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Louise Bourgeois in her Manhattan studio, 1982Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
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Can Freudian Art Survive in an Age Without Freud?

A Louise Bourgeois show at the Jewish Museum and a new biography of Lucian Freud may provide the answer

Frances Brent
June 11, 2021
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Louise Bourgeois in her Manhattan studio, 1982Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

In the triumphant haze of the mid-20th century, the British art historian and poet Herbert Read declared, “The universe of the painting—the universe seen by the painter—hasn’t been the same since Freud showed the importance of irrational sources of inspiration.” But if you are wondering how legible 20th-century masterworks may be to a 21st-century audience that no longer inhabits the cultural space permeated by psychoanalytic thought, the answer is that luckily, a great work of art is different from a tract. Go look at the mountain of flesh in Lucian Freud’s “Naked Man, Back View,” a painting that makes you rethink your understanding of what it means to inhabit the human body. Or take a look at Louise Bourgeois’ astonishing Janus Fleuri. Cast in bronze with gold patina, perhaps a womb buckling apart, with two phallic shapes blossoming from either side, it makes you question what is soft and what is hard, what is moving and what is still, what is male and what is female, what is inside and what is outside, what is grotesque and what is beautiful.

A new show at the Jewish Museum, Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter (running from May 7 through Sept. 12, 2021) looks at the artist through the lens of her encounter with psychoanalysis, the struggle of what she called her “broken mind,” and the gift of its burden. “Never let me be free from/this burden that will never/let me be free,” she wrote at the end of her life. The exhibit presents a broad selection of Bourgeois’ artwork, roughly 50 pieces taken from all the decades of her work, including the monumental Passage Dangereux, her largest Cell with its cagelike chambers adorned with worn tapestries, mirrors, spiders, a prosthetic brace, as well as a set of broken chairs hanging above four sculptural feet fastened to poles, legs of a copulating couple. The art is intermingled with a selection of papers, notes she made in response to her emotional agony and analytic treatment.

“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 artist here and now,” Bourgeois asked in an anguished essay published in 1990. She was writing about Freud’s collection of artifacts and antiquities and she titled it Freud’s Toys, referring to the statuettes and objects Freud arranged on shelves, his desk, and the cabinets in his consulting room. Obliquely, she was also alluding to his patients whom she called “maggots,” constantly dying from their misery and being resurrected.

When Bourgeois posed her questions about Freud and psychoanalysis, she was reconsidering the value of her own treatment, which lasted on and off from 1951 to 1985, coming to an end when her analyst, Henry Lowenfeld, died. Even before her breakdown, she had been reading Freud and a large amount of psychoanalytic literature. The answer she came to was both an accusation and a reconciliation: “The truth is that Freud did nothing for artists, or for the artist’s problem, the artist’s torment—to be an artist involves some suffering.” Later in life, she was more dismissive. “Freud and Lacan were barking up the wrong tree,” she said.

Bourgeois, who lived to be 98, suffered from depression, anxiety, and harrowing phobias throughout her long life. Her volatility was legion; she once threw the leg of lamb at a family supper out the window. You can go on YouTube and watch her in a fury, smashing plaster casts of her sculpture onto a studio floor. Those who knew her recognized her fiery temper as part of an unusual vulnerability, the inescapable burden that put its stamp on her art. It was there in her autobiographical drawings and paintings of the 1940s, in the bloody red allegorical 1974 tableau, The Destruction of the Father, and in the fabric sculptures in the early 2000s, enigmatic mannequins or dolls, effigies for the artist’s traumatic memories and ghostly terrors.

Louise Bourgeois, of course, was not Freud’s daughter. She was born on Christmas Day in Paris in 1911, the same year that Freud was in Vienna in the middle of the Jewish century, publishing his little book on Leonardo da Vinci. Bourgeois’ parents were well-educated, liberally enlightened, and successful proprietors of a Parisian gallery that specialized in antique tapestries, which during her childhood expanded to a workshop that repaired and restored tapestries in Choisy-le-Roi. As a girl, Louise liked to help out, using her artistic skill to redraw worn-away figures, often fragments of human feet or buckled shoes and the paws of hunting dogs and horses’ hoofs at the bottom of the damaged tapestries.

The story of Bourgeois’ childhood and youth is well known and integral to her idiosyncratic and prodigious artistic achievement. Her father was a charismatic figure, simultaneously charming and sadistically domineering, who was wounded during the First World War. Her mother, concerned about his health and his dalliances, followed him to various encampments as well as to the military hospital in Chartres where he was pampered by pretty nurses. Louise, the second and favorite of her parents’ three children, was brought along. The shock of the war, appalling sights of the wounded, anxiety about abandonment, and shrouded awareness of her father’s betrayals became the baseline trauma of her early emotional life. When Louise was 5 years old, her mother became ill with the flu and never fully recovered. The young woman her father hired as a governess became his mistress and lived in their home for 10 years. After her mother’s death in 1932, Louise attempted suicide.

Bourgeois had studied mathematics at the Sorbonne but, rebelling against her father, she put aside calculus and Euclidean geometry and began to take courses in art and art history. In 1938, she met and married the American art historian Robert Goldwater, a specialist in modernism and primitive art. When they moved that same year to New York, Bourgeois committed herself in earnest to becoming an artist. Freudian ideas and theories of psychoanalysis were very much a part of their social world, which included university professors, curators, artists, and writers. Goldwater himself wrote a famous book in the 1960s, Space and Dream, which concentrated on the unconscious sources of modern art. As Bourgeois developed artistically and as her emotional life became increasingly turbulent with the burdens of being a wife and then a mother of three boys with attendant social pressures, she sought out Freud’s theoretical models as an underpinning to understand both her creativity and her troubles.

In 1951, Bourgeois’ father died and she fell into an almost intractable depression, sometimes unable to get out of bed, dress, or even wash for the day. In her misery, she turned to psychoanalysis, and for nearly 12 years she did relatively little artistic work, though the analysis triggered an almost obsessive abundance of words. Bourgeois had kept a diary for most of her life, starting when she was 11 years old, but during the years after her breakdown, her customary journal was almost entirely supplanted by psychoanalytic notes.

The papers that appear in the Jewish Museum show are drawn from an archive of approximately a thousand loose sheets stored away and forgotten in her Chelsea home, then rediscovered in two batches, one in 2004 and the other in 2010. Typed and handwritten in French and English, pen and pencil, sometimes with scribbled drawings, phone numbers, or appointment dates dashed off to the side, they are records of introspection, dreams, memories, fears, aspirations, thoughts about the psychoanalytic process, interior dialogues with her analyst, and moments of revelation: “when I do not ‘attack’ I/do not feel myself alive.” The juxtaposition of the art and the often-brilliant writing offers a unique perspective on Bourgeois’ imaginative development.

Although she said she didn’t trust words, the writing helped contain the frightening overflow of stirred-up feelings, demonstrating that she was as much a writer as she was an artist. Her notes are mundane, intimate, heartbreaking, astute, and blunt, studded with the kind of Americanisms that non-native speakers unintentionally turn into poetry. In the middle of one sheet of lined paper, she writes: “he talks like a bottle of glue—/she talks with a hatchet--” and several lines down: “3:15 am. olives, radishes with salt + butter/I would like to eat some anchovies/or something salty.” On certain pages, there’s agitation and anguish: “You know this woman that you call your mother—she really is ‘Death’ her/body is like a wicker basket.” And on others, she comes close to salvation:

… to hear chaos, a cascade –
the Marne locks – Beethoven
a river that carries
rocks and trees
The thunder rolling

The process of psychoanalysis solidified her confidence in her own imagination and taught her to aim her phenomenal aggressive energy onto her art, getting revenge by assaulting material as a recurring act of freedom. As she explored her traumatic memories, the forces and passions of the long-entrenched Oedipal triangle became the narrative of her suffering. It was a working model that offered an explanation for her pain, helping to shake her fractured thoughts out of the blur of depression. When the crisis was over and she returned to work, she created a series of simultaneously male and female spiraling, bulbous, biomorphic forms using poured latex and plaster. After that, the profusion of new ideas, styles, and materials—marble, bronze, wood, cement, wax, cloth, found objects, and machinery—was limitless. For the rest of her life, the story she told most often in her art was the kernel story of mother, father, child, and governess. Yet the symptoms of her misery—the insomnia, somatic pains, agoraphobia, the crying fits, and splenetic anger, the feelings of fragmentation and isolation—never healed. When she wrote that “The truth is that Freud did nothing for artists, or for the artist’s problem, the artist’s torment--to be an artist involves some suffering,” she was acknowledging her burden, his betrayal, and the unresolvable reality of her creativity.

Freud’s real grandson, Lucian Freud, a painter with colossal driving force and originality, roughly contemporaneous with Bourgeois (he was born in Berlin in 1922 and died in London in 2011), had a far less fraught relationship with psychoanalysis than his artistic sibling did. The two artists, Bourgeois and Freud, had many things in common. Both were refugees, unflinchingly intelligent, and punishingly truthful. Neither was equipped to sustain real-world relationships. Both worked outside the dominant style of their time, autobiographically, and with so much concentration and intensity, it seemed as though their art was an exorcism.

Significantly, it was not simply natural but essential for both to approach what was forbidden and to cross the line. Their work moved forward in order to be shockingly transgressive and because it was shockingly transgressive it was art. Anyone who saw the stunning and grotesque paintings in the Acquavella Gallery’s 2019 show, Lucian Freud: Monumental, can attest to this. I admit I was shaken by the oversize Interior, Nottinghill, 1998, which had a spectacular alteration midway through the painting process when Freud’s model, the supermodel and actress Jerry Hall, who was also a nursing mother at the time, interrupted her sittings to go to Ireland. Freud, impatient to finish the composition, painted her over with his studio assistant, David Dawson, posing naked in Hall’s place. The resulting hermaphrodite-seeming figure suckles Hall’s baby, who had already been painted into the composition. In this case, Freud broke a taboo accidentally, but it was often his gift to take his viewers to what was previously unthinkable.

In 2020, leading up to Lucian Freud’s centenary this year, The Royal Academy of Arts and Boston Museum of Fine Arts presented an exhibition of his brilliant, pitiless self-portraits, and now Knopf has published the second volume of William Feaver’s two-volume biography, The Lives of Lucian Freud: Fame: 1968-2011. Feaver is both a curator and art critic, and for many years he was Freud’s confidant. His two thick books are a pastiche of collected conversations based on thousands of phone calls between the two, going back 35 years.

The text is, by necessity, rambling, revisiting the early years in Berlin under the Weimar Republic when Lucian, his mother’s favorite child, startled her by chalking swastikas on the walls—it was just something he did with his friends, he said. There are details of his first three years in England at a utopian boarding school; memories of his grandfather in the hospital, when surgeons removed a portion of the old man’s cheek and left a hole “like a brown apple”; his bitterness about the murder of his grandfather’s four sisters by the Nazis (one died of hunger in Theresienstadt, one was murdered in Auschwitz and the two others in Treblinka); his unorthodox analysis (five sessions with the Viennese refugee Willi Hoffer, who explained the facts of life to him—apparently no one had done this before—and gave him a present of a bottle of whiskey); his early Bohemian life when he kept pigeons and hawks as subjects to draw, along with a dead monkey and a stuffed zebra head. Readers learn about his enormous gambling debts, lovers, and wives (his first wife, Kitty Garman, was the daughter of the sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein and his second was Lady Caroline Blackwood), his 14 or so children (there’s controversy about his painting them nude), many hundreds of friends and models (he knew everyone from Sartre to the performance artist and nightclub operator Leigh Bowery to Queen Elizabeth), and a great deal about the paintings. What is clear from all their conversation is that the work meant everything to him.

Freud described himself as not terribly introspective, and from the biography, you get the feeling there was actually something missing, some deficit that didn’t bother him exactly but it made him different from others, freer, more impulsive, fundamentally fearless. As he put it, “I lacked family feeling, a sense of being in a family.” Later in his life, he refined his thoughts about the way his work diverted emotions: “It’s not that you want to block things out. It’s the bypassing of feeling by art.” That distance and objectivity gave him the ability to dissect the subjects of his paintings relentlessly, connecting him to the scientific side of his grandfather who insisted on the process of examination.

Looking at the paint strokes, bumps, lumps, and roughened particles in Freud’s late paintings, you could say he was a scientist of skin. The painter himself put it beautifully: “It’s a living material. It isn’t a fantasy.” If he was not interested in the theory of psychoanalysis, the method was, paradoxically, inside of him. The success of his portraits depended upon the psychological confrontation of painter and model and his self-portraits, even the early ones, have an almost disturbing tension that derives from the collision of what you can know and what you can’t know about yourself. In this way, you might think of Louise Bourgeois and Lucian Freud situated on opposite sides of the couch: the one galvanized by the experience of being psychoanalyzed, and the other jolted alive when the subjects under his scrutiny are vitalized by the intensity of his paint.

Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.