It's difficult to imagine an artist better suited to the Freud Museum than Louise Bourgeois, confessional art's first real practitioner. Her favourite sculpture, Janus Fleuri, hangs from the ceiling of the psychoanalyst’s study, a work she describes as a kind of self-portrait, a practicing therapist's screaming nightmare – Fleuri is a tumour-like jumble of male and female parts, an un-erotic terratoma that droops from its bonds like a half-dead larva. Upstairs, a Lucasian cluster of felted, torpedo-peaked breasts reveal, upon closer inspection, that they are a clod of stuffed berets: the berets are a clever joke, one imagines, at the viewer's expense, who unconsciously thinks of some Francophile nonsense whenever he sees them - to the satirist, the beret is the mark of the dopey artist or the goofy pseudo, the painter in his smock and cartoonish goatee. One can find a small and red-rubber orifice – an inelegant, quasi-cloaca glory hole – at what appears to be the sculpture’s rear end. The hole looks oddly accommodating, like the mouth of a lipsticked inflatable doll; what is it there for, and what, for Bourgeois, does it represent? Sex and sexuality, here, go hand-in-hand with neurosis and terror, but also with the spectre of the father-philanderer, a textile man by trade. This felted form, with its attendant thread spools and winking, rubberised hole, is for him, in all its confusing and Freudian glory.
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/ © Louise Bourgeois Trust
The show is tethered by a series of Bourgeois' writings, the product of thirty years of psychotherapy. There are texts which are profoundly sad, and there are lists – wretched and miserable lists – in which the artist records her fears and her failures: a list of mistakes she has made, a list detailing how she has failed as a mother, a list in which she debates several methods of suicide, as neat and impassive as a schoolgirl’s journal. I found her handwriting peculiarly affecting, in its loopy, girlish way; ink in the letters is generally blue or black, but sometimes - as on a list where she details her various ‘wants’ (I want to forget, I want to be good) – it’s a bright and labial fuchsia pink, an unexpectedly delicate thing. In the lower-floor room, one glassy vitrine holds a small, stuffed body with a rusty jackknife head; Le Femme Couteau – The Knife Woman – is female trouble incarnate, an angry pink note in its sculptural form, with its weaponised head and its soft, female shape. The body has one leg severed at the knee, a common motif in Bourgeois' work, a sometime reminder of castration anxiety - as a child, the artist would construct crude voodoo replicas of her father's body from thick, pulpy slices of white farmhouse bread, and then slowly remove all his limbs with a knife.
Louise Bourgeois, working on SLEEP II in Italy, 1967; Photo: Studio Fotografico, Carrara / © The Easton Foundation
Art is an exorcism, Bourgeois wrote at eighty-four, a tool for survival; so is the knife, and so, too, is the talking cure of the psychoanalyst. Bourgeois kept her visits a secret for three long decades, but in I Am Afraid, we see their effects in a new and cautiously hopeful mantra - not 'fixed,' exactly, but halfway-cured, a closer cousin to the artist's public image:
What are you missing?/ Nothing/I am imperfect, but I am lacking nothing.
(Image at top right: Louise Bourgeois, CELL XXIV (PORTRAIT), 2001, Steel, stainless steel, glass, wood and fabric , 177.8 x 106.7 x 106.7 cm.; Courtesy Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read / Photo: Christopher Burke / © Louise Bourgeois Trust)