A Dangerous Method

Jamieson Webster on Louise Bourgeois and psychoanalysis

Louise Bourgeois, The Destruction of the Father, 1974, latex, plaster, wood, fabric, and red light, 7' 9 5/8“ x 11' 10 5/8” x 8' 1 7/8". © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

I WONDER HOW people will think of psychoanalysis after they see the show “Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter,” currently at the Jewish Museum in New York. Will it rise in their esteem, having fallen to the level of a silly, obsolete science, a worn-out, clichéd set of interpretations? Bourgeois’s relationship to psychoanalysis is rich, layered, and, importantly, long, as psychoanalysis is wont to be: beginning in 1951 with her treatment following her father’s death, lasting until 1985 with her psychoanalyst’s death. She calls it “a jip,” “a duty,” “a joke,” “a love affair,” “a bad dream,” “a pain in the neck,” and “my field of study.”1 It is, indeed, all of these things and more. And it is, in ways I think have been neglected or rarely glimpsed, also sculptural. 

Louise Joséphine Bourgeois: Her name is already a sculpture, an uncanny site that unites her parents’ names, Louis and Joséphine. (How can one not think of her “couple” sculptures?) It’s odd that this eponymous inheritance escaped her older sister; her stillborn sibling; and her younger, very much desired, brother (though the name of the sister, Henriette Marie Louise, contains the feminized one of the father, and the name of the brother, Pierre Joseph Alexandre, the masculinized one of the mother). Her creative life was more clearly marked by the machinations of this family environment than those of other artists. It was punctuated by her parents’ deaths: her mother’s inducing a suicide attempt and then a change in career from math to art, and her father’s throwing her into depression and finally psychoanalysis, prompting the style that would become synonymous with her name. Freud said his father’s death “revolutionized his soul,” prompting him to finally write The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), where he announces his theory of the Oedipus complex in a section titled “Dreams of the Death of Persons of Whom One Is Fond.”2

Louise Bourgeois’s mother, Joséphine Fauriaux, and father, Louis, in the tapestry gallery, circa 1911.  © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

This show is testimony to how Bourgeois’s work blossomed from her time in and with “the talking cure.” Luckily, she kept copious notes. She was a late bloomer, creating her strongest work toward the end of her most rigorous period of analysis, when she was in her fifties. As a side note, many forget that Freud and Jacques Lacan were also late bloomers, Freud writing The Interpretation of Dreams when he was forty-three years old and Lacan publishing his first book, Écrits (1966), at sixty-five after finding his footing as a teacher the decade prior.

With psychoanalysis we are, I think, beyond the world’s relentlessly ticking clock, working on another time. In 1957, Bourgeois writes

You only occupy two soles
of the earth except when you sleep you
occupy—6 feet—without height—and in
time you propel yourself from one minute to
the next and much slower from one hour
to the next and there are people who relive
all their life in only in a few seconds. I would
rather say that we live more by the intensity of our
affects than by time or by the space
in time or in space we exist above all
by our absence since we can only
be in one place at a time and we
are only in the same hour once
but with ourselves we are always
I’ve schlepped Louise Bourgeois around with me
or more than 40 years. every day brought
its wound and I carried my wounds cease
lessly, without remission like a hide
perforated beyond hope of repair. I am a
collection of wooden pearls never threaded—and
perfectly idiotic—

Her investigation of time skews quasi-mystical. Time is ecstatic, carried by affective intensities more than any measure of duration. This leads her to the strange burden of always being stuck with herself, forced to carry her wounds and her name. But this isn’t merely the articulation of a discrepancy, which, in any case, by the end, becomes a sculpture: the image of a hide perforated beyond repair, a collection of wooden pearls unthreaded.

This is the kind of fascinating transformation one sees her do again and again in the writings that point forward to her art: a sculptural transformation, whose importance in both psychoanalysis and life she makes powerfully evident. Psychoanalysis, then, is not only the uncovering of trauma, the deconstruction of fantasies, the reining in of one’s destructive wishes and needs, nor even the whole mommy-daddy-siblings-childhood-sexuality business. It is the art and work of transforming them, making something of them, making something more of them. The material of one’s life is simply that—material. A problem that needs to be worked and reworked.  

There is a kind of hidden sculptural labor in the very creation of psychoanalysis.

In fact, the “collection of wooden pearls never threaded—and perfectly idiotic” finds resonance in the Bourgeois family and their work collecting and mending tapestries. In the installation Passage Dangereux, 1997, the father’s collection of chairs surrounds the primal scene of the parental bed, all of it locked inside a cage. There is her infamous disdain for what she called Freud’s collection of toys (his antiquities) and the box of pebbles she discovered on her father’s desk. Each pebble, he said, was a beautiful memory that encouraged him to keep living. These memories might have been beautiful to him, but to Bourgeois, her father’s libidinal intensity and the havoc it wreaked were things that demanded reckoning.

Louise Bourgeois, Passage Dangereux (detail), 1997, metal, wood, tapestry, rubber, marble, steel, glass, bronze, bones, flax, and mirrors, 8' 8“ x 11' 8” x 28' 9". © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Peter Bellamy.

And she did exactly that, finally smashing through her inhibitions and wrestling with a ferocity that mirrors this ambivalently loved father—see The Destruction of the Father, 1974: a den with a red glow, often described as “womblike,” wherein a feast is laid out on a table, the family patriarch presumably the main course. Bourgeois excavated her artistic capacities from what she called “the family virus,” finding her aptitude in her father’s flair for locating hidden treasures—the tapestries forgotten in horse barns and attics—and her mother’s delicate sensibility for cleaning, mending, and re-creating them. Their work was a form of eros that united them more than their partnership in reality, which seemed rather to tear them apart.

Louise Bourgeois, loose sheet of writing, c. 1959, handwritten in turquoise blue ink on off-white paper, 11 x 8 1/2''. Louise Bourgeois Archive, LB-0464. © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

The pictures of Louis and Joséphine working in their studios feel important when thinking of Bourgeois, whose entire home had become a studio, practically a sculpture, by the end of her long life. It was in this home that her psychoanalytic notes were discovered in successive batches in 2004 and 2010 and then carefully archived. Look at yet another metonymic sculptural shift in a dream she had about her mother shortly after her father’s death:

Very very tired day because of the dream.
That dream about my mother was a horror I am anxious to pin it down
where can it come from and what can it mean,
I dreamt that I was going to find something in a dream that the fight
was going to be terrific and that Robert had (at any cost) to get the
meaning. there is a secret and I cannot get at it. I want to reach it.
I am out to pry it The anxiety is great because I know that I will not
succeed [. . .] it is my mother
I call come come and I pound on Robert she is going away. and he does

not wake up. Then in a surhuman effort knowing that he fails to answer
I call her and try to reach her again, and suddenly I reach a climax
and satisfaction in a long kiss. I am surprised to see that I wanted
it. and she leaves in my mouth an object like an almond. which was in
her mouth. I take it out in my fingers and think that is strange, I
notice that it does not move. I notice also that it is hard enough
to resist the pressure of even my thumb nail. “it is harder than soap
I think that marble is harder. Then I want to put it away for examination.”
maybe it is not the truth but it may be a form of truth,
you know so little, you have to try everything you can to learn how
to read around you At a level above mother and the almond [. . .] 
now that I hold it, I am going to lose it. I pound again on his
chest howling: maman. maman. this time again I am exhausted when I
force myself to hear. my own voice wakes me up. Robert actually
hears it and answers. From then on I talk without control but aloud.4

Mourning is processed, dreamed, as a sculpture: what her mother (and father) leave in her mouth, a form of truth about which she knows so little, a truth that retains its secret. But it is something she can hold, fearfully feeling its hardness and shape, experiencing its kiss and climax and anxiety. I love these lines: “you have to try everything you can to learn how to read around you at a level above mother and the almond.” And “my own voice wakes me up.” My entire profession is built on this sentiment.

View of Louise Bourgeois’s Janus Fleuri, 1968, installed over Freud’s couch in “Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed” at the Freud Museum in London, March 8—May 27 2012. © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Ollie Harrop.

Importantly, this isn’t a psychoanalytic “interpretation.” This is equivalent to a material fact, put down in writing, taking shape in the creation of her work and style of working. It is tangibly there in what she says about her work and art more generally: “I’m interested in people who instead of analyzing, put things together.”5 And it’s there in conversation with her assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, in 1992:

My relationship to psychoanalysis is through writing
Lacan is a fake, a joke
I don’t believe in Jung. I
believe in Freud, Charcot, De La Tourette,
the neurologists and the time of Salpetriere
I knew Moreno here in New York City. The verbal is too
easy and makes me anxious.
To talk does not constitute a catharsis. It is the actual doing.
A work of art is successful for me when it removes anxiety.
The price we have to pay: The work is only an acting out, trying to get rid of things.
The work of art is limited to an acting out, not an understanding.
If it were understood, the need to

do the work would not exist anymore.
Art is a guaranty of sanity
but not liberation. It comes back
again and again.6

It’s so true. It is the actual doing, which doesn’t have all that much to do with understanding—contrary to what many would like to believe about psychoanalysis. Beyond this capacity to act, psychoanalysis is very pessimistic when it comes to ideals of liberation because all of it does come back again and again (see Bourgeois’s powerful work I Do, I Undo, I Redo, 2000). Or as Lacan said on several occasions, “I never speak of liberty.” That would be true madness.

Louise Bourgeois, Couple III, 1997, fabric, thread, stainless steel, wood and glass, 39 x 33 x 20". © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Christopher Burke.

The Bourgeois-Lacan business amuses me. She gathers that she and Lacan are barking up the same tree—I know this kind of macho Frenchman, she indicates, and though she indicts him as a fraud, she admits that she is seduced. They were both French Catholics born after the turn of the century who stole from the Jews, especially the Jewish psychoanalysts. They loved them, married them, were saved by them, and took something from them. She writes about Lacan in 1994:

    (The Tartuffe)  military school
Lacan. I start where he does, Topology
on the 3rd floor of the military museum.
                          Topology of clothes, sewing
Topology and its knots. It’s “shown” on
page 475 of the Roudinesco book, that leads to
poisons (liquids) humor and the 2
suicides; smart Alek; macho,
he does not play dumb, he plays Turenne
it is very clever to play dumb, goody two-shoes
hypocrisy is an acknowledgment of virtue
by vice. Tartuffe
a strategic war – a war of maneuvers
The defense of Paris. my father never talked
to me about the army or the motherland
or the war, he never talked about
religion either. In fact he didn’t talk about anything
St Thomas. I only believe what I see. Proverb
the wrong way around. He didn’t believe (laziness) in either
class struggle or social climbing.
only Sensual + coward.7

Lacan and Bourgeois both attend to topology, which is essentially sculpture. One can liken Lacan’s obsession with the Borromean knot, the torus, and the Klein bottle to Freud’s early diagrams of the mind and his original research cutting up eels, examining the structure of neurons. There is a kind of hidden sculptural labor in the very creation of psychoanalysis.

Freud famously destroyed the paper on sublimation; the term was handed down to us with his mouth sewn shut about it. One should see Bourgeois as articulating this missing piece.

Both Lacan and Bourgeois also like to play dumb, to play a kind of doubting Thomas, especially when it comes to Freud. And yet they are mercilessly tactical, militant even, in how they work inside his theoretical edifice. Lacan and Bourgeois take what they need from psychoanalysis to defend what they feel needs defending, throwing out the rest. They are sensual creatures, voracious. Also: often cowardly and aggressively insulting. Certainly, both are contradictory in the extreme. I was so taken when, during an interview, Bourgeois was describing Brancusi’s sculptures as pillars, and the interviewer said “phallic,” and she retorted, “I didn’t say that, you said that.” She then went on to describe a child, angry at their mother, cutting their own towers into pieces. “That,” she says, “I know.”8

Surprisingly, Bourgeois—against what many deem as work that is pre- or post-linguistic—hears, as Lacan does (and as Freud before him did), the sculptural quality of words and constantly plays with them. In so many of her diary entries, it’s right there, just as it is above, in a chain conjured for the ambivalent love of Lacan: Moliere’s Tartuffe, topology, the French military general Turenne, talk, not talking, and St. Thomas. Touché. The only freedom is free association in word and in deed. But you can do a lot with this constrained freedom once you find the guardrails.

Louise Bourgeois, Hysterical, 2001, fabric, stainless steel, glass, wood, and lead, 18 x 8 x 6 1⁄4''. © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Christopher Burke.

In fact, to push this all a bit further, I would line up Bourgeois saying “It is not me who ignored the market, it is the market who ignored me and it was okay . . . I had complete faith in the work” and “You have asked me, what did you want? . . . What I wanted is to have an itineraire unique. That is it” with Lacan’s injunction to “never give up on one’s desire.”Lacan named this injunction “the ethics of psychoanalysis,” and he puts it in relation to the possibility of sublimation as the highest aim of psychoanalysis.10 Freud famously destroyed the paper on sublimation; the term was handed down to us with his mouth sewn shut about it. One should see Bourgeois as articulating this missing piece.

Sublimation is certainly the mystery of creation, but as psychoanalysts, we know that it constitutes a displacement in relation to trauma, brute sexuality, and the fragments of one’s past. Yet it is not a defense mechanism. It is differentiated from defenses by what it is able to achieve. It brings true satisfaction, a satisfaction that jumps the barrier of repression, coming finally into contact with the unconscious. While it reworks the past, it brings something new into the world—as Lacan would have it, it creates a new desire that forces upon us its own recognition.

Louise Bourgeois, Child Devoured by Kisses, 1999, fabric, thread, stainless steel, wood and glass, 39 x 33 x 20".  © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Christopher Burke.

We arrive at a psychoanalysis, not as this or that grid of interpretation, but psychoanalysis as the art of contact with the unconscious. Lacan spoke of the unconscious as if it were something that could be played like an instrument—supple, less raw, rigid, and reactionary. When Lacan attempted to illustrate what he meant by this, he did so in strangely sculptural terms, speaking about the elevation of the object beyond utility, toward what he called “the dignity of the Thing.”11 He suddenly recalled an art object where the artist took a matchbox and opened its little drawer a bit in order to attach it to another one, eventually creating a kind of chain.12

This was a creation and a depiction of the act of creation itself, displacing the function of the item and using its own form to do so. The snake eats its own tail. Or better, creation and creator here attain the dignity of a couple embodied for a moment—as in the name Louise Joséphine Bourgeois. Lacan, funnily, said he had seen this object at the home of a friend, hung above a doorway. The analyst can lead the patient to this doorway, but it is, as he always remarked, up to the patient to step through it.

There is no better illustration of this “dangerous passage” than “Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter.” And what I see is something not only beautiful, but deeply ethical, founded in the congruence of the life and work that is illustrated there. What better testament to psychoanalysis, one that runs counter to all the misconceived ideas we continually harbor about it? But that’s, as we like to say, only resistance. The truth is always somewhere else—just shy of an almond-shaped marble, or a wooden pearl, or a twisted pile of mended fabrics named Child Devoured By Kisses, 1999.

Jamieson Webster is a psychoanalyst in New York and the author, most recently, of Conversion Disorder: Listening to the Body in Psychoanalysis.


1. Louise Bourgeois, loose sheet of writing, c. 1958. Louise Bourgeois Archive; LB-0127.

2. Ernest Jones, The life and work of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 3. The last phase 1919-1939 (New York: Basic Books, 1953), 20.

3. Louise Bourgeois, loose sheet of writing, September 1957. Louise Bourgeois Archive; LB-0251. 

4. Louise Bourgeois, loose sheet of writing, 4 December 1951. Louise Bourgeois Archive; LB-0454. 

5. Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine. Directed by Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach. Zeitgeist Films, 2008. 

6. Louise Bourgeois, in conversation with Jerry Gorovoy, c. 1992. Louise Bourgeois Archive; LB-0837.

7. Louise Bourgeois, diary entry, 2 September 1994. Louise Bourgeois Archive; LBD-1994.

8. Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine. 

9. ibid. 

10. See Jacques Lacan, and Jacques-Alain Miller. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book Vii. London: Routledge, 2008.

11. Lacan, 112.

12. Lacan, 114.