Louise Bourgeois at Freud Museum, review by Beverley Knowles
In 1952, in the wake of her father’s death, Louise Bourgeois began therapy with the Freudian psychoanalyst Dr Henry Lowenfeld. She was to continue to see him, three times a week, for thirty years. It is probably impossible to overestimate the influence this must have had on her life and work. And yet it was not until 2004 that her long time assistant Jerry Gorovoy unearthed two large boxes full of hand written notes made in response to the treatment, notes she had previously kept hidden.
The exhibition at the Freud Museum, Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed was inspired by those notes. It is an intimate enquiry into the extent to which art was itself a transformative, therapeutic tool for the artist who more than once asserted: ‘art is a guarantee of sanity, that is the most important thing I have said.’
Featured in the exhibition are some of the works upon which Louise Bourgeois’ reputation as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century are founded. Femme-Couteau/, Knife-Woman, was a motif the artist returned to again and again. It appears here in the form of a vitrined blancmange pink, near life-sized figure with half a leg and both arms missing. From the neck a long, rusty knife emerges, floating horrifically and menacingly over the soft fabric body.
Next door, in the rarefied, near holy atmosphere of Freud’s study, the room in which he conducted his talking cure some seventy years ago, Janus Fleuri hangs over the couch, a revolting, flaccid, apparently decomposing sexual organ of neither specifically male nor female origin, cast in bronze. Its eloquent placement reminds the viewer of Freud’s and Bourgeois’ and perhaps by default our own preoccupation with sex. In its shadow a powerful, almost mocking flavour of failure and dissatisfaction is cast over the hallowed space.
In the garden lurks Maman, the giant arachnid for which the artist is probably most widely known. Although we are often told that Maman represents the safe and protective influence of the mother that Bourgeois claimed to love, I wonder if I can be alone in finding it repulsive, alive with the terrifying primitive horror that exists outside words.
Before her death in 2010, Ms Bourgeois’ permission was sought and granted to display her psychoanalytic notes alongside the work. What the notes bring is evidence of her humble and humbling self-awareness, the minute by minute battle to remain engaged, to look at that which would be so much more easily swept under the carpet, in order to transform or transcend it.
‘I have failed as a wife, as a woman, as a mother, as a hostess, as an artist, as a business woman, as a friend, as a daughter, as a sister. I have not failed as a truth seeker…’
These are not the words of an unhappy or depressed woman, they are the words of a brave woman, a woman bold enough to stare into the void and have it stare back at her. Only such a woman could smile as she spoke the words: ‘I have been to Hell and back and let me tell you, it was wonderful.’