On the Effect of the Psychoanalytic Act.
Louise Bourgeoise: Working with That Which Never Existed.
Presented at Après Coup in New York, NY in April, 2013
The minutes of the meetings of Freud’s Wednesday Evening gatherings reveal one of the effects of the discovery of the Unconscious was to generate a passionate interest in the artist and the relation between the artist and their creation. Far more discussions in the Vienna Society are about artists than about clinical, theoretical, or anthropological questions.
The first generation of psychoanalysts tended to write about literary artists but a few, imitating Freud’s deep love of the Italian artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, did write about sculptors and painters. Ernst Kris’s study of Franz Messerschmidt is perhaps the most well known of these, but there are also studies by Jones (of del Sarto) and Abraham.
Freud’s interest in Italian art contributed to his discovery of the play of the signifier ( Signorelli’s “Four Last Things” ,in the Psychopathology of Everyday Life) and to his theory of narcissism ( in Leonardo Da Vinci: A memory of his childhood) but in my opinion it is not until Lacan’s theory of the gaze that an analyst contributes something new to the Freudian field by returning to the work of the visual or plastic artist.
Perhaps following the example of Freud few of the first generation of psychoanalysts did not write about their great artistic contemporaries, such as Klimt, Kokoschka, or Schiele, whose work was certainly shaking the ego and exposing the subjective division of the psyche. Freud’s relation to the Enlightenment and German Romanticism was perhaps so strong that those artists who appeared to be in rebellion against these aesthetic or cultural values were, as creators of culture, somewhat suspect for him. Symptoms of their time, they were perhaps for Freud lacking in a “heroic” desire to create an art of subjective dignity of the kind he found in Michelangelo.
Despite his own discovery of the way in which the unconscious was ciphered according to the principals of montage Freud does not appear to have seen that the artists of the avant-garde , whether they were constructivists, futurists, Dadaists, or Surrealists were working with a parallel discovery and problematic.
Perhaps he also resistant to analyzing a certain prohibition within jewish culture of the image, a prohibition that supported a certain rejection of the erotic body. Could this refusal have perhaps impeded something of his work on feminity – there where Freud slips into a misogyny of his time he does so on the grounds that women are too taken by images, as thought this were some how an indication of an intellectual weakness.
Where Freud is in an uncanny way close to the avant-gardes, particularly of Dada and surrealism is in his own curatorial work. Much has been written regarding his marvelous collection of figurines and as Freud himself wrote in many of his letters they were a source of considerable inspiration and satisfaction. They appear to have offered Freud the possibility of curating some of the earliest objects of humankind in a manner that was in marked difference to the anthropological gaze of his time.
I would propose that the effect on Freud of these statues and sculptures was similar to the effect on Picasso of the Micronesian masks and sculptural objects – they allowed for a subversion of the concepts of space and time. The objects allowed a new space to emerge around them and while they could be identified by a historical provenence the manner in which Freud arranged them ( non-chronologically or even anthropologically) allowed them to exist in an Other temporality.
Ironic as it may sound Freud was ahead of the artists of the twentieth century who, like Picasso in particular, but also the Surrealist movement in general, found a new language of art in “primitive” sculpture. I also think that Freud’s collection anticipates the practice of the crucial contemporary artist, Marcel Bloodthaers , a poet who attempted to transform the white cube of the gallery through the practice of installation or curation.
Despite the remarkable interest shown in the work of the artist the first generation of analysts much of the subsequent effect of psychoanalysis upon the appreciation of visual art began to desiccate this passionate encounter by “applying” psychoanalytic concepts and “interpretations” to the objects themselves. As a consequence visual art criticism has had, especially since the work of Ernest Kris and his main follower in the U.S. Donald Kuspit a long quarrel with the claims that psychoanalysis makes about visual art.
Louise Bourgeois was one of a number of twentieth century artists who strongly disliked psychoanalytic “interpretations” of art. Never the less she herself did a long analysis and gave interviews to critics such as Kuspit who wished to claim that her work derived from and was a form of psychoanalysis. Perhaps as a consequence of this public identification with psychoanalysis she published in Art Forum a notorious article denouncing Freud.
In 2010 Violette editions published the first volume, in what the editor, Robert Garratty-Smith, indicates will be a multi-volume publication of Bourgeois extensive archive of notes and diaries – many of which concern her analysis with Henry Lowenfeld.
The first volume was accompanied by a number of essays by Donald Kuspit, Juliet Mitchell, Paul Verhaeghe et al who all attmpt to provide an interpretation and a context within which to appreciate the effect of Bourgeois analysis on her art. They all fall into a trap by assuming that from the notes it is possible to construct the analysis and that with the construction of the analysis it will somehow lead to new insights into the nature of Bourgeois art.
Without question these notes, written in the aftermath of the enunciation that constitutes the analysis testify to the effect of the analytic act, the act conceived in this sense by the desire of the analyst and as I think you will hear in some of these statements the wager of the analysand. A wager that appears to have grown as the analysis led into greater experiences of angst, despair and times of destitution.
What also can be read is the tracing or marking by the statements of a new desire in relation to the objects that Bourgeois was creating. Contrary to any pre-conceived idea that these objects were a sublimation of a drive it appears to me that what these notes testify is an unchaining of the drive and the experience of discovering that what appeared to make space fearful and inpenetrable could be traversed and explored.
This traversing of a space of despair is never eradicated but is re-written through a simultaneous re-configuring of the relation to the past and its place within the immediate. Strikingly this relation to the immediate emerges as a consequence of a falling of any injunction to become or to enter the space of the future.
Emphasizing once again that these notes are not the analysis, but rather testaments made in the aftermath of it’s evanescence let us make a pass by listening to some of these words. I have of course made a selection that is very subjective, and also that I found so many remarkable statements in them that it is difficult to resist the wish to quote them in full. I have selected material up to 1964 although her analysis continued from this point. However I think at this point we can hear a certain turn. After that point we find satements that articulate what appears to be simple, humble and yet crucial. There appears to be for Bourgeois a work that she has discovered in her analysis that she wishes to sustain.
There is no interest in an “end of analysis” and in fact I believe the death of her analyst led her to place her long time assistant in a very particular subjective place. Not a “subject-supposed-to know”, but a subject to whom she could entrust that which she wished to forget. Gorovoy like her analyst before her Henry Lowenfeld appears to have been able to trust in this position and also to accept what she was asking him to archive – even though she herself did not want to read it. As a consequence we have these strange notes.
Bourgeois appears to have invented for herself an analytic work that acted and supported her desire to work – on her sculpture. It is certainly not the case that she needed her analysis in order to work, it is rather that in the space of her analysis provoked and also helped her to envision what was emerging from, what I will call the “third” place of her subjectivity – her art.
“I know you do not see I am talking to you, I know that you do not hear y voice and that you do not know my languages.. but I know you will understand my statue, because it does not make any noise, it does not bother you, that it is not possible that it offend you. I must repeat myself to be sure my message reaches you.. you do not need to elect me but do not abandon me it is all I am asking, do not get angry, do not kill me..”
Scene at the River
“Word “figure” a drama in that word. Why don’t you walk like THAT girl my father would say. You never took the trouble to learn how. First of all I did not want a figure. I was ashamed, dead ashamed of a figure. I would rather be dead.. than have a figure”
1951 ( after breaking off with first analyst )
Father “ I am going to teach you not to be afraid” Memory of going through the dark for the father. That fear has come back. I am anxious to pin it down , where can it come from and what can it mean..
Kiss of the mother , I call her and try to reach her and suddenly I reach a climax and satisfaction in a long kiss . I am surprised I wanted it and she leaves an object in my mouth – an almond- that was in her mouth – maybe it is not the truth, but it may be the form of truth.
Jealousy, the other fellow is getting the this I want – gushing of hate – do not stop working ever
(After beginning analysis with Henry Lowefeld)
Louise is not “in love” with L. anymore since she has exposed herself again. She has seen her helpless self again, dirty , disorderly, in need of straightening and eager for knowledge. He thinks I am pretensious . In fact he is
I want to stop analysis, think that its boring and taking too much time . My father showed his trouble, he showed all his troubles for sympathy. I hate myself for being seen in my weakness
The long search for a father ( who would belong to the house). Unable to blame a parent some children accept the guilt as their own and want to pay for it. My father was not pitiful, he had pleasure, unjustly.. My father never belonged to the house .at the hotel des Anges with the three girls and the mannequin in the bed.
“do I touch here on my relation to my work and to my analysis. I have an impulse to make a figure usual size 51/2 feet and to rope up said figure. The filets of my youth were roped up. This figure I feel pushed to make is going to dissolve or make appear my anxiety”
Each fragment bares witness to the return of letters, a letter that she begins to write to a “big” Other, and also to the emergence of missing letters.
Then we have an entry that consists of a dream and in its recording emerges the word “figure”. She has a question about her choice of analyst, she leaves Cammer and begins to see Lowenfeld. I hope if there is time to tell you something about this remarkable analyst whose articles on creativity perhaps contributed to Bourgeois interest in him. She replaced one L ( Louis Cammer) with another Lowenfeld. She will note the decisive play on L, her father’s name being Louis.
Then we have the question of the relation between her “figure” and the “figure” she fantasize’s her father wanted and that marks the fantasmatic phrase “why can’t you have a figure like hers” – for the rest of her very long life Bourgeois will work with the signifier “figure”.
These “figures” that were often life size and “roped” or “knotted” will be presented initially as free standing, but they will then, in various stages of “dis-figuration” been presented in “cells” or “buildings”. The placing of the “figure” in the cell or building is, in my opinion, the discovery that the markings made on the “figure”, roped, dismembered, are in relation to a space that once was but is becoming the space of creation. The ex nihilo space that never was, but which has a materiality deriving from the discovery and the re-writing of the return of the repressed.
In another fragment I think we can find where the analysand articulates the emergence of the position of the analyst through the enunciation of her own question regarding the effect upon her of her father.
She leaves a trace of the encounter with her hatred, a hatred that is an attempt to satisfy, to take revenge upon, and relieve the effect of her father and while I want to stay away from introducing biographical details her analysis began in the aftermath of his death and as a consequence of a crippling hatred towards her husband and a grave insecurity about being a mother.
The angst and fear that was her daily companion was having a deleterious effect on her husband who had been for her a vital interlocutor. When they met in Paris he was completing a study of primitivism in modern art that remains a classic in the field. While she had other suitors she had always had a close relation to the English language, which she had learned from her father’s mistress Sadie. I think it is unavoidable that this relation to Sadie’s “language” contributed to her willingness to leave France at a time of great crisis. It is very curious that in none of these notes does the question of the fate of france or the catastrophe of the war appear. This is very curious because her father was certainly suffering from the after effects of some kind of traumatic experience in WWI.
Bourgeois was notably uncomfortable that her husband was paying for her analysis and after several years she started a bookstore “Erasmus” that provided her with the means to pay for her analysis. Her assumption of this payment clearly lowered a dread inducing guilt compulsion towards her husband.
The notes reveal that a shift in subjective position towards her husband occurs and a lowering of the despair that she felt regarding her children.
What she seems unable to have done is in fact take a lover, despite having strong attractions to men such as Alfred Barr, the director of MOMA. Her realization that she felt her body to be wounded unfolds as the hatred towards her husband begins to fade.
While she despaired of the effects that her father’s gaze upon her body, and was repeatedly re-working the scene of her father’s seduction and installation within the family home of his mistress, Sadie, she was also wracked with jealousy for anyone who received attention, and in particular this opened up a space in which she could speak about her mother.
Her notes appear to indicate an attempt to articulate a memory of her role “nursing” her mother during the flu epidemic that decimated Europe in 1919. Like Dora she wished to “save” her father from a certain encounter with her “sick” mother. This was the moment, following upon the period in which Louise and her mother had been attempting to locate and “nurse” Louis Bourgeoise( who had been wounded in trench warfare) when he introduced into the family his English mistress. A woman who was hired to be Louise tutor and with whom Louise had hoped to have a great friendship.
A number of fragments now address the hatred she has for her mother, and her father confirms that which makes her feel abject as a woman. This abjection evokes a wish to kill Sadie, but several times during the analysis she speaks about her own wish for suicide.
However what she discovers can become the space for working through this encounter with the death drive is the potentially of a creation with destruction. A creation that is intimately linked to a wish to make a space for “nothing”, and yet a space into which something returns.