In a welcome effort to foreground the material objects over the admittedly fascinating biography of the artist, Louise Bourgeois Freud’s Daughter (Yale University Press, 2021) opens with 84 ravishing images of mostly sculptures from 1949 to 2010, but also sheets of typed and handwritten notes based on the artist’s psychoanalysis.[i] Introspective and untidy prose-poems, a number of these pages are fortified with the idiosyncratic marginalia that would become part of Bourgeois’s visual lexicon of symbols, shapes, and forms. Squiggles that morph into three-dimensional nests, caves, knots, bellies, breasts, and phallic masses are at their most powerful when read “against interpretation,” as Susan Sontag argued about the complexity of art, around the same time Bourgeois made her most inchoate pieces (Sontag 1966: 3–14). Curious readers might assume to read art against the grain of interpretation, such that objects are recalcitrant to human logic if not at base unknowable, contradicts a project dedicated to the Freudian dimensions of Bourgeois’s oeuvre. Quite the contrary, curator Philip Larratt-Smith and psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell argue in two critical essays that follow the color plates, each of which demonstrates an astute grasp of Bourgeois’s objects.
To untangle the threads that join the French-American sculptor and the Viennese psychoanalyst is to reckon with (without reconciling) a keystone of psychoanalytic thought: that is, the images and stories one brings to the space of the consulting room are always already scattered, broken, and resistant to interpretation. Simply put, a text or an object never reiterates a neurosis, just as the patient’s buried fantasies and desires aren’t wrested away, much less explained, in artistic pursuits. Larratt-Smith, for instance, emphasizes how Bourgeois’s persistent “knot of psychic conflicts made it difficult for her to make art” (104). On Bourgeois’s interwoven art and analysis, Mitchell is matter of fact that “using one to illustrate the other will not work.” Noting the tendencies to aestheticize trauma (in surrealism), as well as the tendency to turn the artist into a patient, she argues how Bourgeois’s practice “countermands both” approaches (128). Put another way (and from my own research perspective), what is imaginative and introspective within the clinical situation allows the patient to see their world refreshed: it enables her to reveal herself to herself, as the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once said (1986: 13).
Highlighting this essential paradox, Freud’s Daughter takes a truly psychoanalytic approach to its subject, insisting that Bourgeois’s art and her psychoanalysis are not expository of each other, but rather, are as tightly bound as tissue is to bone, just as the artist’s experience with both embodied practices seemed to be. Complete with a handsome slipcover adorned with a crimson reproduction of Destruction of the Father and a dust jacket with an image of Fillette—the outlandish pair being among Bourgeois’s most grisly oedipal sculptures—I savored every thick, creamy page of this book, itself a nourishing object. I had a similar reaction to seeing the objects in the accompanying exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York in the winter of 2020, all of which felt like wonderfully familiar, if not prickly, friends. Which is to say that even a person who has engaged with Bourgeois’s oeuvre for a long stretch of time can still be enthralled by the ripples of affect it produces, both in front of the object and in the best writing on the artist and her work.
Bourgeois’s literary archivist from 2002–10 and now curator of her estate, The Easton Foundation, Larratt-Smith cuts to the heart of the matter: “To call Bourgeois Freud’s daughter is thus to invoke filiation and resistance, likeness and dissent. It is to showcase not only where she came together with Freud but also where she critiqued and corrected the Freudian record. It is to underline the cardinal significance of ambivalence in her work, its position as the fulcrum around which the binary oppositions that structure her work evolve” (120). Although that forceful thesis brings the essay to a close, it might be better placed at the beginning where it could build momentum and resonate throughout the text. (I say this as North American audiences tend to be more suspicious of psychoanalysis than readers in the UK, Europe, and Argentina, locations where the discipline enjoys a rich intellectual tradition.) Larratt-Smith authors a careful account of Bourgeois’s writings, interspersed with sensitive readings of several major sculptures and processes of making (assembling, pouring, kneading, etc.). He is right to insist upon the displacements that make the substantive objects paradoxical—as well as performative and radically unsentimental for a working mother in the postwar years of the twentieth century—echoing the profound anguish of Bourgeois’s laments. A failure is a failure of a human being / I am furious against myself; I felt the wish to kill her / how I could wish to castrate her; overdoing the care of my mother showed a hatred motivation; I wasn’t able to leave and I wasn’t able to stay; I do not want to understand. I want to be cradled; at Oedipus time I never had a chance (108, 110, 110, 111, 117, 120, 120).
Larratt-Smith’s essay traces the unease in the encounter with traumatic material that hovers around Bourgeois’s often excruciating work. He briefly ventures into the relevance of object relations theories for the sculptor, exploring the unfathomable anxieties of nascent subjectivity which precede Freudian narratives of desire. For both Melanie Klein and Winnicott, the inner world is one in which the baby’s ruthless desires impel fantasies of greedily devouring the mother and her goodness, biting her body into pieces, spitting her out. But the baby also feels envy by what she doesn’t have or fears she might lose, accompanied by remorse in the face of her deleterious attacks upon the love object. This destruction (Klein viewed it as a position rather than a phase, one a person could return to no matter one’s age) prompts atonement and creative reparation. Child Devoured by Kisses (pl. 65, but not discussed in the volume) offers such an oral object lesson: the tangle of baby blue and pink intestines and other organs resembles both an engine carburetor and a mangled plush teddy bear, in the latter context, an eviscerated transitional object, to use the Winnicottian concept. Presented atop a steel pedestal inside a bespoke glass vitrine, the sculpture plays upon the polarities of destruction and reconstruction manifest in so many of Bourgeois’s Janus-like objects.
Widening his lens, Larratt-Smith emphasizes how Bourgeois’s methods and objects were (and remain) anything but straightforward, bound up with incongruity, and open to a “massive realm of creative possibilities” (120). Something of that patina and multi-dimensionality is attended to when considering Passage dangereux (pl. 63), Bourgeois’s largest and narrative Cells, a jumbled corridor filled with stuff that feels both nave-like and carceral. Here and elsewhere, Larratt-Smith notes that Bourgeois’s forms map the coextensive unconscious, yielding temporalities of past and present “overlaid with each other” (109). Convergence of time and space relates to Bourgeois’s tendency to identify with inanimate objects, underscoring “the continuity between physical reality and psychic reality” (109), a crucial point worth pressing further. This is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Bourgeois’s sculpture, which she also anthropomorphized, not as some remnant of childlike neurosis, but as part of a sophisticated engagement of object relations, a realm in which objects are understood as proxies for self and other.
Juliet Mitchell was among the first writers to remark that Bourgeois used her psychoanalysis (as an object) to both enrich her art and critique psychoanalytic narratives from a feminist perspective. Her essay, aptly subtitled “The Girl in Psychoanalysis in Art,” elaborates the unconscious processes at play in the work to generative effect, linking theory with material. Bourgeois “carries her psychoanalysis in art” but also “carries her art within her psychoanalysis” (127). As a palpable and intellectual practice, “carrying” in Mitchell’s dense essay is both a metaphoric and a bodily act, not only a displacement, but a transportation and transposition. Language (the talking-cure) is but one method of psychoanalytic interpretation which, in common perceptions of Freudian methods, Mitchell argues, loses sight of how embodied the Freudian body-ego really is (130). A tenacious reader and practitioner of psychoanalysis, Bourgeois grasped how words are felt and embedded within bodily experience, rendering the “psyche that arises from the body in her art” (130). These fluctuations in embodiment—the porous borders of the body and mind that shape (and reshape) sanity—are what make Bourgeois’s objects so evocative, playful, but also terrifying. How readily do we think about the incestuous desire for one’s mother, the rageful impulse to kill one’s father, much less smothering one’s own child? The short answer is we don’t. As Mitchell puts it, repression functions as our defense against such unbidden thoughts, and any “return” is by definition “conflictual and problematic” (131).
When Mitchell asks, “how does the unconscious of art communicate?” she digs into the meat of Bourgeois’s objects, variously limned as monstrous, mutilated, or disabled. Describing the encounter with Couple I (1996) installed in a St. Pancras belfry in London she knows well, a pair of stuffed cloth figures appear “buried in each other’s bodies,” trussed up by wire and hook and “hanging for dear life.” Mitchell associates memories and sensations of unbalance and vulnerability, caught between the emotions “of love and of loss” (132). In other words, this indivisible couple could be copulating, but just as easily cannibalizing each other. Anxieties surrounding disorientation are familiar psychoanalytic tropes (for Bourgeois, and perhaps for most of us). In 1941, Henry Lowenfeld, Bourgeois’s long-term psychoanalyst and therapist, prefigured what his patient would later say of her perennial imbalance. The artist, he wrote, “yearns constantly toward the other, sunk back into the core,” suggesting an inward identification with the object and the struggle to “not lose equilibrium” (Lowenfeld 1983: 63).
Mitchell’s key insight is that observers tap into an array of related ambivalences in meeting the work, stimulating “unconscious modalities across the artist-audience divide” (132). In the clinical setting, the patient brings her objects (mother, father, or other loved ones) from the outside world into the room and unpacks them within the transference relationship. What the analyst sees or “knows” about these persons, Mitchell explains, is only perceived through the scrim of the patient’s narrative. “We cannot know how the actual mother or father themselves felt or why they did this or that from their points of view. . . . What matters is that whatever the patient brings of them into the sessions will alter its tenor” (139). Freud’s Daughter suggests a similar unknowingness shapes our embodied experiences of the artwork, its maker, and the shared space of that aesthetic container. Bourgeois analyzed these structures and processes, not to get around them much less expunge them, but to think through them in material forms that allow the rest of us to come to an uneasy truce with our own destructive emotions and reimagine our suffering, stretching the fabric of human experience.
Lowenfeld, Henry. 1983. “Psychic Trauma and Productive Experience in the Artist” (1941). Edith Kurzweil and William Phillips (eds.) Literature and Psychoanalysis. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 292–305.
Sontag, Susan. 1966. “Against Interpretation.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Picador, pp. 3–14.
Winnicott, D. W. “Psychoanalysis and Science: Friends or Relations” (1961). Home is Where We Start From. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1986, pp. 13–18.
Lynn M. Somers is a scholar of modern and contemporary art who specializes in postwar American sculpture, photography, and psychoanalysis. She has published several book chapters on these topics, and her monograph Transformative Objects and the Aesthetics of Play: Louise Bourgeois’s Sculpture, 1947–2000 is undergoing peer review at a leading academic press. Somers is working on a new book project titled Objects and Other Things: Materiality and Imagination in American Art that deals with the aesthetics of making, empathy, domesticity, and thing theory. She can be found on Twitter @lynn_somers.
[i] These were never meant for public display, although near her death Bourgeois granted Larratt-Smith among other critical commentators permission to publish the so-called ‘psychoanalytic papers’.