Where art meets analysis

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

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In a collection of previously unpublished writings, unearthed during the preparations for her 2007 retrospective at Tate Modern, Bourgeois constantly analyses her dreams, emotions and anxieties, in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.

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
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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era