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November 12, 2007

A Defence of Louise Bourgeois - Christie Davies and Richard Dorment are wrong about Louise Bourgeois, argues David Wootton: Louise Bourgeois at Tate Modern

Posted by David Wootton

Louise Bourgeois
Tate Modern, London
10th October 2007 - 20th January 2008
Sunday - Thursday 10am - 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
Friday & Saturday 10am - 10pm (last admission 9.15pm)

Christie Davies didn't like the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Tate. There's also an excellent hatchet job by Richard Dorment on the Telegraph website. There's a link there to five pictures of her work, and the work, in my view, even viewed immediately after reading Dorment, is obviously better than Davies and Dorment are willing to acknowledge.

Of course it is easy to find gushing praise of Bourgeois (try Rachel Cooke in the Observer) but can a cautious and sceptical enthusiast like myself reply to the critics?

Everyone, starting with Bourgeois, tells the story of her father's affair with her governess - Christie Davies tells it particularly well. This trauma, we are told, somehow gave birth to her art. There is no doubt that Bourgeois insists over and over again that her work is about trauma:

Art is the experience, the re-experience of a trauma
she says (Tate catalogue, p. 268). And (p. 49, p. 220):
Art is a guarantee of sanity.
In other words art is a form of self-therapy: Bourgeois, we are told, at one point thought of becoming a Kleinian therapist. The critics protest: What bourgeois French girl at the beginning of the last century didn't have a father who was unfaithful to his wife? What's the fuss about? It's worth re-reading here Bourgeois' own account of what the fuss is about (p. 80):
In a middle-class family a mistress was a standard piece of furniture.
And it is her mother, not her father, whom she directly accuses of "child abuse". Bourgeois has lots of nice things to say about her mother (p. 170) -
My best friend was my mother
although she famously portrays her as a giant spider. Here the critics get lost:
The spider is therefore a positive and reassuring symbol.

Of Fillette, a sculpture of the male phallus, Bourgeois says
when I wanted to represent something I loved, I obviously represented a little penis.
(Except of course when she represented what she loved as a spider.) And so her admirers say:
Fillette has a wire threaded through its apex that serves as a kind of hook to allow the work to be hung from the ceiling and thus seen from below…
Ignore this and pay attention to Dorment, who describes Fillette as
a latex-covered plaster sculpture in the form of oversized male genitals that hangs by a hook inserted into the tip of the penis, like a freshly caught trout.
Dorment isn't taken in for a moment by what Bourgeois says about Fillette; why then is he so easily taken in by what she says (or is said to say) about childhood trauma? Bourgeois loves writing, and can't resist commenting on her own work, but we ought to pay attention to the art, not what she says about it. And if we are going to read what she says, let us at least read it with some care. The work isn't just about "Daddy" (to quote Plath); it's also about "Maman" (to quote Bourgeois). Just what did her mother and her father do to her? Surely we don't really need to know, beyond recognizing that she has a good deal in common with Larkin (a poet one can hardly imagine her reading). As Larkin says:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
Man hands on misery to man
Bourgeois' art is about trying to hold the misery up to view, and by doing so to stop herself from handing it on. More than anything else, her work is about the anxieties and responsibilities of motherhood.

Still, just for the record, anyone with any knowledge of Freud will recognize that Bourgeois' grievance against her father was not that he took a mistress; it was that he didn't take her as his mistress. You don't believe me? Read her account (p. 227) of her father eyeing up a line of prostitutes (in her presence - which in itself is an invitation to interpretation). Only one met with her father's approval. As for Bourgeois,

I identified with those who failed. It's about defining my low self-esteem. You realize how terribly difficult it is to make it. The desire to please is the motivation and there are no rules.
So Bourgeois, like all of us, is the victim of an unspeakable Oedipal drama. That makes her art neither ridiculous nor wonderful. It makes it, in fact, no different from any other art, except that Bourgeois' art is explicitly about her internal drama, while most art is only indirectly about the inner life. Is it good art? I wasn't quite sure until I found myself standing beside (1992) - gives a detail. As so often, Bourgeois' own account is deeply misleading.
Precious Liquids relates to a girl who grows up to discover passion instead of terror. She stops being frightened… when you allow yourself to weep, the tears mark the end of suffering, and when perspiration occurs on your back due to a state of apprehension, it indicates mastery and resolution of the fear.
We all know this is nonsense: tears are the mark of suffering, not its end; when you are in a blind funk you have not mastered fear, you have been mastered by it. But never mind. Let's not even worry about whether Bourgeois simply doesn't understand her own work, or deliberately misleads her audience.

Let's not even worry about whether the authors of these catalogues enjoy misleading us as much as Bourgeois does. For in an interview with Art Forum Bourgeois gave a very different and much more convincing account of this work. It is, she tells us, about a little girl persecuted by a voyeur:

The point is that the unconscious is there to stay, bothering you all the time. But you have to make peace with it. In Precious Liquids the girl, for her own protection, for the sake of her own sanity - we go back to sanity - has to come to terms with the flasher. So she closes her eyes, refuses to see him, and turns the matter around by taking refuge in his coat…. The little girl has taken the unconscious, not as an enemy, but as a refuge.
So even as the little girl escapes from her persecutor, he is still there - indeed she is closer to him than ever. Even in her refuge, it is he who determines who she is. The defenceless child who sleeps in a bed which is also a mortuary drain tells herself she is safe; but of course she isn't. She tells herself her persecutor has left the room, but he is still there in her thoughts, and we know he will haunt her dreams. Bourgeois may want to portray what it is like to stop being frightened; but this isn't it. This is what it is like to try to bottle up your fear and keep it at arm's length. To simultaneously portray fear and safety, terror and security - this is the task Bourgeois has set herself, and this is what she has managed to do.

Precious Liquids is, I think, a remarkable, indeed a great work of art, comparable to Duchamp's Étant Donnés. What makes it wonderful is precisely that its meaning can't be trapped in words. In the end, there is only one test of Bourgeois as an artist - go to the Tate, and look for yourself. Read the words which are part of the art -

I have been to hell and back. And let me tell you, it was wonderful

Art is a guarantee of sanity

Do you love me? Do you love me?

Ignore the others, including mine.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

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