Living On: Louise Bourgeois’s Dangerous Passages

Living On
Louise Bourgeois’s Dangerous Passages

by Mariianne Mays Wiebe

Freud has written nothing on women -
In a moment of strain I call maman
maman

-Louise Bourgeois, November 1, 1954, in The Return of the Repressed: Psychoanalytic Writings, Volume II. London: Violette Editions, 2012.

The unconscious is something which is volcanic in tone and yet you cannot do anything about it. You had better be its friend, or accept it, or love it if you can, because it might get the better of you. You never know.
-Louise Bourgeois, in Louise Bourgeois: Designing for Free Fall, by Christine Meyer-Thoss. Zurich: Ammann Verlag, 1992.

My first experience of the Stendhal syndrome was a few years ago, brought on by seeing Louise Bourgeois’s work in person for the first time, after a decade and a half of admiring and reading about it. The National Gallery in Ottawa had installed several of her wooden stick figures belonging to a series of sculptural works called “Personages,” made between 1945 and 1955. The figures are thin and spindly and almost human height. Painted black, white or dark brown, their lines are strong, and together they comprise an awkward but poignant group; encountering each one feels a bit like encountering the compressed, naked essence of someone. The pieces taper to the bottom, becoming even thinner, which makes them look vulnerable, lonely. Bourgeois, in her writings, refers to the “fragility of verticality” as something related to vertigo and the dangers of being upright.

I fell to my knees and started to weep when I came upon the small room where they had been fastened directly to the floor. The guard looked alarmed. I had to assure him I was all right, it was just the art.

Telling this story about how the body is caught up in Louise Bourgeois’s art reminds me of an early episode of the TV reality show Work of Art, which starred Simon de Pury, art collector and co-founder of the auction house Phillips de Pury & Company, as a mentor to the artists engaged in a season-long competition. One young artist, aged 22 or 23, in explaining his artwork to de Pury, mentioned that he had his first erection to Disney’s Ariel of The Little Mermaid. De Pury–who’s fabulous on the show, debonair, frank and sincere–blushed, gave a little laugh, and then responded in his purring Swiss accent, not missing a beat, “Ah yes, interesting. I had my first erection to Renoir.”

Given Bourgeois’s frustration, inner turmoil and, er, cutting wit in response to Freud’s insistence on the penis as the primary signifier within psychic and sexual life, it’s fascinating that she was engaged in psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic theory throughout her life and in her art. So it’s right, and humorous, too, that her work has now been exhibited in the Freud Museum in London, in the house where the father of psychoanalysis spent the final years of his life after fleeing Austria at the onset of the Second World War.

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Volume 31, Number 3: Dreams and the Spaces In Between

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #123, published August 2012.

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