visualizing the unconscious of louise bourgeois


Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) is an immediately fascinating subject for psychoanalysis as an actual analysand, but also as a visual artist who produces uncanny creations. Her identities as a patient and artist are not separate, either; 22-year-old Bourgeois gave up a career as a mathematician to become an artist after her mother died, and 40-year-old Bourgeois entered analysis at age 40 with Henry Lowenfeld after the death of her father, who she despised (Schiller 663). Essentially, Bourgeois consulted both psychoanalysis and art as reactions to parent deaths. Regardless of her explicit connection to psychoanalysis, though, the notion of artwork as psychoanalysis-rich is inherently valid. Styles like Bourgeois’ in particular arguably welcome dream-like projections of the unconscious––there is a mandatory letting go of concrete consciousness in abstract expressionism and surrealism. Bourgeois’ artwork in turn reveals her fear of abandonment and her subsequent melancholia, which define her work and her unconscious alike. In particular, Bourgeois’ art fixates on the initial realization of the Oedipus complex in her world as a mode of regressing back to childhood, when abandonment and post-natal maternal removal was an anxious fantasy, not a depressive reality. Therefore, through dwelling visually on the Oedipus complex, Bourgeois’ work contrasts her conscious feelings about her parents, unearthing her escapism into early stages of psychosexual development as a reaction to her melancholia.

First, the analyses ahead require a preface for the notion of artwork as dream-like portals into the unconscious. Dreams “find the entrance to latent, infantile experiences” (Freud, “Archaic Remnants and Infantilism in the Dream,” 77); art like Bourgeois’ that embodies expressionism is similarly rooted in surfacing the individual and its subjective internal contents. Moving into Bourgeois specifically, in Hair, Threads, and Umbilical Cords: Louise Bourgeois’s Dream of Connection, Britt-Marie Schiller explicitly groups the themes of Bourgeois’ dreams and artwork together: “An emotion that runs like a thread through Louise Bourgeois’ art, diaries, and dreams is the anxiety of being alone, disconnected, and abandoned” (657). Perhaps that overlap across levels of consciousness surfaces the inescapability of Bourgeois’ pain: one can begin to gain access to her melancholia even without channeling her unconscious mind. Nevertheless, dreams are invariably distinct as objects of sleep, which, according to Freud, “is a condition in which [one wishes to have] nothing to do with the external world” and where interest in the external world has been “withdrawn” (“Difficulties and the Preliminary Approach,” 34). To embrace this discrepancy, the conscious quality of artistic creation conveniently allows for the interpretation of recurring themes and images to indicate actual repetition compulsions, providing information about Bourgeois’ tangible experience coping with melancholia.







Beginning with the earliest of the three works at hand, Child Devoured by Kisses (1999) (figure 1) contains visual symbols and a title that symbolizes Bourgeois’ attempt to identify with her dead father, effectively prefacing her regression to the Oedipus complex. Bourgeois’ relationship with her father is concisely packaged by Mignon Nixon in an International Journal of Art Therapy review of Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art, a book about the artist, written with Bourgeois’ “full cooperation” (118). Nixon writes, “Louise was named after her father Louis as she was expected to be a boy, which proved a disappointment to her father” (118). In Towering Louise Bourgeois, Amei Wallach describes Bourgeois’ father as “bullying, belittling, [and] betraying” (126), also noting that Bourgeois said she “inherited [her] mother’s intellect and [her] father’s sick heart” (126). Wallach continues, “Men—most notably men in a position of art world authority whose favor she depended on and hated herself for needing—brought out every anguished, conflicted, terrified, murderous emotion in her. Such men reminded her of her father” (126). These synopses make clear Bourgeois’ resentment towards her father, which breathes itself into Child Devoured by Kisses.

Although the sculpture itself is not an obvious portrait of father-child love, the title suggests the work’s time travel to childhood and the kisses then symbolize yearning for parental affection. Following the notion that Bourgeois’ own unconscious exists in her work, it is reasonable to assume that her child-self is involved in the figure and, according to the Oedipus complex, that her father is the other body: the desired object of love whose kisses are being devoured. On this dynamic, Freud writes, “Analysis very often shows that a little girl, after she has had to relinquish her father as a love-object, will bring her masculinity into prominence and identify herself with her father...instead of with her mother” (The Ego & the Id, 28). An unconscious desire for Bourgeois to identify with her father starkly contradicts her conscious feelings towards him, so the work as a vision of regression to a time before Bourgeois “relinquished” her father becomes clear. Bourgeois even manifests cannibalist desires, a symptom of her melancholia (“Mourning and Melancholia,” 249-250), as the raveling of two bodies into one to combine with her father. The work’s title even identifies a “devouring” explicitly. Perhaps Bourgeois is inherently cannibalistic, though: her name and its inheritance of her father’s is cannibalistic in and of itself. Bourgeois’ name follows her forever, as a constant reminder of the reality that paternal affection––like that in Child Devoured by Kisses––is unattainable. Bourgeois is stuck in her name, in her melancholia, and in an Oedipus fantasy.

To zoom in on the visuals of Child Devoured by Kisses, too, the fleece material at play directly connotes childhood comfort objects, supporting the attempt to regress and producing an irony when the material assembles a vision of unsettling bodily distortion. The physical composition of the work goes on to envision loosening the seams that construct the figure as an ode to the layers of the psyche and to Bourgeois’ troubling navigation of conscious and unconscious sentiments towards her parents. In other words, the loose seams indicate a fluidity between the external world and the world inside of the figure to commemorate that the borders between consciousness and unconsciousness are porous. Lastly, the work’s softness atop its metal stand calls for juxtaposition where the cold, hard surface becomes the frigid, abandonment-filled world which hosts the sculpture itself and makes the pain in the work feel especially isolating. In essence, through title analysis, medium, and Oedipal contemplation, Child Devoured by Kisses begins the story of Bourgeois’ melancholic reality as a portrait of her relationship with her father.








Next, Umbilical Cord (2000) continues Bourgeois’ Oedipal complex. Through visual cues of evil affection, the work builds tension between Bourgeois’ conscious and unconscious feelings towards her mother. As addressed by Schiller, Freud’s Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety entails his declaration of birth as the first and precedental anxious experience––all following anxious experiences then replicate birth’s trauma (Schiller 668-669). This attachment to anxiety that roots itself in the mother figure is visible in the work’s inherent conflict as it presents mother-daughter inseparability with a tone of darkness. The illustration documents a mother who’s visibly past pregnancy and labor, as she exists without any bump and is energetically able to stand. Yet she stays connected to her child through the umbilical cord, indicating an overdue attachment or fixation, perhaps also calling out Bourgeois’ immobility in her melancholia. The mother’s eyebrows pursue an evil tone, and her positioning towards the direction of the floating child equates that sense of evil with her feelings towards her child. The child, or Bourgeois, faces away from her mother, thirsting to end the fixation and find freedom from a fear of abandonment at last. The reality that Bourgeois actually feels deep love for her mother also reminds this work of its invalidity––it is merely a retired Oedipal impulse and therefore a vision of falsehood. 

Continued analysis of Bourgeois’ artistic decisions only corroborates her stuckness in abandonment and the intricacy with which it infects her life. Schiller says, “The original trauma of abandonment was, for Bourgeois, being born. Her ambivalence toward a mother who abandoned her by ejecting her from the womb is manifest in her fury over having been born...This also gestures toward a longing for a return to the maternal womb” (663). The embroidered quality of the work brings to life Bourgeois’ pain in the impossibility of reuniting with the womb, a pain emphasized by her mother’s death and removal. The generous negative space in the work continues to articulate the all-consumption of Bourgeois’ despair––nothing other than her maternal relationship exists––or it speaks to the isolation of her melancholia which fixates on her inability to accept a future apart from the womb. Finally, contrasting the work’s gloom, the cloth on which the illustration exists provides a softness that remembers the scene as plagued with sadness, balancing out any fear and evil in the representation and recalling the melancholia at the work’s core. In synthesis, Umbilical Cord offers up another attempt at escapism, continuing the narrative initiated by Child Devoured by Kisses through building the discrepancy between Bourgeois’ conscious and unconscious maternal sentiments.







The Feeding (2008) acts as a satisfying endnote to the two previous works; primarily through color and the repetition of breasts, the work reflects a vision of resolution for Bourgeois, who can overcome Oedipal angst towards her mother. First, on the resolution of melancholia: Freud says, “What consciousness is aware of in the melancholia is thus not the essential part of it, nor is it even the part which we may credit with an influence in bringing the ailment to an end” (“Mourning and Melancholia,” 257). Because The Feeding visualizes a release from the melancholic doom of the ther two works analyzed, it is this precise distance from unconsciousness––from the Oedipus complex––that indicates mental resolution and maturity past Oedipal regression. The Feeding is alive with pinks and reds, gentle with the fluidity of its paint strokes, and devoid of depictions of the body that feel otherworldly or wicked. The loudness and femininity of the pinks also clarify the maternal quality of the energy present. In addition to liveliness derived from color, there exists an abundance of breasts and their supply, so much so that even the child’s over-extended arms can only reach two of the five available. This excess symbolizes Bourgeois’ compensation for her time spent feeling abandoned––she reaches towards (and successfully grasps) the eternal nourishment from memories of her mother. Continuing, the symmetry of the piece provides its own sense of resolution. Its composition is easy to digest, like a world without the heaviness and fixation of melancholia. The symmetry also creates visions of pathways between breasts that continue a sense of ease and reward upon resolution of the Oedipus complex. Finally, reuniting with the reality of The Feeding, as a work that neared the end of Bourgeois’ life, the notion of this piece as a resolution commemorates the 40+ years she devoted to psychoanalytic progress (Schiller 663).      

For Bourgeois, psychoanalytical reason and artwork feel synonymous, each aiding her as responses to deep depression and grief: to melancholia. Specifically, Bourgeois’ work evokes her regression to the Oedipus complex, which is the object of her melancholia’s fixation. Child Devoured by Kisses actualizes the frustration behind Bourgeois’ visual attempt to absorb her father’s love; Umbilical Cord paints an untrue portrait of Bourgeois’ mother that blocks her from remembering her actual affection; repeated breasts in The Feeding celebrate an abundance of nourishment, which become a symbol of Bourgeois’ ability to painlessly mourn her mother free of Oedipal escapism. The sequence of these works and the visceral reactions they precipitate offer a glimpse into the inexpressible pain of melancholia, of fearing abandonment since birth and then of becoming abandoned, and of never properly morphing into the Louis built into Louise. However, on the power of psychoanalysis, Freud writes, “It can discover something which makes the further understanding possible” (Freud, “Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry,” 38). Trudging through hardship, the trajectory of Child Devoured by Kisses, Umbilical Cord, and The Feeding, ultimately suggests a breakthrough under the care of psychoanalysis, where Bourgeois indeed “discovers” part of her unconscious and can begin to drift from melancholia.