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In a collection of previously unpublished writings, unearthed during the preparations for her 2007 retrospective at Tate Modern, Bourgeois constantly analyses her dreams, emotions and anxieties, in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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Philip Lancaster's War Passion draws on beautiful material – but lacks feeling

With a lot of commemorative art to compete with, the premiere of Lancaster's new piece could have used, well, more passion.

In a letter home from the front, dated May 1917, Wilfred Owen wrote, “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land.” He was referring to the prevalence of Catholic iconography in rural France and commenting that even the statues he saw everywhere were not immune to war wounds. In the opening of his poem “At a Calvary Near the Ancre”, he took this imagery and wrote of a roadside statue of the crucified Christ: “In this war He too lost a limb . . .” Decades later, the poem became one of nine set to music by Benjamin Britten for his War Requiem, cementing the connection between the suffering Christ and the losses of the First World War.

It is this parallel that Philip Lancaster has sought to explore in War Passion, his new work for chamber choir, ensemble and soloists which premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester on 24 July. Lancaster, like Britten, has used the poetry of the First World War, interspersed with other, often religious texts. His selections range across a number of poets who died in or survived the war, including Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Julian Grenfell, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves.

The choice of texts is intriguing, as several of the poets from whose work he borrows were openly atheist or anti-Church at the time of the war. For instance, the last entry in Edward Thomas’s war diary, written shortly before he was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917, was: “I never quite understood what was meant by God.” You wonder what he and others of similar mind might have made of the inclusion of their work in a Passion.

The piece is intended, on one level, as a narration of Christ’s Passion according to the Gospel of Mark, and also as a commentary on the parallels between the sacrifice of Jesus and that of the soldiers. The opening contains some of the best music in the work:
a merging, intertwining dialogue between two cellos that sets a sombre, eerie mood.

A lot of the effect of this section was lost in performance, however, once the full orchestra and chorus got going. The sound of the former was so overpowering that the words of Grenfell’s “Into Battle” (the first poem of the sequence to be used) were mostly inaudible. This remained true throughout the 67 minutes of the piece as the narrator and other characters, as well as the chorus, were all but drowned out by the ensemble, a situation that was not helped by the blurry acoustics of Cirencester Parish Church. For a piece that relies so heavily on the interaction of different texts, this was a problem.

An exception to this was the soprano aria fashioned from Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Tower of Skulls” for the Golgotha section of the Passion, in which the soloist Anna Gillingham made full use of her higher notes to bring a piercing, unearthly quality to the “gleaming horror” of the poet’s vision of “layers of piled-up skulls”. The chorale-like chorus setting of parts of “The Death Bed” by Sassoon also came across well. In general, the music was unremarkable – self-consciously contemporary and percussive with lots of dissonance and rhythmic shifts, but lacking the harmonic underpinning or depth of feeling that would make it particularly memorable.

The various First World War centenaries that are being celebrated at the moment have provided us with an awful lot of war-related cultural output – from exhibitions to plays and everything in between. To stand out in this crowd, a new offering has to give us a fresh perspective on what are commonly known events and images. The parallel of the suffering of Christ with that of the soldiers on the Western Front is well worn almost to the point of cliché, as evidenced by Wilfred Owen’s use of it. Even the war memorial outside the church where the War Passion was premiered is topped with a carving of the crucifixion.

Alongside Lancaster’s Passion, the St ­Cecilia Singers gave us Herbert Howells’s Requiem. Howells wrote this relatively short, unaccompanied work in the 1930s, partly in response to the death of his nine-year-old son, Michael, from polio, but it wasn’t performed until the early 1980s, just before the composer died.

This was an atmospheric performance, though it was slightly marred by the perennial problems of amateur choirs: falling pitch, poor diction and quavery tenors. But the two hushed settings of the Latin text “Requiem aeternam dona eis” were admirably focused, and more evocative than ­everything else on the programme.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue