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Where art meets analysis

A new display of work by Louise Bourgeois provokes at the Freud Museum.

New Statesman
Louise Bourgeois THE DANGEROUS OBSESSION, 2003 Fabric, glass, stainless steel and wood 143.5 x 61 x 50.8 cm. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read Photo: Christopher Burke, (c) Louise Bourgeois Trust

In some ways, the bringing together of Sigmund Freud and Louise Bourgeois is an unusual one. Freud had little interest in art and Bourgeois felt that Freud “did nothing for the artists”. However, as the curator of The Return of Repressed, Phillip Larrat-Smith, notes, “more than any other artist of the 20th century, Louise Bourgeois produced a body of work that consistently and profoundly engaged with psychoanalytic theory and practice”. Thus, in the context of Freud’s house, tucked away in a quiet Hampstead street, her work takes on a new significance.

The sheer magnitude of Bourgeois’ output - the endless doodles and lists, the range of processes she employed from stitch to sculpture - suggests an inescapable compulsion to purge herself of troubling thoughts and anxieties. In I am Afraid (2009) she lists her fears: "I am afraid of silence, I am afraid of the dark, I am afraid to fall down, I am afraid of insomnia, I am afraid of emptiness." Indeed, despite criticising psychoanalysis, Bourgeois undertook treatment for more than ten years. First, with Leonard Crammer in 1951, the year her father died, and later with Dr Henry Lowenfield, a disciple of Freud’s.

Bourgeois’ work presents a direct link between creative process and catharsis. Certainly, many of her pieces can be seen as physical embodiments of psychological states - maternal identifications can be seen in her womb-like cages, her many-breasted figures, the towering arachnid that looms over Freud’s back lawn. Then there are her dismembered bodies: Knife Figure (2003) sees a cloth body, devoid of head and missing a leg lying beneath a rusting kitchen knife, whose ominous shadow splits the doll-like mannequin down the centre. These themes are often revisited. “To be an artist involves suffering,” Bourgeois observed, “That’s why [they] repeat themselves- because they have no access to a cure.”

In a collection of previously unpublished writings, unearthed during the preparations for her 2007 retrospective at Tate Modern, Bourgeois constantly analyses her dreams, emotions and anxieties, in particular her conflicted feelings about being simultaneously a creative artist, a mother and a wife: “I do not deserve to be so happy” reads a playing card.

Freud’s study, a long, dark room which doubles as a library and front room, is crammed with dark furniture, heavy furnishing, Persian rugs, an array of books and a vast and expansive collection of Chinese, Greek and Roman artefacts. Bourgeois describes the room as “a pitiful place”. In her 1989 essay "Freud’s Toys", she dismisses Freud’s immense collection as a “pastime”: “the artefact is a manufactured object, a work of art is a language”. Suspended provocatively above his couch is her 1968 Janus Fleuri, whose drooping double-heads display unmistakable phallic symbolism. Like an enormous, insistent fly, the sculpture appears as a challenge from Bourgeois: “I simply want to know what Freud and his treatment can do, have tried to do, are expected to do,  might do, might fail to do, or were unable to do for the artists here and now”. The piece was one of her favourites.

On the landing, we see a softer side to Bourgeois’ work. The Dangerous Obsession's crouched fabric figure cradles a red glass sphere, her maternal stance and blue and white head scarf reminiscent of the Virgin Mary. There is a fragility to this piece, a vulnerability in the fragile glass orb,yet its ominous title and the aggressive red of the glass is suggestive of something darker. Here, perhaps, lies the crux of her work: the unrelenting search for self-knowledge consistently throws up conflicts. In this wide-ranging collection aggression sits alongside compassion, tenderness verges on danger, strength strives to overcome vulnerability. In a steel cage a double-sided flannel torso, on one side a pregnant female, the other a flacid male, hangs from a hook like a carcass in an abbatoir. Bourgeois described this suspension as a "state of ambivalence and doubt".

Overall,The Return of the Repressed is a thought-provoking exploration into Bourgeois’ production process inviting the viewer to delve deeper below the surface of her often disturbing sculptures.

The Return of the Repressed will be on display at the Freud Museum until 27 May.