PRINT March 1987


the stones are filled with bowels.
—Jean Arp, “The Air Is a Root”

LOUISE BOURGEOIS HAS NEVER HAD her due. In part, this is because of the general devaluation of the female artist, the unwritten (and unacceptable) rule that no woman artist can be that major, but the rule has applied doubly to Bourgeois: the provocative way her sculpture articulates what it is to be female makes it particularly challenging to the context through which importance and value are usually conferred. Her work deals with being a woman in a way that Freud could not have fathomed. It talks about things we don’t want talked about, acknowledges forces we don’t want broadcast loudly, and certainly not let loose. Such forces, we feel, can only add to the world’s mischief, as though our poor state didn’t in the first place have to do with a silence—a conspiracy with the self to stay ignorant—about the unconscious.

Bourgeois has acknowledged that her work is autobiographical, but the childhood narrative she has woven around it is deeper than it appears. She has characterized her father as a traitor and tyrant; he may indeed have been so, especially in the way he made her English tutor his mistress for a decade, creating a knot of family relationships around the young Bourgeois that she has described as “child abuse.”1 Bourgeois’ fragmentary, quasi-aphoristic assertions are permeated by this kind of spinning of personal tales, and much of the writing about her work emphasizes its radical subjectivity, whether approaching it through its surrealism or through its formal characteristics, such as the way it is equivocally abstract and figural, and the way it presents an emblematic, enigmatic “personage” within an architectural or environmental space. But we still don’t really know why her sculpture is fixated on family or group constellations, why she bothers to preserve her mother and father in mythopoetic sculptural form, why her artmaking keeps alive her aggressive, appropriative feelings about these long-dead figures.

Each of Bourgeois’ sculptures is indeed a Sisyphean effort to work her way through psychic material that is not ordinarily worked through successfully in art. The power she seeks as a woman is inseparable from the power she seeks as an artist: the power to give birth, and the power to continue to mother us after we are born—to mother our emotions, to function as the mother of last resort, promising us wordless understanding.2 In this work, the glyph that man has arrogantly misappropriated as his is finally an instrument to the end of becoming the most powerful human being: the mother. Bourgeois gives birth unceasingly to works that promise to satisfy the human need for deep understanding in every new generation. This kind of understanding is usually missing after the first few years of life; much sentimentalized, it in fact involves a complex unconscious dialectic of damage and reparation. Bourgeois strips away its veneer of the benign—its false innocence—to reveal its content of anxiety, aggression, and longing. It sometimes seems as though Bourgeois, in repeating the story of her childhood, and in giving her works titles such as The Destruction of the Father, 1974, is defending herself against the recognition that her art is in fact about the “woman’s issue” in the deepest sense. It becomes clear that she does this for a reason—to reappropriate the generative and regenerative power symbolized not only by the mother but by the phallus, to introject or internally incorporate the phallus. The symbolism here is not that a woman wants to become a man, not even in fantasy, but that she wants recognition of her share of natural power, which man, in a political act of expropriation, and in a materialist act of literalism, has claimed entirely for himself. He has totalized the idea of the autonomous power of the phallus and made it the basis of his dominance, through a repression of the significance of the carrier, the owner, of the womb. “Penis envy” is an insidious term for the idea of a woman recovering her share of natural power. If man can be said to be a Prometheus who psychologically stole the fire of woman’s fertility, her power to give birth, in order to ground and guarantee his own sociopolitical power by hoarding all power, then “penis envy” at its deepest can be understood as woman’s demand that her own implicit “phallicness” be explicitly recognized.3 In Bourgeois’ sculpture, the power of man and of woman integrate violently yet seamlessly.

Few Surrealist “objects,” as the Surrealists often called their sculptures, are successful. It was hard for these artists to “objectify” their fantasies—to make them visible in real, three-dimensional space. Perhaps the problem in these works was that to do so was often to forfeit the power of the unconscious, to sever the umbilical connection with it. It is revealing that many of the Surrealist object-makers favored the use of ordinary, found objects to connote the unconscious, like making ordinary people into stars by casting them in extraordinary roles. Andre Breton, for example, in Nadja, 1928, and in his 1934 essay on Marcel Duchamp, “Lighthouse of The Bride,” argues for finding objects and mentally reworking them—self-consciously fantasizing about them. In general, the Surrealists didn’t really like the physical work of making raw material into art. Their resistance to “handworking” material so that it becomes genuinely “fantastic” sculpture is inseparable from their overintellectualizing of the unconscious. They falsified the psychoanalytic understanding of the unconscious—they socialized and estheticized (anesthetized) it, domesticated it for the sake of poetry and art. Despite their claims to the contrary, and despite their belief that everybody else moralized and they didn’t, it was often the moralized unconscious that the Surrealists gave us—their intellectualization of it was an indirect form of censorship of it.

Bourgeois’ importance, in the Surrealist context, is that she is basically a handworker rather than a literary artist, a maker rather than a finder of objects. Bourgeois absorbs herself in the object’s materiality. She models or shapes or, let us say, “masturbates” it to find the phallic in it. The supposed phallocentricism of her sculpture is more phallic than centrist—she is not so much interested in centering herself in relation to the phallic as in discovering the phallic. She breaks the taboo on the masturbatory conception of sculpture—her two tactile, baroque pieces called Homage to Bernini, 1967, one in plaster, one in bronze, are an indication of this, even in their title. Most sculpture is subject to an unconscious taboo which opposes “exciting” a material too much, “arbitrarily.” With important exceptions, such as the work of Bernini, Auguste Rodin, and Medardo Rosso, a great deal of sculpture, even work clearly dependent on modeling, involves shaping material quickly into form, whether representational or abstract, in an act of self-censorship, as it were; there is no excessive dwelling or lingering upon the exciting material. It is as if its stimulating qualities needed to be brought under control, for as quick a reward as possible. This taboo keeps many Surrealist “poetic objects” from being anything more than shallow images, accumulations of found objects, accretions of detritus that barely sustain emotional or any other kind of interest after the novelty of their initial impact.

Bourgeois began her career, in the late ’40s and early ’50s, making such simplistic “constructions,” often in totemic form—a little more interesting than usual because of their repetitive, serial, or “minimalist” character, and because of the houselike openings and spiral-staircase forms they featured. She moved away from constructivist work, however, while retaining the totemic form, which most of the time she has made more organically or fluidly phallic. In favoring the sensual shaping of material over the use of the found object, Bourgeois struck at the heart of the Surrealist enterprise. It is true that some Surrealist sculpture has a tactile quality; Marcel Jean, the Surrealist artist and historian of Surrealism, emphasizes that the Surrealist “object is . . . what affects more especially the sense of touch.”4 But he in no way means to imply that the sculptor’s transformative touch, working over and through a material, is involved in the creation of the Surrealist sculptural object, which, to Jean, is more found than made, more “‘what is thrown before’” and “‘offered to view’” than invented. Indeed, Jean asserts that “the found object is always a rediscovered object. Rediscovered in its symbolic—original or acquired—meaning, which endows it with a fullness that a ‘created’ object rarely reaches.” “Found objects,” says Jean, “reveal our multifaceted irrational life”5 more readily than created objects. For Bourgeois, in contrast, sculpture involves not so much the finding of unconscious meaning in an ordinary object as the articulation, in a psychosomatically charged material, of fantasies of unconditional or “ultimate” intimacy with the other, as an inescapable part of the complex process of becoming fully oneself. In Bourgeois’ work, the wish satisfied is not strictly a sexual wish, but a more inclusive wish for metamorphosizing merger.

Bourgeois is one of those rare artists who seem to have a direct track to the place we all struggle so hard either to find or to smother: the unconscious. In her search for the unconditionally primitive she is not afraid to make what can only be called “defecatory sculpture.” However, her apparently unmediated touching of “raw nature” exists in order to make something out of it, something ego-creating as well as erogenously significant. There is, as it were, no resting place between touch and artmaking for Bourgeois, no separation between the primitive and the civilized. For her, art is both unconscious giving and conscious control of what is evident. (Something similar, and as rare, seems to occur in the fecal aspects of Joseph Beuys’ sculpture.) Many of Bourgeois’ works can be regarded as simultaneously defecatory and phallic in character. Examples include an untitled plaster piece of 1963 and the plaster Rondeau for L (also cast in bronze) and latex Soft Landscape of the same year; two more “soft landscape” works, in plastic and alabaster respectively, from 1967; the marble Sleep II and the bronze Unconscious Landscape, both of 1967 (the latter cast in 1968); works in the bronze “Janus” series, 1967-71, including the Janus Fleuri (Blossoming Janus) and the Hanging Janus of about 1968; the coillike marble “Nature Study” pieces of 1986, some of them including the embrace of hands; and many more. In Nature Study (Velvet Eyes), 1984 (a variation of a core image in Bourgeois’ work, the image of the eye; here what seem the eyes of the unconscious peer from raw stone nature), there is a defecatory character to the eyeballs as they lie inert within their receptacles, almost signaling the absence of the phallic image.

The clichéd theatricalization of the female body common in Surrealist art (proof that the movement was as culturally complicit as it was subversive, and that it was not always really concerned with the droppings of the unconscious) underlines Surrealism’s usual male orientation.6 The phallic body as Bourgeois expresses it, especially in her work’s many ominous pendulum forms, signals a female-oriented Surrealism, a Surrealism dealing with being female rather than male. Her statements around this subject are rich and revealing, in particular on the social dynamics of power. For example, about Femme Couteau (Knife woman), an image that she has reworked in a number of sculptural variations since 1969 (many of Bourgeois’ works she constantly reexplores in new versions and different media, and many of their titles she reapplies to new situations), she has said,

I try to give a representation of a woman who is pregnant and who tries to be frightening. Now to try to be frightening is not the same thing as being frightening. She tries to be frightening but she is frightened. She’s frightened for the child she carries. And she’s afraid somebody is going to invade her privacy or bother her in some way and that she won’t be able to defend what she’s responsible for. Now the fact that she’s frightening is open to question. Some people might find it very touching. She’s frightened herself; she tries to be frightening to others. Yes, but the pregnancy’s very important to her, whether you consider it erotic or not. It is erotic to me because it had to do with the relation of the two sexes.7

Within the enormous and varied body of Bourgeois’ work one finds examples that are simultaneously pregnant and phallic as well as fecal. Sculpture for her is a generative and transformative act, converting softness into hardness into softness back into hardness back into yieldingness. It is in fact an exploration of these qualities, their matter-of-factness as well as the illusions they give rise to. Some of her works offer us images that can be seen as either multiply phallic, multiply clitoral, or multiply breasted. The emphasis I am placing on body parts and states of body no doubt seems perversely overdefining in the context of Bourgeois’ mysterious and beautiful work. But I submit that it is in the area of power discussed here that the clue to her originality, daring, and force of greatness lies.

The Templum Magnae Matris in Rome, one of the oldest buildings on the Palatine, once contained a silver image of Cybele, the mother of the gods. In place of the head it had a conical stone, a meteorite fallen from the sky. The Sibylline Books had instructed the Romans to bring this stone, supposed to be the symbol of the goddess, from Pessinus in Asia Minor during the Second Punic War (206 B.C.). It may be thought of as the phallus of the goddess, the sign of her power. In early Bourgeois works such as the series of oil-and-ink paintings entitled “Femme Maison” (Woman house, 1946–47—there are drawings and sculptures under the same title over a 40-year period), the head is replaced by a house, a conventional symbol of the female, her temple as it were, the place where she has power. In a later work, Fragile Goddess, 1970, in my opinion a self-portrait, Bourgeois shows calmly and matter-of-factly the phallic female—the head is phallic, the body pregnant, life-giving. In a recent work, The She-Fox, 1986, which Bourgeois acknowledges to be an image of her mother, one sees a multibreasted, seated, phallic figure in marble. A houselike shape replaces the head, and a sphinxlike head sits near the feet. Part Cybele, part sphinx, the work holds a riddle. Being of stone, the breasts contain no nourishment. They are for show, an arrogant display of phallicness, even the mother’s. They afford the illusion of succor but actually offer none. They are not as nourishing as they look, and the mother is not as motherly as she looks. Bourgeois’ entanglement with her mother, not her father, is becoming clear as the inner content of her work. She has filled the void of mother/artist in spirit as well as substance, an Oedipus replacing the mother instead of the father, a sphinx whose secret is that her story about a relationship to a father is really a story about a relationship to a mother. She does this in a breathtakingly raw, abstractly direct way.

Donald Kuspit is a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the editor of Art Criticism. He contributes regularly to Artforum.


1. “A project by Louise Bourgeois,” Artforum XXI no. 4. December 1982, p. 44

2. See Melanie Klein, “On the Sense Of Loneliness,” 1963. in Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946–1963, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., the Free Press, 1984, pp. 300–313. Here Klein notes the everlasting search for an understanding in which no words are necessary. It is in effect a regressive desire for unconscious, infantile closeness with the omnipotent mother.

3. For a post-Freudian reconception of penis envy see Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel. “Feminine Guilt and the Oedipus Complex,” in Chasseguet-Smirgel and Frederick Wyatt, eds., Female Sexuality, New Psychoanalytic Views, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970

4 Marcel Jean. “The Coming of Beautiful Days.” in Marcel Jean. ed.. The Autobiography of Surrealism, New York: Viking Press, 1990, p. 303.

5. Ibid.. p. 304.

6. For an excellent account of the Surrealist attitude to women see Xavière Gauthier, Surrralismus und Sexualität, Inszenierung der Weiblichkeit, Berlin: Medusa Verlag, 1980.

7. Quoted in Jean Frémon, untitled essay in Louise Bourgeois, Repères: Cahiers d’art contemporain no. 19, Paris: Galerie Maeght Lelong, 1985, p. 32.