On ViewThe Jewish Museum
May 21 – September 12, 2021
Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter, an exhibition of 47 objects including sculpture on pedestals, in suspension and multiplying in vitrines, plus large freestanding vitrine-pieces, a very large “Cell” installation, paintings, collage, drawings, notes, plaques, and reliefs by Louise Bourgeois, with a selection of especially eloquent quotations from Sigmund Freud, is an event that each of its subjects might have wished for, maybe even demanded. Freud’s yen for contact with literature and art are legendary—Stefan Zweig nominated him to a Nobel Prize in literature—and for Bourgeois, this exhibition serves as a kind of key to the many retrospectives that preceded it around the world.
By design it is as much matchup as exhibition, a two-character drama spoken in rueful whispers, but ultimately a power struggle—with the artist the apparent aggressor. The curator, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, provoke a contest between magisters they cannot control, or keep up with. That would require artistic liberty and a domineering vision equal to that of their subjects—all but impossible in their absence.
Freud and Bourgeois meet on the common ground of words. This exhibition of things carries a world of words on its back. Until recently, only Philip Larratt-Smith, former archivist at Bourgeois’s legacy Easton Foundation and the principal author of this project, knew the pivotal leverage of her written notes. Her framed autograph and type-written notes are well more numerous than sculptural objects here, and Freud’s philosophical extracts, inscribed high on the walls, all but physically illuminate the rooms.
The notes make a morning-after impression—the flotsam of lousy bullying night thoughts, both unwanted and compulsive. Bourgeois was both victim and conquistador, who by turns dreaded and courted her anguish. One can hardly tell whether her work is an artifact of her invasive fears or the fruit of her summoned terrors. Today, most critics take Bourgeois’s self-told story of her life as fact, but one could side with Germaine Greer, who said that her “greatest creation was the contradictory story of her life.” Bourgeois herself warned us that “an artist’s words are always to be taken cautiously.” Always: don’t trust the teller, trust the tale—the artwork.
Much of Bourgeois’s work seems delivered by trauma and governed by analysis, but material form is itself a partner in her labors. Like neurosis, form is self-involved, manipulative, and willful: more than equal to reality. In her hands, form and analysis chased each other’s tails and made a meal of the facts. Facts became form and forms became fact. Today the analytic “Case of LB” (title of the principal catalog essay) persists in an inextricable state of legend.
Much of Bourgeois’s work was played out in character, her objects being the as-if creations of an ostensible adolescent girl, and two of three catalog essays make girlhood the pivot of the exhibition. That would make the celebrated Fillette (Sweeter Version) (1968–99), the piece Bourgeois holds in the iconic Mapplethorpe portrait, the centerpiece. Hung high and uncomfortably close to one side of the room, on the margins of its own world, it could hardly be situated to better advantage: one feels physically cornered upon approach. It hangs near to the bronze Janus Fleuri (1968), a double-ended tit/clit/cock form with a meaty cunt between them. Fillette quite outweighs it. Both were formulated in Bourgeois’s reflex phallovaginal mode, but Fillette manages to be also figural, and girlish. One is almost horrified to realise the prepuce is also the cowl of a child’s raincoat—her face must be here, somewhere. This dangling bit of musty rubber is, in effect, bigger than the vitrine-pieces, the marbles, the biggest “Cells,” even the colossal Maman (1999). The exhibition could as well have been called Giacometti’s Sister: Fillette, as the sculpture is a big sister to his infant-like Disagreeable Object (1931) (to name only one correspondence between the artists), and these two all but hoard the 20th century’s nastiest frustrated sexuality between them.
All the checklist artworks were selected for their relevance to classical analysis, but they are far from equals as works of art. The cathedral-like Passage Dangereux (1997) is a best-of Bourgeois “Cell.” Likewise Conscious and Unconscious (2008), a vitrine-work, is as inscrutable as it is elegant. Many of the comparatively “minor” flatworks and bibelot-ish objects also have a great impact, but the power of analysis-specific items is often dependent on their emotional outcry, without which they may be as un-musical as they are desperate.
Just what was Freud to Bourgeois? Here he is a chorus of one, seemingly aware of action he cannot see, guide, or prevent—but would Louise call herself his “daughter”? He was first among the circle of analysts she read: Carl Jung, Otto Rank, Wilhelm Reich, Anna Freud, Marie Bonaparte, Ernst Kris, Melanie Klein, Helene Deutsch, Karen Horney, and Wilhelm Stekel for starters. Her own analysis began at her father’s death in 1951 and only ended at the death of her analyst in 1985: a mere 34 years. In 1990, in what amounted to a requiem, or simply a post-mortem, she reviewed The Sigmund Freud Antiquities: Fragments from a Buried Past (an exhibition at the State University of New York, Binghamton). It is the last of three essays in the Daughter catalogue and the authoritative closer—not the most diligent scholarship of the three, but the most interesting. Also circular, and sad.
Her published essays start outside the box and stay there. Re: Freud, she seems to have been an intimate of her subject and not at all well-enough served. Sentence by sentence, the review is actually a statement on herself. She picks her way around her putative subject, avoiding insights and frequently inverting sense. Her Freud foibles are, we might notice, quite nearly her own, though she presumes that he was a rigorously rational rather than artistic thinker, all about cures and not stories. She says his antiquities did not answer life and death questions because they were not art, which she calls an “absolute.” True, they were not art-objects in her sense, but the figurines bore considerable interrogation on Freud’s desk. Mostly grave goods, at least half were votives. Those were prayers, but she called the lot Freud’s “toys.” Having come just so close, he had failed her in his taste, and more. Freud “did nothing for artists, or for the artist’s problem, the artist’s torment—to be an artist involves some suffering,” which he left uncured. But her own work was no cure either. Piece by piece she had demanded psychic liberation, but circling conclusions she refused to reach, it seems she took all her terrors with her.