The Importance of Autobiography in Positioning Louise Bourgeois in Art History
On the most basic level, Louise Bourgeois appeals to both viewers and critics by forging a personal connection with them via text and speech, clearly showing them that her work flows from her own imperfect life, a life that contains many painful memories. “Art,” Bourgeois says, “is the experiencing – or rather the re-experiencing – of a trauma” (Bernadac, 8). The oft-cited trauma that fuels Bourgeois’s decades-long artistic catharsis is her father’s betrayal of her family when he took a young English governess as his in-house mistress and flaunted it for ten years. Bourgeois contends that the resulting unhealthy atmosphere of deceit, hypocrisy, jealousy, and betrayal caused a profound psychic disturbance within her that has haunted and driven her entire career. “As a child, she felt manipulated, so as an adult she wanted to manipulate. Sculpture was her weapon of revenge,” said curator Jean Frémon in a 1985 exhibition catalogue (Frémon, 5). This rationale gives an easy biographical and psychological explanation of Bourgeois’s work; it provides the memories that serve as wellsprings for her creativity as well as an explanation for the profound eroticism in her work. But how important is autobiography – or psychobiography – in positioning Louise Bourgeois in art history? In recent years, critics have argued that autobiography in the evaluation of Bourgeois is everything from an annoying distraction to absolutely essential. I contend that both sides of the argument have valid points, but the importance of autobiography cannot be found at either extreme. I believe that autobiography is an alluring aspect of her work, but that it must not be depended upon to fully describe – and, thus, limit – the rich layers of meanings within Bourgeois’s work. Instead, autobiography should be considered as one very essential element of her work; an element that enhances and brings together the various facets of her art and that provides some of the language needed to properly position her in art history.
Art is not about art. Art is about life, and that sums it up.
Even before Bourgeois went public with the childhood trauma she claims drives her work, text of an obviously autobiographical nature was an essential part of her oeuvre. Strong clues to the emotional baggage she carries are provided in titles such as The Destruction of the Father, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, Clutching, Red Room (Parents), Red Room (Child), and Cell (Arch of Hysteria). Many of her pieces are accompanied by stories she writes, and she often includes commentary in the show catalogues. For instance, the following Bourgeois quote was included in the exhibition catalogue for her 1994 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum:
The Cells represent different types of pain: the physical, the emotional and the psychological, and the mental and intellectual…Each Cell deals with fear. Fear is pain…Each Cell deals with the pleasure of the voyeur, the thrill of looking and being looked at (Bernadac,121).
And this story accompanied Bourgeois’s 1990 collage entitled Orange Episode:
It’s a game that my father learned in the trenches, and that he often played with us at the table after meals, with an orange-peel. With a knife you cut the shape of a woman in the peel – head, shoulders, breasts and belly – in such a way that the stem of the orange is where the ‘genitals’ would be. So when you peel it everything opens out, and you have a figure with fine hair and something dangling between the legs. My father would then say, ‘Look, children, it’s wonderful, look what she has. This little figure is a portrait of my daughter. Not Henriette, Louise – but Louise has nothing, there!’ (Bernadac, 132).
In such commentary, Bourgeois is telling her own extremely personal stories, but more importantly, she is telling her individual stories relative to the whole of society. Her words leave little doubt that Bourgeois has suffered real pain in her life, but critics and viewers alike immediately connect to Bourgeois on a very personal level because her suffering forges both a physical and psychic connection to their lives. She taps into basic human nature. Her words are the snare that catches the viewer’s attention, makes them think, causes them to connect, and draws them deeper into her art.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1982, that Bourgeois officially went public with the tale of her childhood trauma and its link to her work, her fears, and her need to heal herself through her sculpture. Although, as the preceding examples show, she utilized text and titles to forge a quick link between the viewer and her work, she did not place her personal trauma on public display until she was 71 years old. Some theorize that she withheld this information until the art world shifted once again toward supporting the validity of autobiography, and criticism began taking private life into account in the analysis of an artist’s work. Others feel she was simply finally ready to rid herself of the psychic baggage of her childhood, and that she felt public exposure was needed to accomplish this. Whatever reason precipitated the decision, its timing was a brilliant career move. The biographical link not only enhanced her work, which as noted above includes her personal comments as part of her oeuvre, but it also reincarnated the concept of art as autobiography, a position previously advocated by Pablo Picasso and developed in various ways by artists such as Christian Boltanski (Bernada, 9).
It seems clear that Bourgeois had a deep-seated need to sweep clean her psychic house by opening the doors to her childhood to the public. But it is equally clear that it would be an injustice to assign too much credibility to autobiography in her work. Psychobiography in Bourgeois’s work is primarily the outer level of communication, the headline that captures attention and draws the reader into the main body of work. “Psychobiography individualises the relations between life and art work,” notes Griselda Pollock in an Oxford University Press article on Bourgeois. “Psychoanalytical readings of artistic practices and texts work at the intersection between singular histories and intensities and the structural conditions, in both psychic structure and language, for creating meaning that, disguising a person’s particular urgency, engage other subjectivities at the site of the text.” The problem with the tendency to explain Bourgeois’s work merely on the basis of psychobiography, Pollock emphasizes, is that it is “both bad art history and bad psychoanalysis” (Pollock, 88). While the child’s traumatic tale of a philandering father and the resulting pain and anger seduce critics and viewers into an easy explanation of Bourgeois work, it also has the capability of distracting from the deeper consideration that her work deserves. Again, this is not to say that her history does not contribute to all layers of her art. In fact, this is a key point: Her history is extremely important to her work on a much deeper, primal level than is first apparent, and it is a travesty to relegate it to the superficiality that so many writers, critics, and viewers do.
In an article entitled Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listing, Felman and Laub provide a response to cynics who question that a childhood trauma could fuel the life work of a 90-year-old widow, mother, and artist, by discussing the tightly woven relationships between trauma and memory and event and witness. They contend that a traumatic event often “lodges itself within an unprepared and undefended psyche, possessing us without relief and almost without knowledge.” While day-to-day life goes on, the “unfinished business” of the unhealed psychic wound festers. “Resisting that march of time, and impregnable to any erosion by its passage, trauma functions as a structure from which only the act of witnessing can precipitate a departure,” they contend. It is not until there is a witness – someone to hear and to testify to the reality of the trauma, however old – that a memory is actually created (Felman and Laub, 57). Art is an ideal stage upon which to gain access to witnesses. By its very nature of simultaneously allowing an external projection of the inner compulsion of the creator, art creates a testimony and promises a witness -- the viewer. Therefore, it isn’t that Bourgeois has taken her childhood memories and rehashed them obsessively, it is that she has been excavating for memories that did not yet exist because they had no witness. This process requires going deep within herself to attempt to invent the forms, materials, texts, and sites which allow her traumas to become memories and, therefore, provide some small amount of relief. Bringing painful memories to light, however, does not make them any less painful. As Bourgeois herself says, “The artist can express her problems. However it is not a cure, since expressing oneself is not educative, it is a discharge and that is why such an expression constantly repeats itself” (Bernadac,161). As she matured, Bourgeois became increasingly more willing to participate in the self-conscious public staging of her private psychodrama because, as she says, “Whether something is private or public makes no difference to me. I wish I could make my private more public and by doing so lose it” (Potts, 53).
The great images have both a history and a pre-history. They are
always memory and legend in one.
A work of art is a language.
As noted earlier, Louise Bourgeois is a master storyteller. But to do proper service to Bourgeois, one must go beyond the attention-getting headline of her words and consider the text of her work on a deeper level. Consider this account of her 1974 installation entitled The Destruction of the Father:
It is basically a table, the awful, terrifying family dinner table headed by the father who sits and gloats. And the others, the wife, the children, what can they do? They sit there, in silence. The mother of course tries to satisfy the tyrant, her husband. The children are full of exasperation. We were three children: my brother, my sister, and myself… My father would get nervous looking at us, and he would explain to all of us what a great man he was. So, in exasperation, we grabbed the man, threw him on the table, dismembered him, and proceeded to devour him.
This is no simple tale about her childhood; this text is about structure, about the use of words, sentences, and punctuation to communicate a message that penetrates into the very heart of – the commonality of -- human existence. Whereas her personal revelations provided a psychic link to her as a person, her writings entice the viewer into a world beyond – or completely one with -- the ordinary. The stories she tells are not so much an explanation of the meaning of the work as an allegory of the viewer’s engagement with it. The structure of the story matters more than its manifest content. She utilizes text – and its structure – as a method of engaging and drawing the viewer in. Once engaged, she utilizes her sculpture – how the object itself is structured – and its installation – how it is positioned or structured within space – in the same way. She is communicating on a multitude of levels simultaneously and doing it seamlessly. She structures an installation as meticulously as a writer would structure a story, building layers of communication letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. Each word of commentary that Bourgeois offers with a piece, the individual elements that she combines within a piece, and the placement of the piece in relation to other pieces and the space itself all communicate to the viewer, adding layer upon layer of meaning for each individual to absorb, reject, accept, refuse, digest, regurgitate, ponder, or dismiss. Through such deep and thorough communication, Bourgeois leads the viewer inward to the very core of life. “Psychology leads, by way of the unconscious, from an individual into something like a universal dimension,” writes editor Peter Weiermair. “One could follow a path through the childhood neurosis into the unconscious and out the other side into the world of ancient religious archetypes” (Weiermair, 31). Bourgeois is not asking viewers to help her work through her childhood trauma (except perhaps by being witnesses), she is tapping into the universality of her experience and inviting others to join her on the journey. “What sets her apart is her ability to objectify powers that affect and disturb her,” Weiermair says, “powers, however, that do not remain sealed hermetically in their relationship to her own subjectivity but correspond instead to everyone’s experience of our psycho-physical condition as creatures,” (Weiermair, 11).
Therefore, to attempt to deal with Bourgeois’s body of work exclusively from an autobiographical point of view would severely limit its discourse. When forced to describe Bourgeois’s work in few words, magazines resort to catchy phases like “sculptural exorcism” or “self-analysis through art” (ARTnews, Feb. 2002), but if content is judged solely autobiographically, then the viewer, who is outside the autobiography, has no option but to appreciate the work only from a formal perspective. And although formal concerns are also important to Louise Bourgeois and her work, she has much more in mind for the viewers’ relationship with her work than just this. She intends for her work to speak – to communicate – on a variety of levels, and she structures its presentation to help the viewer see her work “in a series of expanding contexts – first that of the artist’s autobiography, then that of a certain formal tradition of modern sculpture, finally a much broader context, not merely art historical but cultural – religious, philosophical, psychological” (Weiermair, 38). Writer Stuart Morgan supports the notion of Bourgeois’s multi-level communication. “Combining traditional carving methods with text; offsetting drawing with sculpture; employing found objects; making machines; moving into performance; shifting from the visual to writing or simply speaking – since her conversation has much in common with her art – Bourgeois has become less a person than a country, with its own language and procedures, its semi-private sign system and topics of conversation, a particular sophistication and naiveté, above all its own dark humor, based on sheer defiance” (Morgan, 54). Bourgeois draws upon her own history as well as the whole of history, and utilizes any means available to enable her art to speak, to communicate. Writer Ann Wagner clarifies Bourgeois’s contention that “A work of art is a language” when she writes that “a work of art is in and of language; and it certainly is a language as well. But it is not just or simply its own language…Bourgeois needs Lascaux and Cougnac and voodoo and Africa and transgressively explicit and archaic anatomies of penis and clitoris as cognate organs not only as the basic furniture of her field of reference, but also to begin to communicate” (Wagner, 20). However, I believe that the apparent relationship between many of her works and various ancient icons does not invalidate the autobiographical subject matter, as some critics contend, but complements it. “A symbol is a symbol,” writes Bourgeois, “only if it stands for what is known” (Wagner, 20). For example, the autobiographical theme of the destruction of the father corresponds in religious history to the custom of king sacrifice found in matrilineal cultures around the world and is also universalized in individual psychology by way of the Oedipus complex. Instead of minimizing Bourgeois’s childhood experience, this deep connection to the imagery of matrilineal cultures enhances the personal content of hostility toward the father. Bourgeois confirms that her work is “the reconstruction of the past,” but acknowledges that this past contains images that will share a close relationship whether in the past of an individual’s childhood or in “the earliest…beginnings of the human race” (Weiermair, 38). This link to psychological universals and ancient archetypes connects Bourgeois’s work to a level of reality so fundamental that few humans can deny it. The seed for such a connection may have been planted in a father’s affair, but its blossoming into works of art that connect so deeply with so many required a lifetime of conscious, intelligent nurturing by Bourgeois.
In fact, her development as a human being and artist is thoroughly documented by Louis Bourgeois herself. As early as 1923, at age 12, Bourgeois began documenting her life by archiving her letters, notes, annotated drawings and diaries, audiocassettes and transcripts, films, and videos. Throughout her long career, she has put her thoughts before the public in numerous published writings including poetry, articles, statements, and letters to journals. Although not claiming to include her entire collection of words, the most definitive compilation of Bourgeois’s writings is in Destruction of the Father/Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews, 1923-1997 which was published in 1998. In it, Bourgeois “has plotted, cast, rehearsed and illustrated with a documentarist’s fervor a familial drama of abuses and derelictions, from which script, it is then inevitably assumed, her art must necessarily be said to have been derived” (Wagner, 6). To produce such a history requires a woman that is not only quite calculated, directionalized, and organized, but one who is extremely well acquainted with herself and her thoughts. It seems possible, too, that it was in this process of excavating so deeply into her childhood trauma that she cut into and connected with the experience of all and unearthed – exposed – some common ground upon which humanity rests. It may be that her belated autobiographical revelations are actually the hard-earned culmination in the career of an artist who has been working, thinking, studying, and documenting for decades. Bourgeois’s autobiography and artistic development are bound tightly together, growing, changing, enhancing, validating, and positioning her individual pieces of art as well as her body of art in the minds of viewers and in the history of art as a whole.
My work grows from the duel between the isolated individual
and the shared awareness of the group.
Once Bourgeois captures the viewers’ attention and draws them into her works by speaking through text, she utilizes autobiographical communication in a subtly intriguing way to create and control the vivid psychodynamics of viewing. She does this by providing equal, albeit different, emphasis on form and psychodrama, insisting in a way that few other modernist artists of her generation would that “there is no conflict whatsoever between these two levels” (Potts, 37). In “Louise Bourgeois—Sculptural Confrontations” writer Alex Potts points out her “unusual attentiveness…to the structure of a viewer’s encounter with three-dimensional art works in a modern gallery setting as well as to the forms of psychic phantasy activated in such interactions between viewer and work” (Potts, 37). Potts contends that Bourgeois is much closer to Minimalist artists than to the modernist or late Surrealist sculptors who came to maturity in the immediate post-war period. She shares an understanding with the Minimalists that sculpture is “constituted not just by its internal structural attributes, but also by its situation in the space shared with the viewer” (Potts, 37). I agree. However, whereas in Minimalist sculpture, the psychic resonance of the interaction between the viewer and work are implicit, and the formal structuring very explicit, Bourgeois reversed the terms. She has no qualms about hitting the viewer with powerful psychic or affective charges, such as when she assaults them with blatantly sexual imagery. After all, viewers have been forewarned of the upcoming psychodrama in the text that accompanies her work. But like a good Minimalist sculptor, she also subtly engages them in the formal aspects of their relation with the work. Bourgeois engages viewers on a one-to-one confrontation as well as on a level as the isolated self in its immediate environment (Potts, 40-41). Fillette, Bourgeois’s well-known hanging phallus, is a good example of this. The piece hangs at eye level, blocking the view, and confronting the viewer one-to-one with an image of a very phallic object. But then, Filette is dangling freely from the ceiling, which creates a feeling of instability. This, in turn, intensifies the psychic charge of the initial confrontation and activates the piece in its environment. The work is an object interacting in its environment as well as an object that encompasses the viewer within the space it activates. The viewer and the work are separate but also exist together in a single place; they are one in two different ways simultaneously.
Autobiography – or psychobiography -- has always played an important role in her installations, but it was in the 1980s that, I believe, Bourgeois took the art of staging her work to a new level and incorporated auto/psychobiography fully into her installation. Whereas in her earlier installations, her pieces were arranged within the gallery space in ways that activated each individual piece as well as the pieces as a single group within the space, the works were basically autonomous sculptures conceived and marketed as separate entities. In the ‘80s, she began creating cells that departed from being a single object and became about objects situated in space. Instead of taking over an entire gallery space, these cells are “closed shapes defining self-contained spatial arenas within a more open gallery area” (Potts, 48). The cells are fairly massive structures resting on the floor with outer shells that either have large openings or form screens that invite the viewer to look into – but not enter -- interiors that are more visually interesting than the exterior shell. Bourgeois sets up a complex duality between insideness and outsideness that is integral to the viewer’s immediate physical experience of the work. Traditionally, sculptures come alive as a viewer moves between distant views, in which the overall shape can be seen, and different close-up views, in which partial sections are seen while the overall shape is blocked out of awareness. In Bourgeois’s cells, however, the distant view serves almost exclusively to draw the viewer in closer because segments of the exterior block out much of the intriguing interior elements. And once the viewer is close enough to see the interior, the exterior shape has become virtually invisible. As Potts observes: “Close viewing turns the work inside-out.” (Potts,50). Then, Bourgeois loads the interiors with obvious psychic resonance utilizing found objects and often creating domestic spaces such as bedrooms – in Red Room (Parents), Red Room (Child), Precious Liquids – which house psychically invested childhood memories. The very structure of the work forces the viewer to take time to see the work and, when time is culturally processed, it carries narrative. Bourgeois very meticulously utilizes her time with the viewer. “The narrative of viewing rivals the narrative of memory, whose presence one senses but cannot grasp,” says Mieke Bal in Louise Bourgeois’ Spider. But in Bourgeois’s cells, “the memories…are not narrated; they are just put there, like the found objects that they, in fact, are. Memories are found objects that we routinely integrate into narrative frames derived from the cultural stock available to us. Unless, that is, they resist such integration because the place where they are found – the past of the recalling person – does not provide such ground for integration” (Bal, 27) But Bourgeois is a master of communicating her memories and turning them into collective memories. In the cells she does this by feeding memories to the viewer in the form of scraps or bits of a past that hovers over “the undecidable yet profound divide between memory and trauma, between narrative and compulsive reenactment in the dramatic mode...Her stories of the past stick to our stories of looking, but they remain opaque” (Bal, 27-28). As in her writings, her stories become our stories. The objects within the cells whisper memories that echo and resound off other whispered memories; the memories grow in intensity, change character, drift just beyond the grasp. The objects simultaneously emphasize the isolated individual and the shared awareness of the group. In the cells, Bourgeois communicates not only what she knows, but also “what can not be known – what we might rather not know – about the caverns of another self” (Wagner, 23).
Every day you have to abandon your past or accept it and then,
if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor.
And so Louise Bourgeois utilizes autobiography in many levels of her work. On the most basic level, she uses it to connect with others, to capture their attention, and draw them into her work. On another level, she uses structure, the structure of her highly personal texts, objects, and objects in space, to further engage viewers and lure them inward to the very core of existence. Finally, she uses scraps of history, meticulously staging them within her installations, to tap into memory, both personal and collective. While autobiography is not everything in Bourgeois’s work, it plays a key role in bringing together the various facets of her work and providing and in carving out her well-deserved place in art history. Of course, Bourgeois played a strategic role in luring art historians and critics to her work. After all, she had put in the time, she had created the work, but something was missing – a tale of autobiographical trauma. In 1982, Bourgeois produced it and became an overnight sensation. As Pollock puts it, Bourgeois provided what had previously eluded art historians: “a story around which to emplot the work, a cause they could locate within her troubled self, a feminine self that is, for phallocentric society, synonymous with hysteria, if not pathology.” She has secured a place in history, but the tale does not end here. It seems sure that Bourgeois – and the vast amount of autobiographical information she has collected -- will keep lively discussions about Louise Bourgeois and her work vibrantly alive for many years to come.
Bal, Mieke. Louise Bourgeois’ Spider. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Bernadac, Marie-Laure. Louise Bourgeois. Paris – New York: Flammarion, 1996.
Felman, Shoshana and Laub, Dori. Bearing Witness of the Vicissitudes of Listening. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Frémon, Jean. “Louise Bourgeois” exhibition catalogue. Paris: Maeght, 1985.
Morgan, Stuart and Morris, Frances. Rites of Passage, Art for the End of the Century. London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1995.
Potts, Alex. Louise Bourgeois – Sculptural Confrontations. Oxford Art Journal, 22.2, 1999, 37-53.
Wagner, Anne M. Bourgeois Prehistory, of The Ransom of Fantasies. Oxford Art Journal, 22.2, 1999, 3-23.
Weiermair, Peter. Louise Bourgeois. Italy: Edition Stemmle, 1995.
--May 7, 2002
© 2017 Carol Hummel