Janus, the Roman deity of beginnings and endings, evokes both the trauma of Bourgeois' past and the cathartic power of art in her future.

The Dangerous Obsession consists of a figure cradling a sphere of blood red glass, a colour the artist associated with violence, love, jealousy and emotional intensity. Made in 2003, towards the end of her career, this work suggests an awareness of the damage inflicted by clinging to past torments.

Late in life her work experienced a motivational shift from the antagonistic relationship with her father to the nurturing care her mother provided.

Bourgeois remains best known for her giant bronze spiders; friendly, protective figures created as an ode to her mother. With its endearingly spindly, skewed legs, one of these creatures can be found resting in the Museum’s tranquil garden.

  • Open 12pm-8pm (5pm Thursday-Friday, 11am-5pm Saturday-Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday). Admission £3-£6 (free for under-12s).

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