My Louise Bourgeois
Siri Hustvedt on the complex, brilliant, contradictory artist
When Emily Dickinson read about the death of George Eliot in the newspaper, she wrote the following sentence in a letter to her cousins: “The look of the words as they lay in the print I shall never forget. Not their face in the casket could have had the eternity to me. Now, my George Eliot.” In 1985, the American poet Susan Howe published My Emily Dickinson, a book of remarkable scholarship, insight, and wit that called upon Dickinson’s personal tribute to Eliot for its title. I am continuing this tradition of ownership by using the first-person possessive pronoun to claim another great artist, Louise Bourgeois, as mine. She is, of course, also your Louise Bourgeois. But that is my point. My L.B. and yours may well be relatives, but it is unlikely they are identical twins. I have long argued that the experience of art is made only in the encounter between spectator and art object. The perceptual experience of art is literally embodied by and in the viewer. We are not the passive recipients of some factual external reality but rather actively creating what we see through the established patterns of the past, learned patterns so automatic they have become unconscious. In other words, we bring ourselves with our pasts to artworks, selves and pasts, which include not just our sensitivity and brilliance but our biases and blind spots as well. The objective qualities of a work—for example, Cell (Eyes and Mirrors), made of marble, mirrors, steel, and glass—come to life in the viewer’s eyes, but that vision is also a form of memory, of well-established perceptual habits. There is no perception without memory. But good art surprises us. Good art reorients our expectations, forces us to break the pattern, to see in a new way.
I have further insisted that we do not treat artworks the way we treat forks or chairs. As soon as a fork or chair or mirror is imported into a work of art, it is qualitatively different from the fork in your drawer or the chair in your living room or the mirror in your bathroom because it carries the traces of a living consciousness and unconsciousness, and it is invested with that being’s vitality. A work of art is always part person. Therefore the experience of art is interpersonal or intersubjective. In art, the relation established is between a person and a part-person-part-thing. It is never between a person and just a thing. It is the aliveness we give to art that allows us to make powerful emotional attachments to it.
My Louise Bourgeois is not just what I make of her works, not just my own analyses of their sinuous, burgeoning meanings, but rather the Louise Bourgeois who is now part of my bodily self in memory, both conscious and unconscious, who in turn has mutated into the forms of my own work, part of the strange transference that takes place between artists. I borrow the psychoanalytic word “transference” because Bourgeois would have understood it. Psychoanalysis not only fascinated her as a discipline, it became a way of life. She began her psychoanalysis with Dr. Henry Lowenfeld in New York in 1953. It ended with his death in 1985. In 1993, she denied her analysis in an interview.
“Have you been in analysis yourself?”
“No,” answers L.B., “but I have spent a lifetime in self-improvement—self-analysis, which is the same thing.”
In the transference, the analyst takes on the guise of an important other for the patient—usually the first beloveds, the parents. For L.B., it would have been mother, father, and siblings, all characters in the childhood drama she offered up to us in her writing, writing that is part of my Louise Bourgeois. She is a marvelous writer, a writer of sharp, lucid observations about life and art. Her art itself, however, both displaced and replaced her life story.
Transference is a complex concept, and it took time before Freud understood that it was an ordinary part of all human relations and that it went both ways. It wasn’t merely a matter of the patient projecting onto the analyst.
The analyst had his or her own countertransference. Even when the patient was responding to the analyst as if to his mother, the transference had, Freud decided, the character of “genuine love.” And, I might add, genuine hate. Love is the cure, but hate is often part of the process.
“As I grow older,” Louise Bourgeois wrote, “the problems I see are not only more intricate but more interesting . . . The problems that I’m interested in are more directed toward other people than toward ideas or objects. The final achievement is really communication with a person. And I fail to get there.” Bourgeois was a master of statements at once pithy and enigmatic, a spinner of her own personal myth of origin, a story of the family romance, of betrayal in childhood, a tale that hides as much as it reveals. But the words “communication with a person” situate her work squarely in a dialogical mode; that is, she speaks to the reality that art is always made for the other, an imaginary other, it is true, but an other nevertheless. Art is a reaching toward, a bid to be seen and understood and recognized by another. It involves a form of transference.
This is from a stash of writing about her psychoanalysis found in 2008, two years before her death.
To Lowenfeld this seems to be the
basic problem It is my aggression
that I am afraid of
Yes. That is a neat summary. The doctor knew it. The patient knew it. They spent 30 years working through it. Aggression is especially a horror for girls. Not just in the olden days of L.B.’s childhood, but now. Girls are still meant to be nicer and better behaved than boys, to hide their hate and aggression, which is not so easy to do, so it seeps out into forms of sly cruelty. Only rarely do girls indulge themselves in the fistfight or the brawl. But the grown-up Louise used her fear and her rage to articulate a ferocious dialectic of biting and kissing, of slapping and caressing, of murder and resurrection. There are needles in the bed. There are cuts, wounds, and mutilations in the figures and the objects. There are fabrics stitched together, written upon, repaired. The work is the site of a struggle I feel as a viewer, a visceral experience of the artist’s war with and love for the materials themselves, yielding fabrics and threads, yes, but also resistant marble and steel and glass. And every mental image I retain from the Cells, every room and every object in those rooms, gives way to multiple interpretations and to emotions that shuttle between poles—from calm to fury, from tenderness to violence. But the movement is in the viewer. The works themselves are cages of stillness and silence. They are sacred spaces, spaces that evoke memory rather than immediate perception. We can only see the cells now with our eyes, but it is as if we are looking at the past, at mental imagery, not at real things. There is genius in this, and a touch of magic.
Bourgeois once said making art is active, not passive. Another time she insisted that all artists are passive. She quoted the psychoanalyst Ernst Kris as saying that “inspiration is the regression of the active into the passive.” She said she resisted the Surrealist idea of artwork as dream work because dreams are passive. They happen to you. For L.B., it is rarely either/or; it is usually both-and. Hers is the Janus face. But her process of making art was, I think, to quote Freud, about Erinnern, Wiederholen und Durcharbeiten. Remembering, repeating, and working through. Passive and active. She openly stated that her work turned on the drama of Louise, the girl: “My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama.” What are we to make of the telling and the writing and the stories of her childhood? What about the mistress her father took, whom she hated, the young Englishwoman who was Louise’s governess and the father’s lover? What about her mother’s passive tolerance of that mistress? The old French game. The man has permission. The woman does not. What about her mother’s death? And then her father’s death? Both deaths ravaged the psyche.
All this telling has given L.B. a title: Confessional Artist. Woman stripped naked. But remember this: She first told the story in Artforum in 1982. She was 70 years old. She had been in analysis for three decades, talking and telling and searching and working through the origins of her pain. After years of artistic obscurity, she became suddenly and finally famous as an old woman with a show at the Museum of Modern Art. Lionized, feted, in the limelight at last, Louise Bourgeois took firm control of her artistic narrative and never let go of it. Her adult life, her husband, her children, her analysis, and much else remained in the shadows. The appearance of telling all allowed other worlds to stay secret.
My Louise Bourgeois is complex, brilliant, contradictory, fiercely direct at times, but also discreet. She wears a veil. Sometimes she wears a mask. Her power lies not in confession but in a visual vocabulary of ambiguity, an ambiguity so potent, it becomes suspense. The Cells are not blunt statements. They are indistinct murmurs. They are great because they are irreducible. The narratives and commentaries L.B. created for these works are like musical accompaniments, but they are not codes or explanations. She knew this. When her compulsively quotable analyses of her own works are put together, they create not a synthesis but clusters of antitheses. They are the ejaculations of a quick mind, interested above all in its own contents. We must also recognize this: She was a shrewd orchestrator of her own legacy.
Bourgeois’s Cells are made like poems in the visual language of material things, and they startle us because we have not seen them before. They are original. This does not mean there is no history, no sociology, no past in the work, no influences, but rather that Bourgeois had to forge a trajectory for her art from another perspective because, as she said, “The art world belonged to men.” Susan Howe writes about Emily Dickinson, “She built a new poetic form from her fractured sense of being eternally on intellectual borders, where confident masculine voices buzzed an alluring and inaccessible discourse, backward through history into aboriginal anagogy.” Howe sees the problem. “How do I, choosing messages from the code of others in order to participate in the universal theme of Language, pull SHE from all the myriad symbols and sightings of HE?” The task is to find an answering form, one that does not betray the real—the emotional truths of experience. Dickinson stayed home and wrote. Bourgeois stayed home and made sculptures. It was easier to stay hidden, she said, from the world that belonged to the men, but in the end she regarded her period of hiding as “good luck.” She came blasting out into the world at an age Dickinson never lived to be.
“My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun,” wrote Emily Dickinson.
Let me say this. My Louise Bourgeois has stirred up the contents of my own dungeon, the muddy, aromatic, sadistic, and tender underground of dreams and fantasies that are part of every life. But artists are cannibals. We consume other artists, and they become part of us—flesh and bone—only to be spewed out again in our own works. When mingled with Søren Kierkegaard, the 17th-century natural philosopher Margaret Cavendish, Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein, Milton’s Satan, and heaven knows whom else, my chewed-up and digested Louise Bourgeois returned in the artist character at the heart of my most recent novel, The Blazing World: Harriet Burden, a.k.a. Harry. To be perfectly honest, I was unaware of the degree to which L.B. had influenced H.B. until I began preparing this piece. The unconscious works in mysterious ways.
An academic introduces the book, my book, which he or she (we do not know the sex of the editor) presents as a compilation of texts written by many people, including Harry herself, which all turn on an experiment in perception Burden called Maskings; three different men act as fronts and show Burden’s work as their own. By the time the editor, I. V. Hess, begins work on the book, Harry is dead. In the introduction, Hess tells the reader that Harry kept notebooks, each one labeled with a letter of the alphabet, every letter except I. The I is missing. This is a passage from the introduction: “Vermeer and Velázquez share V, for example. Louise Bourgeois has her own notebook under L, not B, but L contains digressions on childhood and psychoanalysis.” I wanted to make plain the debt my fictional artist owes to the real artist. But what do they share?
They are both women. L.B. was tiny in stature. Harry is enormous. The real artist and the invented artist are both interested in sexual blur, in undoing the hard lines between the feminine and the masculine. The ambiguous body appeals to them both. Bourgeois made a career of the mingled body, of penis and breast and buttocks and openings and bulbous protrusions that are neither one nor the other, not man, not woman. Bourgeois wrote, “We are all vulnerable in some way, and we are all male-female.” When Burden builds a work with her second “mask,” Phinny, she calls it The Suffocation Rooms. Among the figures is a hermaphrodite creature who climbs out of a box. Both artists are fiercely ambitious. Both are brilliant. They work at their art like maniacs even when they are not recognized for it, but they both desperately want recognition. And they are keenly aware of the fact that women remain marginal in the art world. Maskings is Harry’s grand game about perception and expectation, a play with and on the ironies of being a woman artist.
In 1974, Louise Bourgeois wrote, “A woman has no place as an artist until she proves over and over that she won’t be eliminated.”
Harry Burden writes in a notebook, “I knew . . . that, despite the Guerrilla Girls, it was still better to have a penis. I was over the hill and had never had a penis.”
And then there is the rage, the aggression, and the fear of aggression.
“I have many fears,” Louise Bourgeois said in an interview, “but . . . I find great release in aggressiveness. I do not feel guilty at all—until the next morning. So I am violent and I have fantastic pleasure in breaking everything. I freak out the next day . . . but while it goes on, I enjoy it. I do . . . I try to make myself be forgiven, but at the next provocation it starts all over again.” She said further, “And artists are even worse because artists are greedy on top of that. They want recognition, they want publicity, they want all kinds of ridiculous things.”
Harriet Burden writes in a notebook, “It’s coming up, Harry, the blind and boiling, the insane rage that has been building and building since you walked with your head down and didn’t even know it. You are not sorry any longer, old girl, or ashamed for knocking at the door. It is not shameful to knock, Harry. You are rising up against the patriarchs and their minions, and you, Harry, you are the image of their fear. Medea, mad with vengeance. That little monster has climbed out of the box, hasn’t it? It isn’t nearly grown yet, not nearly grown. After Phinny, there will be one more. There will be three, just as in the fairy tales. Three masks of different hues and countenances, so that the story will have its perfect form. Three masks, three wishes, always three. And the story will have bloody teeth.”
They both take their symbolic revenge on the fathers.
After her husband died, Bourgeois cannibalized her own father in her art, in the great pink, red maw she created and called The Destruction of the Father, a work that is awful and gleeful and faintly comic, too. Her story for the work: she and her brother hated the man’s overbearing and dominant ways and so one day they killed him and gobbled him up. This fury belongs especially to women making art, art of all kinds, because women artists are put into boxes that are hard to climb out of. The box is labeled “woman’s art.” When was the last time you heard anyone talk about a man artist, a man novelist, a man composer? The man is the norm, the rule, the universal. The white man’s box is the whole world. Louise Bourgeois was an artist who made art. “We are all male-female.” All great art is male-female.
The Patriarchs disappoint us. They do not see, and they do not listen. They are often blind and deaf to women, and they strut and boast and act as if we are not there. And they are not always men. They are sometimes women, too, blind to themselves, hating themselves. They are all caught up in the perceptual habits of centuries, in expectations that have come to rule their minds. And these habits are worst for the young woman, who is still thought of as a desirable sexual object because the young, desirable, fertile body cannot be truly serious, cannot be the body behind great art. A young man’s body, on the other hand, the body of Jackson Pollock, is made for greatness. Art hero.
But the aggression, the desire for vengeance created by the overbearing, dominating, and condescending ways of patriarchy can be used and refashioned and made into art, into cells, into rooms that summon in the viewer both prisons and biological bodies, bodies that love and rage, but that escape the actual, mortal body of the artist herself and live on after she is dead. My own Harriet Burden is not really seen until after she is dead. She dies when she is 64. Think if Louise Bourgeois had died at 64 instead of 98. We are lucky she lived so long.
Louise Bourgeois: “The trustees of the Museum of Modern Art were not interested in a young woman coming from Paris. They were not flattered by her attention. They were not interested in her three children . . . They wanted male artists, and they wanted male artists who did not say that they were married . . . It was a court. And the artist buffoons came to the court to entertain, to charm.” Listen to the voice of controlled rage. She speaks of herself in the third person. They wanted nothing to do with that young woman coming from Paris, the young woman she used to be. They were blind to her genius, a genius that was there early, in the works she was making when she was in her thirties, as good as—indeed better than—many of the period’s art heroes.
For the woman it is often better to be old. The old wrinkled face is better suited to the artist who happens to be a woman. The old face does not carry the threat of erotic desire. It is no longer cute. Alice Neel, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois. Recognized old. Joan Mitchell, shot to art heaven after her death. And remember this: The great women are all cheaper than the great men. They come much cheaper.
L.B. made another enigmatic statement: “The inner necessity of the artist to be an artist has everything to do with gender and sexuality. The frustration of the woman artist and her lack of immediate role as an artist in society is a consequence of this necessity, and her powerlessness (even if she is successful) is a consequence of this necessary vocation.” Even if she is successful, she is outside. It is still woman’s art.
My Louise Bourgeois understood the need, the burning compulsion, to translate real experience into passionate symbols. The experience that must be translated is deep and old. It is made of memory, both conscious and unconscious. It is of the body, female and male, male-female, and whether the artworks are made from the letters of the alphabet or from fabric, steel, plaster, glass, stone, lead, or iron, they are vehicles of communication for an imaginary other, the one who will look and listen. “By symbols, I mean things that are your friends but that are not real,” she explained. No, symbols are not real. They are representations. But they are alive inside us nevertheless when we look and when we read. They become us, part of our cellular makeup, part of our bodies and brains. They live on in memory, and sometimes, through the strange convolutions we call imagination, become other works of art.
From A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women. Used with permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2016 by Siri Hustvedt.