Louise Bourgeois viewed art as an alternative form of psychoanalysis, an unravelling of the psyche, as it is based on exploring unconscious associations. Currently on display at Hayward Gallery, in London, The Woven Child exhibition features sculptures that explore ambivalent mental states, past selves, ghostly memories, and physical and emotional pain, as well as art installations incorporating textiles, old fabrics, needles, and spiders – which she views as protective repairers, rather than frightening figures. The spider motif is associated with motherhood, whilst the process of weaving is also a metaphor for mending family relations.
Delving into her work can be an unsettling process. In “Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter”, a book that also features rare excerpts from Bourgeois’ notebooks and diaries, Juliet Mitchell hints at the uncanny effect of her work, mentioning the ambivalence of the emotions felt due to the way her art taps into past and present mental states. She also emphasises that Bourgeois’ wish was for the viewer to focus on their own (unconscious) response to her work, rather than wondering about her own free associations. This aligns with the discourse on the uncanny, which inherently relies on the subjective experience of the viewer. Objects are usually not thought of as inherently ‘uncanny’. Unconscious responses to her work (and art in general) can be similar, consistent, despite the fluctuations in our psychological configuration and in the psychic, repressed material that triggers the response.
Although this is an oversimplification of the themes she depicted, her innovative work is in part fuelled by a resentment towards her father and an admiration for her mother. According to Mitchell, Bourgeois was obsessively fascinated with her own childhood and afraid of her own capacity for aggression (a trait that is especially condemned in women). She also sublimated sadistic, vengeful drives through her art. In her therapy sessions, she tried to question the “nice girl” tendencies, resurrecting the buried self. She allowed herself to express rage and criticism towards Freud, Lacan, and her own psychoanalyst, Lowenfeld, whilst appreciating Freud’s “opponents”, Jung and Klein.
Despite being engaged in Freudian psychoanalysis for a significant period of her life, Bourgeois wrote an essay titled “Freud’s Toys”, in which she expressed the view that Freud’s method wasn’t helpful for artists. There tends to be an ambivalence in her statements regarding both the function of art and the links between the creative and the psychoanalytical process: whilst she acknowledged they are both forms of psyche excavation, metamorphosis, and resurrection, her reinforcement of the image of the suffering, tormented artist appears to be incompatible with the ‘talking cure’.
She pointed out that “To be an artist involves some suffering. That’s why artists repeat themselves – because they have no access to a cure”.
At the same time, she stated: “The connections that I make in my work are connections that I cannot face. They are really unconscious connections. The artist has the privilege of being in touch with his or her unconscious, and this is really a gift. It is the definition of sanity. It is the definition of self-realization.”