“The artist has the privilege of being in touch with his or her unconscious,” Louise Bourgeois once explained. The prolific artist passed away at age 98, working resolutely until her final breath, as many women artists only properly recognized late in their careers must, and do.
Bourgeois’s tangible work — writing, painting, drawing, and most notably, sculpture — was the output of her emotional labor, which she began to make sense of when she started psychoanalysis in 1952. Freud’s Daughter, now on view at the Jewish Museum, seeks to shed light on the long and tenuous relationship that she shared with the practice, and what it allowed her to excavate, a framework that the artist — who once wrote “psychoanalysis can be equated with digging. But the analogy is a cheap one” — would probably abhor.
Petite but puncturing, Bourgeois had a deep well of opinions, particularly of her parents — the source of all her suffering, in psychoanalytic terms. According to Philip Larratt Smith, the present show’s curator, she believed she was interminably stuck in Freud’s Oedipal stage, mired in a struggle to win over her father. “Orange Episode” (1990), a framed, dried orange peel in the exhibit’s final gallery, perhaps embodies this fixation best. As Bourgeois recounts in Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine (2008), Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach’s documentary of the artist’s life and work, her father used to draw her picture on a citrus fruit, then peel off its skin along the traced lines. The result was a human’s silhouette, orange navel dick and all. The problem? Bourgeois had a vagina. These episodes, she recalls, caused her to feel embarrassed and angry. Maybe this is what Freud meant by penis envy.
Her father’s frequent flights — to war and mistresses — left Bourgeois with a reservoir of resentment towards him. This sentiment emanates from “The Destruction of the Father” (1974-2017), an installation illuminated by crimson terrarium lights. The focus of the piece is a platform — both a table and a bed — topped with a pile of animal limb casts. The scene, previously entitled “The Evening Meal,” depicts a fantasy in which children dismember, then eat their father — the patriarch of the family known to tout his superiority ad nauseum. When Bourgeois first showed the piece in the 70s, feminists praised it for its bold perspective.
Bourgeois was indeed a feminist artist, despite the fact that she didn’t call herself one. Though, for viewers more familiar with the female anatomy-driven art of Eleanor Antin, Patty Chang, or Nona Faustine, the phallic and asexual symbols in Freud’s Daughter might befuddle. Bourgeois’s mother, like her father, was one of her primary motifs. You’ll find overt maternal imagery in this show in the form of umbilical cords, orifices, and vulva-shaped faces, but the most intriguing of these pieces are the abstruse ones. “Ventouse (Cupping Jar)” (1990), for example, is a mound of marble riddled with glass vessels. It’s bewildering, until you learn that Bourgeois used the cupping method to relieve her ailing mother’s chronic pain. “Passage Dangereux” (1997), a multi-room cell filled with found items and original artworks, is similarly metaphorical. While the broader work contains multitudes, the small spider in one of its caged corners caught my eye. The sculpture is a scaled-down version of “Maman” (1999), Bourgeois’s most famous sculpture, whose title translates to “Mom” in English. The arachnid doesn’t exactly scream affectionate, but in Bourgeois’s eyes, it was the perfect analogy — a creature both wise and calculating.
Bourgeois’s writing is the art form that opens Freud’s Daughter. I attempted to read all of her tapestry embroideries, poetic streams of consciousness, and handwritten diary entries until my eyes began to strain. Many of the artist’s thoughts are haphazardly scrawled on loose sheets of paper — the inclusion of which serve more for memorialization than practicality. Once you get through to her words, however, which are perhaps more accessible in the exhibition catalogue than in the galleries, her traumas begin to unravel. An artist who believed her artwork needed no context, Bourgeois would probably fight with me about this assessment, too.
Louise Bourgeois: Freud’s Daughter continues through September 12 at The Jewish Museum (1109 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Philip Larratt-Smith and coordinated by Shira Backer.