More than any artist of the 20th century, Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) produced a body of work that consistently and profoundly engaged with psychoanalytic theory and practice. While Surrealists may have tapped into dream imagery and Abstract Expressionists linked gestural spontaneity to the unconscious, Bourgeois’s art offers insight into the linkage between the creative process and its cathartic function. As a whole, her art and writings represent an original contribution to psychoanalytic inquiry into symbol formation, the unconscious, the talking cure, the family romance, maternal and paternal identifications, and the fragmented body. Through her exploration of materials, forms, and sculptural processes Bourgeois finds a plastic equivalent for the psychological states and mechanisms of fear, ambivalence, compulsion, guilt, aggression, and withdrawal.
Louise Bourgeois, Red Room (Parent), 1994, Mixed media, 247.7 x 426.7 x 424.2 cm. Collection Ursula Hauser, Switzerland, Photo: Peter Bellamy.
Bourgeois considered the act of making art as her “form of psychoanalysis”, and believed that through it she had direct access to the unconscious. In her view the artist, powerless in everyday life, possesses the gift of sublimation and becomes omnipotent during the creative act. Yet the artist is also a tormented, Sisyphean figure condemned endlessly to repeat the trauma through artistic production. Hence the very process of making art is a form of exorcism, a means of relieving tension and aggression. It is also, like psychoanalysis, a source of self-knowledge. Or as Bourgeois has often said, “Art is a guaranty of sanity”.
Bourgeois’s career as an artist in New York began with solo exhibitions of paintings in 1945 and 1947 followed by three exhibitions of her wood sculptures and environmental installations in 1949, 1950, and 1953. She would not have another solo show of new work again until 1964, when she presented an innovative body of abstract sculpture at the famous Stable Gallery in New York. These seminal forms in plaster, rubber, and latex were included in Lucy Lippard’s epochal exhibition Eccentric Abstraction at the Fischbach Gallery in New York in 1966, along with Bruce Nauman and Eva Hesse. Yet where Nauman and Hesse arrived at post minimalist forms by way of philosophy and conceptualism, Bourgeois’s evolution was informed and inspired by her own experience of psychoanalysis.
Bourgeois began psychoanalysis with Dr. Leonard Cammer in 1951, the year her father died. In 1952 she switched to the analyst Henry Lowenfeld. Born in Berlin in 1900, a former disciple of Freud in Vienna, Lowenfeld moved to New York in the same year as Bourgeois (1938), and there became an important member of the New York Psychoanalytic Society, publishing widely. Bourgeois would remain in therapy with Lowenfeld until the early 1980s. During a period of withdrawal and depression in the 1950s, Bourgeois not only underwent analysis but also steeped herself in psychoanalytic literature, from Sigmund Freud to Erik Erikson, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Heinz Kohut, Susanne Langer, Otto Rank, Wilhelm Reich, and Wilhelm Stekel.
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, c. 1970, Oval: paint on board, 47 x 59″; 119.3 x 149.8 cm. Private Collection, New York, Photo: Christopher Burke.
Prior to her retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2007, two boxes of writings were discovered in Bourgeois’s home, followed by two more in 2010. These writings, which have never been published, serve to augment and enrich our understanding of Bourgeois’s artistic development and fill in the gap in her otherwise copious diaries and process notes. In literary quality and historical importance they may be compared to the journals of Eugène Delacroix and the letters of Vincent van Gogh. They constitute a parallel body of work expressing her struggle to come to terms with her psychic life and the legacy of her past. In these documents Bourgeois records and analyses her dreams, emotions, and anxieties, and in particular her conflicted feelings about being simultaneously a creative artist and a mother and wife. The linkage between feeling, thought, and sculptural process becomes clearly delineated. At the same time these writings, like her sculptural works, critique psychoanalytic theory in its relationship to female sexuality and identity. These writings illuminate her transition from the figurative works of her Abstract Expressionist period to the abstract pieces that ushered in the Post minimalist tendency, and articulate how her relationship to psychoanalysis remained active until the end of her life.