BY Emily Stokes in Profiles | 30 SEP 12
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Issue 1

My Own World

A new book illuminates Louise Bourgeois' relationship to psychoanalysis

BY Emily Stokes in Profiles | 30 SEP 12

Louise Bourgeois, who died in 2010 at the age of 99, once asked: ‘How are you going to be likable and be yourself?’ The answer, she implied, was harder to find if ‘you’ were a woman. One of her solutions was to make sculptures, paintings and drawings, which provided both ‘a guarantee of sanity’ and a means of turning herself into an appealing figure. ‘I know you will understand my statue,’ she wrote on the back of an invitation for her exhibition of paintings at Norlyst Gallery in New York in 1947, ‘because it does not make any noise, it does not bother you, it does not smell bad, it is not possible that it bothers you or offends you.’

As a new publication suggests, another solution was offered to Bourgeois by psychoanalysis, which she began in New York, first with Dr. Leonard Cammer in 1951, and later with Dr. Henry Lowenfeld, whom she saw regularly from 1953. The Return of the Repressed (ed. Philip Larratt-Smith, Violette Editions, 2012) is an impressive, illustrated two-volume publication consisting of eight essays on Bourgeois’ relationship with psychoanalysis (by Larratt-Smith, Donald Kuspit, Meg Harris Williams, Juliet Mitchell, Mignon Nixon, Elisabeth Bronfen, Paul Verhaeghe and Julie De Ganck), and of Bourgeois’ own notes, diary entries and records of dreams from the period, which were discovered in boxes in the artist’s Chelsea home by her longtime assistant Jerry Gorovoy in 2004 and in 2010. (Larratt-Smith also curated an exhibition of the same name at London’s Freud Museum earlier this year.) The writings resolve an uncertainty about whether or not Bourgeois had ever undergone therapy, which the artist herself was happy to perpetuate. (‘I never had analysis,’ she told an interviewer as late as 2007. ‘My friends did and they got worse.’)

They also explain the title of a 1963 work, Rondeau for L., a bronze sculpture of green-black patina that evokes both a bulbous growth and a scrunched-up piece of paper. Lowenfeld — ‘L.’ — looms as large as any family member (including Bourgeois’ husband, American art critic Robert Goldwater) in these notes, but in a shadowy form, as a portrait of the artist’s Freudian transferences. She is furious when L. assigns inconvenient ‘housewife hours’ for their meetings, suspecting that he isn’t taking her seriously, and panics when he goes away on vacation, first threatening to kill herself and then worrying that he is dead. For Bourgeois, who spent a lifetime reliving the pain of childhood — in particular her mother’s abandonment of her in 1932, when she died, and her father’s affair with his children’s young English tutor, Sadie Richmond — psychoanalysis seems to have offered a replacement for making art following the death of her father in 1951. ‘[It] is very time-consuming,’ Bourgeois writes of her own dream-diary in 1957, ‘but it gives me the “joy of creation” that I used to have after working, besides I build up strength, the result is not “art” — useless except as a catharsis.’

It would be easy to take her word for it — to treat these scraps, written in a mish-mash of French and English whose lines often form shapes on the page, like concrete poetry — as therapeutic exercises, the abreactions of the hysteric (as Bourgeois identified herself). But far from being disturbing or repellent, as Sigmund Freud described the unfiltered daydreams of others, her writings reveal an artist-turned-analysand acutely attuned to the response of her audience. Bourgeois, who ran a bookshop, Erasmus, in New York between 1957 and 1960, was also what would now be termed a ‘difficult patient’, well-read not only in psychoanalytic literature but also in the presentation of psychoanalytic ideas by novelists from Albert Camus (‘how to describe despair’, she notes) to Françoise Sagan, whose novel Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness, 1954) features a young woman in love with her father, to Mary McCarthy, whose popular novel The Group (1963) featured a group of Vassar girls visiting (and sometimes marrying) psychoanalysts.

The result is a collection of writings that portray the artist’s suffering in ways that are not just understandable, but entertaining, moving and often mordantly funny. Describing her first encounter with L. on 8 February 1953, she casts the exchange as a playlet: ‘1st act. Between Louise and L. Louise. You are coming to save me, you a hero. L. on the white horse. I like your house, the dining room table, I want to be served food in your house and even tell my brother about you,’ she writes, sending up her own irrational infatuation and also, perhaps, referring to her own tendency to think back to her French family from America in her homesick state. (It was at this time that she was making ‘personages’, totemic wooden props that acted, as Mitchell describes in her excellent essay in The Return of the Repressed, ‘like the wooden cut-out “dumb waiters” that used to be placed in the vast chambers of grand country houses to prevent loneliness.’) Having decided that ‘the man is laughing at me’, she goes on to the ‘2d act’: ‘Louise [...] is compelled to stay and face it,’ she writes, before concluding that, if psychoanalysis is to work, she must proceed without self-consciousness, as though her analyst likes her unconditionally.

In that first meeting with L., Bourgeois remarks on her own sexual attraction to him — in particular to his ‘crumpled loose white shirt’, noting her own ‘deep impulse not only to stroke it but in retrospect to have crumpled it’. As in her sculpture, Bourgeois’ writing reveals the artist’s startling knack for conveying psychological states through texture; elsewhere she writes of her ‘terror’ as ‘a ball of crumpled wrinkled paper’ to ‘put [...] on your ironing board, until there are no more creases’, and of ‘crumpled physical dignity’. Such associations belong as much to Bourgeois as to Freud or to Melanie Klein; every feeling, it seems, has a sculptural correlative. She describes her two selves, for instance, as ‘the depressed’ and ‘the enraged’, the first desiring rigidity, coziness, geometry, cleanliness and embroidery, and the second food, love, violence, change and sculpture. Reconciling the two is ‘like making lint go from a semi-rigidity to a consistent and soft consistency’, she writes in 1957. ‘I would like to be like water or rather like milk — completely pourable. I am right now more like stone but like sand or like a sauce full of lumps.’

It is hard not to read such descriptions without thinking of the bulges of her sculptures such as Germinal (1967) or the latex Avenza (1968-9) which Bourgeois wore as a costume in 1975. Other descriptions — of her desire to ‘embroider + put everything in place and in a proper and predictable manner — to simplify, reduce, organize’ evoke later works such as Femme Couteau (Knife Woman, 2002), which presents itself as the sewing project of a disturbed child.

Each note in this collection suggests a new effort to coax herself into sociability. In one entry, Bourgeois renders a day divided into activities so ordinary that it is hard to know why they must be recorded (‘observe children in a park. 2 or 3 hours’) — an orderly list as quietly painful as a drawing of a figure hiding in the corner of a geometric house; others suggest a continuous self-questioning (‘How much violence is there in you today [...] Do you feel like cleaning, changing, Improving, repairing things around you [?]’). Another, written in 1990, describes a sequence in which two hired assistants who ‘did not have a system’ triggered in Bourgeois a tantrum or ‘Blow Out’ — an account that suggests the constant risk of bending materials to breaking point, wasting them. Finding a form to contain her every mood was not always possible — but then neither, perhaps, was it always to be desired. As Bourgeois proudly, rightfully, wrote in 1961: ‘I am the author of my own world with its internal logic and with its value that no one can deny.’

Emily Stokes is an editor at Harper’s Magazine and a writer who lives in New York, USA.