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Women's Work: Representing the hysterical body in the late works of Louise Bourgeois

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Essay by Anna Souter Thesis, MA Art History: ‘Twentieth-Century Sculpture – Production and Perception’ Courtauld Institute of Art, 2014

“I don't want my objects to depend on my presence. The sculptures have to last long after me. They have to have a value outside of people, outside of history. They have to have an intrinsic value, otherwise, they are not successful.” “For me, the sculpture is my body. My body is my sculpture.” “I could not have been a painter. The two dimensions do not satisfy me. I have to have the reality given by the third dimension.”

Louise Bourgeois | JM Art Management
Installation view: Louise Bourgeois at Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Jul 13, 2018 – Jan 6, 2019

Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio.

© The Easton Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.



In this paper, I will explore the sculptural representation of the hysterical body in some of Louise Bourgeois's late fabric figurative works made around the turn of the twenty-first century. I will do this initially through a chronological examination of the subject matter of hysteria, both in its historical and representational heritage as Bourgeois knew it and in its development in her own words and sculptural work. I will then analyze how and why she made sculptural fabric works depicting the hysterical body like Arched Figure (1999) and Arch of Hysteria (2000) at this time. This fabric works, despite, or perhaps because of, being executed late in her career, are some of the most powerful in her oeuvre, carrying an intense psychic force that I argue is derived from their insistent bodily and material presence and their emphatic three-dimensionality. The corporeality of these female figures speaks to what she termed a concern with the body, which manifests itself in all Bourgeois's works. In the late 1960s she went so far as to present that concern as the content of her work:

Content is a concern with the human body; its aspect, its changes, transformations, what it needs, wants and feels – its function. [...] All these states of being, perceiving and doing are expressed by processes that are familiar to us and that have to do with the treatment of materials, pouring, flowing, dripping, oozing out, setting, hardening, coagulating.

Louise Bourgeois, Arch of Hysteria, 2000 | JM Art Management
Louise Bourgeois, Arch of Hysteria, 2000

This link between the body, the sculptural subject and the sculptural process is one with which Bourgeois is concerned throughout her life. However, the materials and processes she employs change dramatically. The 'pouring', 'dripping' and 'oozing' described here clearly relate to her innovative work in latex and plaster in the 1960s; by the end of the 1990s, she has developed a new sculptural language, one of cutting, stitching, and stuffing. In her fabric works, Bourgeois begins to employ processes and materials borrowed from a gendered craft tradition to create figures in a way which, I argue, is especially apt for representing the female body in extremis and the hysterical body in particular. To understand Bourgeois's engagement with hysteria, it is essential to understand its physical and material (that is, it's sculptural) terms. In my following argument, I hope to unravel these terms in order to create a clearer picture of Bourgeois's exploration of this complex subject with a long socio-cultural history.

Bourgeois's works are surrounded by a large and ever-growing body of literature, generated both by the artist herself and by a throng of critics seeking to engage with the huge variety of her artistic output and with her personality and personal history. The textuality of these statements, explorations and (psycho) analyses often acts to distract and detract from the insistent materiality of Bourgeois's powerfully bodily works. Such a textual focus also often results in the eight decades of Bourgeois's exceptionally long career being telescoped and presented as the front of one undifferentiated practice and point of view, rather than charting and allowing for the inevitable changes in thought process and artistic practice that accompany a long and constantly productive life. Her own words often act to muddle the picture, since she frequently contradicts herself, whether her statements are made fifty years or fifty words apart. Indeed, as she states as early as 1954: 'An artist's words are always to be taken cautiously.' I hope, by focussing instead on Bourgeois's use of materials and her sculptural processes, to avoid some of these pitfalls and to form an account of her work and its relation to hysteria from the facts and material resources I have available to me. Bourgeois only revealed her account of her childhood traumas (as she saw them), to do with her relationships with her parents, and with the double 'betrayal' she found in her father's extended affair with her English governess Sadie, at the time of her 1982 retrospective at MOMA, when she was seventy years old. Much of the critical literature since then, particularly surrounding the fabric sculptures on which I wish to focus, has made use of this biographical information. However, to focus on her biography is to distract from the physical substance of the works. Her fabric sculptures are 'successful' in the way Bourgeois describes in the quotation which opens this essay, and do not depend on the imaginary or bodily presence of the artist. To chart how and why they are successful and powerful, I hope to focus instead on the sculptures themselves.

Installation view of the exhibition, “Louise Bourgeois” November 3, 1982–February 8, 1983. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN1337.1. Photograph by Katherine Keller


In order to do this, I will turn away not just from the biographical literature, but from the most recent developments in it, which see Bourgeois's processes of production as playing primarily psychic roles. I intend to depart from the psychobiographical approach taken by Philip Larratt-Smith and Donald Kuspit in The Return of the Repressed (2012), where the psychoanalysis has undergone by Bourgeois with Dr. Henry Lowenfeld for over thirty years, and the notes and diaries she made during that time, are used as a lens for studying the artist (first) and her work (second). Philip Larratt-Smith argues that:

In the face of her depression, Bourgeois's principal defense lay in making art that allowed her to enact the ritual movement from passive to active of which she often spoke and wrote. The process of making art also enabled her to channel and transform her dammed libido and her aggression against others and herself into symbolic form and through symbolic actions such as cutting, drilling, carving and pouring.

Although Larratt-Smith is interested in the processes of making Bourgeois employs, he cites them only in a 'symbolic' context as a psychic release, overlooking their actual role in producing her artworks and their significance in their own right. I don't believe that Bourgeois's relationship to make it as straightforward as this quotation suggests. It is not a question of a simple transference of emotions; although the catharsis brought about by these aggressive actions may well have been therapeutic, it is important not to ignore their sculptural results and her role as a prolifically creative producer. For Bourgeois, it is not so much a question of 'symbolism' as of a complex interchange between self and sculpture, body and mind, physical and psychical. The title to Larratt-Smith's essay, 'Sculpture as symptom', is echoed by Donald Kuspit in his contribution to the book when he writes that Bourgeois's sculptures 'in whatever medium, are symptoms of her suffering.' To my mind, this is reductive; to designate Bourgeois's works (especially with the sweeping phrase 'in whatever medium') either symptoms of or cures for her psychological problems is to turn her works into a series of textual abstractions and to ignore their insistent material presence and, in many cases, their figurative physical form. I prefer instead to explore Bourgeois from a perspective informed by the approach of critics such as Robert Storr (Bourgeois's lifelong friend) and Linda Nochlin, set out by each in short essays. Storr puts it succinctly: 'To accurately take stock of her sculpture is [...] to inventory the substances, tools, and procedures that gave rise to them, paying special attention to the distinct resistances or determining limitations of each.' In her 1976 collection of essays From the Centre: Feminist Essays on Women's Art, Lucy Lippard writes that 'Bourgeois actually has a very literal imagination', a statement taken up and applied more thoroughly by Anne Wagner. I similarly hope to draw out this literalness in my study of Bourgeois's sculptural works.

Robert Storr with Louise Bourgeois in front of Peter Blum Gallery on Wooster Street, 1995 | JM Art Management
Robert Storr with Louise Bourgeois in front of Peter Blum Gallery on Wooster Street, 1995



Hysteria has a long and intriguing history of affliction, recognition, and treatment, surfacing in different cultures at different times with an astonishing variety of symptoms and manifestations, responding to the moral codes and oppressions of the society in question. Bourgeois engages with hysteria as a topic which she inherits and has access to through her position as one of many intellectuals of her generation interested in the subject, and as a French artist engaging with a distinctly French artistic heritage. Hysteria was particularly studied and popularised in the late nineteenth century, especially in France, where the famous neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot set up a clinic for hysterics at La Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. It is this period that provides us with the main visual and socio-cultural resources on hysteria, which were widely disseminated, adopted and adapted by a broad range of members of society over the following century. This is also apparently the only era of hysteria that interested Bourgeois. Indeed, she seems to equate the whole historical epoch with the disease and its treatment: 'I find this period of the end of the nineteenth century – the period of Charcot, the Salpêtrière, you know – mysterious.' Bourgeois finds this period 'mysterious' in spite of the fact that there are so many visual and textual resources relating to the Salpêtrière. I think this sense of mystery stems from the opacity of many of these resources, such as the photographs I discuss below. Nominally tools for scientific study, they conceal as much as they reveal, theatrically enacting gendered roles in a complicated interplay of subject and object. I believe it is these complex representations of female identity and the female body in extremis that Bourgeois found both fascinating and mysterious in this period. For these reasons, I will use these resources as a starting point for my study of Bourgeois's representations of hysteria.

Hysteria is a highly complex condition. Lisa Appignanesi writes that in Charcot's France the term 'described a sexualized madness full of contradictions, one which could play all feminine parts and take on a dizzying variety of symptoms, though none of them had any real detectable base in the body.' The condition and Charcot's research were made famous through the individual hysterics who lived at the Salpêtrière and whose hysterical symptoms were displayed and analyzed in sessions open to members of the public. In these sessions and in his written works, through 'focus on the individual case, Charcot spoke what he saw and made a spectacle of diagnosis.' The methods of diagnosis and treatment at the Salpêtrière were all highly visual, creating a sort of theatre of hysteria, in which the (often young and pretty) hysterics acted out their symptoms as if by rote. Charcot asserted that men also suffered from hysteria, but, as Juliet Mitchell points out, in these cases Charcot noted 'the prevalence of traumatic accidents as precipitators; his male subjects had usually suffered from work- or violence-related accidents.' His more famous female patients, however, like the dramatic and attractive Augustine, were treated differently, in a manner which played to stereotyped gendered characteristics; their symptoms and behavior were traced back to their sexuality and their gendered biology.

One of Charcot's innovations was to set up a photography studio at La Salpêtrière in order to document the physical symptoms of his patients. These images were then widely disseminated in Paul Regnard and Desiré Bourneville's Iconographie Photographique de La Salpêtrière (1875-77), providing both a visual record of the pretty and often scantily clad hysterics, and a manual of hysteria and its symptoms to be assimilated and mimicked by its readers. Appignanesi points out that 'if today the Salpêtrière photographs of hysterics can look melodramatically posed, and hardly useful as instruments for contemporary diagnosis, it is worth noting that their status in their own time was not unlike brain scans or magnetic resonance imaging today.' It is important to bear in mind that part of the power of these images was derived from their presentation, and subsequent acceptance, as scientifically accurate visual documents. The camera takes up the position of a detached but voyeuristic observer, with the hysterical subjects only looking at the lens and engaging directly with the image-making when they are photographed in their 'normal' or 'sane' moments. When engaged in the throes of a hysterical attack, the women are apparently oblivious of the camera's presence, revealing parts of their body that Victorian decency would otherwise hide from view. In a photograph depicting the arc de cercle, or the 'arch of hysteria' as Bourgeois would later take it up, the female subject contorts her body so that she is resting on her feet and shoulders. Her head is entirely hidden in a pillow, whilst her shapely legs and feet are almost completely revealed as her short shift rides up. The relative distance of the camera and the profiling of the subject suggest that this photograph is taken to give the impression of scientific 'truth', but also simultaneously to place the (assumed male) viewer at a voyeuristic remove from the depicted woman. The photographs act to transform the bodily suffering and performance of their female subjects into two-dimensional images for both scientific study and visual titillation.

Paul Regnard | JM Art Management
Paul Régnard, Attaque Hystéro-Épileptique Arc De Cercle, 1880

Courtesy of the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library.


Sigmund Freud was a student of Charcot, as Bourgeois knew and first became well known for his Studies in Hysteria (1893-95), authored with Josef Breuer. Dianne Hunter points out that 'in his obituary of Charcot, Freud describes him as a visuel, someone for whom sight is the dominant channel of knowing.' This privileging of sight and the visual is fundamental to our understanding and recognition of 'hysteria' as an entity, and to my argument regarding Bourgeois's reception of its history. Bourgeois was also versed in Freud's understanding of hysteria. She writes in her diary on 22nd February 1949:

Washington's birthday. Self-destruction under the form of destruction of my marriage - The etiology of hysteria by Freud - Hysterical symptoms can always be traced to repressed sexual memories usually having occurred (experiences). 1. The memories may become conscious much later, at puberty – My father walking around in his nightshirt holding his genitals.

Bourgeois seems to be suggesting in this early diary entry that she detects hysterical symptoms in herself which can be traced back to disturbing 'sexual memories' of her father, in much the same way as Freud tried to achieve with his patients. However, the 'talking cure' which Freud developed was supposed to eliminate symptoms by rooting out the repressed memories which were their cause; Bourgeois seems to recognize her memories, and yet to maintain her hysterical symptoms. For her, as a mid-twentieth century hysteric, these symptoms perhaps included her constant self-diagnosis. This chimes with the often-noted mimetic quality of the condition, which meant that patients frequently created new symptoms as quickly as others were 'cured'.

Charcot's hysterics, Freud's work on hysteria and the Salpêtrière photographs provided a wealth of cultural materials for the Surrealists, and Louise Bourgeois's artistic formation is at least in part rooted in the practices of these artists. Soon after she moved to Paris in 1936, André Breton opened his gallery Gradiva on the ground floor of the building in which she was living. This was where the Surrealists showed their innovative new work and where Bourgeois recalls talking to them and learning about their beliefs and ideas. In a letter of 1938 to a friend, she describes her whirlwind romance with Robert Goldwater: 'In between conversations about Surrealism and the latest trends, we got married.' A month later, she wrote again:

Fortunately in New York, I shall be joining artistic circles. Othon Friesz is there at the moment, so is Fernand Leger. Chirico and Salvador Dali are Robert's friends and will be in our house regularly. Picasso and Andre Breton will also be there.

Her historical association with and knowledge of the Surrealists and their work is evident. However, she has repeatedly stated that despite some formal affinities, she was not a Surrealist herself. Much later, in 1984, she stated that 'I was not influenced by the Surrealists', but rather that 'it was my first experience of reacting against a group.' In 1939 she had described the Surrealists and their work as 'theatrical', criticizing this because 'theatre is the image of life' rather than a 'reality'. This sense that the Surrealists were interested in 'image' rather than 'reality' can be seen particularly in their representations of female hysteria, which drew heavily on Charcot's photographs.

In 1928, André Breton and Louis Aragon published an article in the journal La Révolution Surréaliste which contains the famous Salpêtrière photographs of Augustine and expresses the Surrealists' desire 'to celebrate here the quinquagenarian of hysteria, the greatest poetic discovery of the end of the nineteenth century'. They continue:

We who like nothing so much as youthful hysterics – the perfect example of which is furnished by observations relating to the delightful X.L. (Augustine) [...]. Does Freud, who owes so much to Charcot, remember the time – confirmed by the survivors – when interns at the Salpêtrière confused their professional duties and their taste for love? Hysteria is not a pathological phenomenon and can be considered in every respect a supreme means of expression.

Journal La Révolution Surréaliste photographs of Augustine | JM Art Management
Journal La Révolution Surréaliste photographs of Augustine


The Surrealist sexualization of the photographed 'youthful hysterics' like the 'delightful' Augustine is evident. They see hysteria as a state in which poetic expression can run free. However, these female hysterics are not given a voice but instead made into the subject of voyeuristic two-dimensional images. Breton's novel Nadja was also published in 1928 and an excerpt from it appears in the same issue of La Révolution Surréaliste.

In his book, Breton writes 'Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be.' The phrase refers to the 'convulsive' throes of a hysterical attack, suggesting a state of sexualized, uninhibited passion, seen as 'a supreme means of expression.' José Pierre argues that 'when he states in 1928 that beauty should be “convulsive”, Breton clearly meant that all of Surrealism should make itself, or recognize itself as, “convulsive”.' However, whilst being 'convulsive' or hysterical might be empowering for the male Surrealist artists, it is less so for their female subjects, whose passion only makes them weak. Mary Ann Caws aptly describes the disempowerment of the Surrealist woman:

Headless. And also footless. Often armless too; and always unarmed, except with poetry and passion. There they are, the surrealist women so shot and painted, so stressed and dismembered, punctured and severed: is it any wonder she has (we have) gone to pieces?

Dismembered and vulnerable, the women represented by the Surrealists are almost invariably the subject of the male voyeuristic gaze. Salvador Dali's photomontage The Phenomenon of Ecstasy (1933) is an assemblage of pictures published in Minotaure, depicting the faces of women in hysterical states. As in the Salpêtrière photographs, none of the women make eye contact with the camera, but either shut their eyes or stare into the distance in the grip that looks more like erotic pleasure than pain. David Lomas notes that Dali 'does not use actual clinical photographs of hysterics as Aragon and Breton did; rather hysteria, the female malady, seems to be the condition of femininity in general.' Disembodied, they look vulnerable in their 'convulsive beauty' and their femininity, intended to be gazed upon by men.

Salvador Dali's photomontage The Phenomenon of Ecstasy (1933) | JM Art Management
Salvador Dali's photomontage The Phenomenon of Ecstasy (1933)



As Mignon Nixon explains, Bourgeois's 'historical predicament' in the 1940s, as she was first being exposed to hysteria through her study of Charcot and her acquaintance with the Surrealists, 'was to be caught between the Surrealist celebration of outmoded hysterical femininity and the more mundane sexism by which “hysteria was made woman”.' As Bourgeois was beginning her sculptural career, hysteria was disappearing as a commonly-used medical diagnosis, as its symptoms were separated into discrete mental illnesses, such as multiple personality disorder and anorexia. However, it remained in use as a colloquial term. Juliet Mitchell explores why this might be the case, suggesting that 'unlike most other “mental illnesses”, no one has yet proposed that one can treat hysteria with a drug, which may, therefore, account for making it a particularly suitable candidate for “disappearance” from psychiatry and for its prevalence in the colloquial.' She further argues that hysteria's 'disappearance' might also be 'an illustration of its mimetic ability', whereby its symptoms become normalized by their repeated copying:

It may have moved from being a disease to becoming a characterological trait. [...] That it is no longer diagnosed as a disease does not necessitate that there is no longer hysteria. [...] As a characterological trait it is easily absorbed into the general culture – particularly where performance is valorized.

I believe that Bourgeois thought about hysteria more in terms of a characterological trait than of disease with specific symptoms. She never seems to find it problematic that she diagnoses herself and others with an outmoded and old-fashioned clinical term. I argue that Bourgeois did not see hysteria in terms of an 'illness', as something separated from normal existence as a dimension of the exotic 'other'. This is the version of hysteria captured in the distancing two-dimensionality of the Salpêtrière photographs, which are simultaneously detached and voyeuristic. Instead, hysteria was for her a condition of existence, an anatomical destiny for women and whose bodiliness is deep-seated and physically experienced as a part of everyday life.

Louise Bourgeois | JM Art Management
Louise Bourgeois


She seems to echo Simone de Beauvoir's belief, repeated several times in The Second Sex, that 'woman's body is singularly “hysterical” in that there is often no distance between conscious facts and their organic expression' and 'because of the close connection between endocrine secretions and nervous and sympathetic systems commanding muscles and viscera.' However, whilst de Beauvoir sees woman's inherently hysterical body negatively, as a weakness, Bourgeois sees hysteria as a fact of life, or as a reminder that one is alive, and as a powerful means of representing female bodily experience. In 1979 she spoke about a period around 1944, 'the time when I thought I couldn't have any children.' It was only after she adopted her first son, Michel, that she became pregnant:

It is the case of the hysterical woman who cannot procreate because she is hysterical. It is a standard case. The fear of not having children made me hysterical, it made me emotionally upset. This is tangible proof that I am a normal person.

Here an association between hysteria and pregnancy, motherhood and childlessness begin to emerge which she will reference repeatedly for the rest of her career. As is typical of hysteria, in Bourgeois's case a psychological problem (here the 'fear of not having children') has a physical manifestation in the body (her infertility). For Bourgeois, this is 'tangible proof that I am a normal person', suggesting that for her hysteria is part of the natural bodily experiences of being a woman.

When she made this statement in 1979, the socio-cultural associations of hysteria had changed considerably since she made her 1949 diary entry on her understanding of Freud. The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly within academia, sought to appropriate the condition as a rebellion against the patriarchal system. As Juliet Mitchell puts it, The feminism of the 1970s was very largely responsible for the reappearance of hysteria in the academies. The women's liberation movement of the late 1960s had protested against the prevalent stigmatization of women as hysterical by accepting and then overturning its implications: the hysteric in her many guises – as a witch or as Dora – was a protofeminist heroine protesting against patriarchal oppression.

Louise Bourgeois 1982 | JM Art Management
Louise Bourgeois 1982

Robert Mapplethorpe

Louise Bourgeois 1982, printed 1991

ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland

© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation


Bourgeois had a complicated relationship with the feminist movement, often contradicting herself in her statements as to whether or not she considered herself a feminist. However, she was undoubtedly involved with and informed about the movement, and was taken as a feminist figurehead by many others. In many ways, the feminist position on hysteria championed in the 1970s was clearly a problematic one. Lisa Appignanesi writes that

Hysteria, rebellion, and feminism, as women's liberation was quick to underline, were intricately linked: their sources lay in the same discontent. To express their anger at the circumscription of their lives, women got ill or got organized. Sometimes they did both in turn.

However, even if hysteria was a way for women to 'express their anger', their bodily act of rebellion was repeatedly turned into two-dimensional voyeuristic images for the titillation of men, as we have seen in relation to both Charcot and the Surrealists, while the sufferers were often incarcerated in institutions and subject to physical restraint. For Bourgeois, hysteria was an issue which was both political and personal, and one which she developed between the late 1970s and early 1990s in her writings and drawings. As Marie-Laure Bernadac points out, drawings from the early 1990s 'clearly show the development of the tense arch of hysteria, a body ultimately hanging by a thread in a position suggesting both elevation and collapse.' For example, in Altered States (1992) Bourgeois uses red ink to depict a mother holding the arched body of a child. The facial expressions of the two figures are both impassioned, suggesting that both are hysterical; Bourgeois questions whether the mother imparts her hysteria to the child or vice versa. In Triptych for the Red Room (1994), Bourgeois explores this issue more fully, presenting three similar images of hysterical pairs in different formations. In the central image, we see the hysterical woman hanging by the navel in what Bernadac aptly describes as 'a position of elevation and collapse'; it is this hanging position in which we find the hysterical body in both Arch of Hysteria (1993) and in the later fabric arched figures. For Bourgeois, the hysterical body is a site of ambivalence, one which simultaneously rises powerfully from the bed and hangs, collapsed and caught, from a string at its navel.

Altered States / Louise Bourgeois / 1992 | JM Art Management
Altered States / Louise Bourgeois / 1992



In 1992-93 Bourgeois made two works that constitute her first attempts at representing the hysterical body in the sculptural form: Cell (Arch of Hysteria) (1992-93), part of a series of installations, and Arch of Hysteria (1993), a bronze cast hanging piece. In order to create her hysterical figures, she borrowed the anatomy of Jerry Gorovoy, her long-time assistant, and instructed her foundry to make a cast of his body. Gorovoy explains in an interview how he was lifted onto a high-sided mound and laid down so his body curved automatically, before the plaster was poured around him to set, which was a process he found very painful. Bourgeois used this mold in order to make a plaster cast of his body. For the version in Cell (Arch of Hysteria), she cut off the arms, as if with the Victorian bandsaw that shares the cell.

Louise Bourgeois with Cell (Arch of Hysteria), in progress in 1992. Photo: James Hamilton - JM Art Management
Louise Bourgeois with Cell (Arch of Hysteria), in progress in 1992. Photo: James Hamilton.


To make the bronze figure she also altered the cast to make the arch more extreme. For both works she cut off the head, visually recalling the photograph of the arch of hysteria, or the arc de Cercle, in the Iconographie Photographique de la Salpêtrière, where the woman's head is hidden and visually cut off by her bedding. In relation to this piece, Bourgeois claims that cutting 'means being in total control. Accepting the total control of whatever happens and it is quite aggressive.' This statement is self-contradictory, suggesting a dual control by both the artist and the artistic process, she employs. She goes on to say 'you certainly cannot be hysterical and use – if you want to keep all your fingers – and use power tools.' This is an example of Bourgeois being characteristically 'literal' in her explanations of her works. The implication here is perhaps that at a personal level Bourgeois's process of cutting is a way of controlling her own hysterical tendencies, or that sculptural production is not possible whilst one is hysterical, so control is required.

Louise Bourgeois, Arch of Hysteria (1993) | JM Art Management
Louise Bourgeois, Arch of Hysteria (1993)


However, this personal aspect is certainly not the only, or the most important, factor at play in these works. Gorovoy recalls Bourgeois saying that

Charcot always liked to see women go into the arch of hysteria, but men did it too. But [Charcot and his colleagues] preferred, since most of them were men, to see the women do it, and she said that she wanted to do the opposite, to see a man in that position.

Similarly, Bourgeois herself stated that 'with the Arch of Hysteria, I thought I could become a Charcot and make a beautiful young man exhibit himself in torsade.' This suggests that Bourgeois was aware of the culture of voyeuristic visuality which, as previously noted, surrounded hysteria and its representation. David Lomas argues of Cell (Arch of Hysteria) that 'seen from above, this installation resembles a large eye or aperture of a camera, alluding to the regime of visuality that reigned at the Salpêtrière, while the gesture of changing the sex of the hysteric points up one of its blindspots: an inequality of gender and power between those doing the seeing and the object of their fascinated gaze.' The work thus points to the 'regime of visuality' and spectacle surrounding hysteria at the Salpêtrière and in its subsequent manifestations. Arch of Hysteria similarly speaks to the visual qualities of these resources; the shiny bronze, which Bourgeois praises for its 'polished, reflective quality', forbids a haptic encounter, since any touch would leave a mark on its surface. In these works, her method of undermining this one-sided voyeurism is to make her hysterical subject a man.

Louise Bourgeois Cell (Arch of Hysteria) (1992-93) | JM Art Management
Louise Bourgeois Cell (Arch of Hysteria) (1992-93)


However, an inherent contradiction lies at the root of these works, which arguably makes them less powerful than her later fabric works. In an interview of 1993, Bourgeois states that Cell (Arch of Hysteria) is really about tension, the body. The fact that it is a man is not terribly important. It is a remark about the hysterical, and in the time of Jean-Martin Charcot, any ill, any disease, was attributed to hysteria, to be precise, and hysteria was attributed to women, which is absurd. This is all it means.

[Interviewer's question]: So it's just a little feminist humor on the way. But I'm still curious about the hysteric as a man. Bourgeois: Yes, well, you're asking too much. If you say, Louise, how is it that this is next to that; what's the relation? Or you ask me precise questions about the visual, I prefer this to the interpretive attitude of the art critic.

This defensive response is probably partly an expression of Bourgeois's personal annoyance at critics over-analyzing her work and projecting their own imprecise interpretations onto it; once again she expresses and advocates a very literal interpretation of her work. However, it is significant that she claims that the changed gender of her hysteric is not the most important factor of the piece. She does draw attention to the gendered systems of La Salpêtrière and representations of hysteria, as I have suggested above. Nevertheless, as she points out, the real importance of this piece lies in her representation of 'tension, the body'. In exploring hysteria through sculpture, Bourgeois gives her hysteric a physical and three-dimensional manifestation, imbued with the muscular energy of a real individual through the casting process. Presencing the hysteric through the material and sculptural process in this way allowed her to come closer to realizing her understanding of hysteria in sculptural form. However, hysteria for Bourgeois is a particularly female experience, as I have suggested. Although changing the gender of her hysteric allows her to point up some of the problems involved in representing hysteria, it fundamentally lies at odds with her personal understanding of the condition. Making these works involved the artist turning a blind eye to the gender of the body she used (which was in all likelihood simply the body she had easily at hand), and this irreconcilable difficulty means that, in my view, these works are less successful than they might be.


It is in some of her powerfully expressive fabric figures made around the turn of the twenty-first century that Bourgeois's hysteric becomes assertively three-dimensional and bodily in its manifestation. Here sewing and stitching become part of her sculptural vocabulary for the first time, even though they have been part of her language and thinking all her life.

In Arched Figure (1999), a woman's body hangs suspended from the navel by a wire, formally recalling the earlier bronze Arch of Hysteria; she arches her back in an ambiguous state of either pleasure or pain, or some mixture of the two. She is made of a patchwork of pink fabric that recalls human skin in its color and texture. The material is identified as 'terry-toweling' (a sort of flannel) by Rozsika Parker and according to Jerry Gorovoy and the Bourgeois studio, came from 'a remnant bolt given to Louise by a friend.' The criss-cross fraying seams give the impression that the doll is made up of random scraps crudely pieced together. However, this is not the case: despite the unrefined appearance of the stitching, the crafting of the figure is actually very sophisticated. The pieces of fabric are cut and stitched to determine the shape and structure of the figure, rather than sewn onto a pre-constructed form. Gorovoy confirmed for me that 'there is no internal armature, apart from the hanging device, which pierces the torso.' The figure's form is dictated by the crafting of its surface 'skin'. Hannah Westley suggests that 'Bourgeois's sculpture is above all a sensual art. Surfaces and textures are as integral to her work as the form of the concept.' Further than this, I would argue, surface and texture establish and inform the structure and concept, and vice versa, in a complex interplay of materials and processes.

Louise Bourgeois Arched Figure 1999 | JM Art Management
Louise Bourgeois Arched Figure 1999


To make Arched Figure, Bourgeois employs carefully-chosen pieces of fabric in order to create tumorous breasts, stumps where arms should be, and facial features: unseeing pink eyes and an open mouth which also resembles female genitalia. The doll lacks all of the usual cultural indicators of gender, such as hair and clothes, but it is unmistakably female, even if one ignores the disproportionately large breasts.

Bourgeois stated in 1992 that 'pink is feminine', and here this gendering is enforced by the bodily softness of the material. Arched Figure is suspended in a museum-style display case, which it shares with a large free-standing mirror, reminiscent of an instrument of medical scrutiny or a woman's vanity mirror. The case acts to distance us from the figure inside, whilst the visual reference of the mirror reminds us of the two-dimensional spectacle of the earlier representations of hysteria I have already examined. However, the mirror's positioning also serves to point out the physical materiality and three-dimensionality of the figure by showing parts of it which would otherwise be hidden. With these devices, Bourgeois draws attention to her insistent breaking away from two-dimensionality. I am reminded of one of the quotations with which I began this essay, where she claims that 'the two dimensions do not satisfy me. I have to have the reality given by the third dimension.' The 'reality' of this 'third dimension' is embodied in this work and gives a powerful resonance to a version of hysteria as something real and experienced, rather than theatrically staged and watched.

As Frances Morris points out, fabric 'is not an obvious choice of material with which to make works in three dimensions. Its innate properties are hardly sculptural.' And yet, through stitching together fabric to make a figurative work like Arched Figure, and stuffing it to the point of tension so that it is nearly bursting at the seams, Bourgeois creates a piece which is unmistakably and inescapably sculptural. By leaving the marks of her making so visible, Bourgeois deliberately draws attention to her artistic processes of cutting and stitching. Discussing Arch of Hysteria (2000), similar work to Arched Figure, Linda Nochlin describes the 'deliberate ferocity of its bad sewing – basting, more accurately.' Nochlin suggests that the figure is 'basted' or tacked in places, rather than carefully machine-sewn. Tacking is a stitch that is intended to be removed, used to attach fabric together temporarily. The impermanence of these very visible stitches in both Arch of Hysteria and Arched Figure draws attention to the figures' existence in the present moment and makes their physical presence all the more insistent. This is in sharp contrast to the earlier Arch of Hysteria (1993), made in bronze, praised by Bourgeois for its 'durability'. Although, as Nochlin points out, the figures are sewn badly, this is a deliberate move. Bourgeois employed a professional seamstress to assist her with her sewn works. She also owned a series of books pertaining to techniques of needlework, including The New Dressmaker (1921), Manuel Methodique et Pratique de Couture et de Coupe (1910), Dritz Guide to Modern Sewing (1964) and Instructions for Using Singer Electric Sewing Machine (undated). Her ownership of these manuals on the practical elements of pattern-cutting and sewing gives some indication of the studied skill which went into these works. Marie-Laure Bernadac proposes that 'for Bourgeois, the art of cutting and stitching is the equivalent of sculpture.' I would argue that cutting and stitching weren't simply an 'equivalent' of sculpture for her, but rather that they constituted a whole new genre of sculptural production.

Louise Bourgeois, Arch of Hysteria, 2000 | JM Art Management
Louise Bourgeois, Arch of Hysteria, 2000


Bourgeois's move to creating sculptures in the fabric at this time is a telling one. In 1999 Bourgeois was 88 years old and just starting on one of the most interesting phases of her artistic output, often revisiting themes from within her existing oeuvre. As Robert Storr remarks, the fabric dolls bring us to a place 'in which the possibilities for changing materials, introducing previously untried technical possibilities, recombining existing symbols, and the imaginative declension of old motifs into fundamentally new ones seems wide open.' This, he writes, is a 'remarkable position' for an artist of her age to be in. To return to old ideas and to remake them in fabric (exchanging bronze for pink flannel, for example) is to draw attention to the gendering inherent in our conceptions of materials, in which hard bronze and marble are seen as traditionally masculine, whilst soft fabric is seen as feminine and as a 'lesser' material. Artistic materials and categories are subject to a gendered hierarchy, which Bourgeois's fabric works both indicate and forcefully subvert. This comes across particularly strongly in relation to hysteria, whose history is steeped in issues of gender, creativity, and representation. Fabric speaks directly to the female condition and to the female body. As Rozsika Parker suggests, 'Bourgeois's work brings out the deeper meanings of textiles' evocation of women' because 'in her work fabric is associated directly with female sexuality, the unconscious and the body.' Fabric's softness and malleability, along with its tactile similarity to the skin (particularly in Bourgeois's pink fabric), associates it both with sensuality and with childhood recollections of maternity and its material comforts, and therefore with the feminine. Fabric's evocation of female bodily experience, therefore, makes it an apt material for the representation and manifestation of the hysterical body, which, for Bourgeois, represents a normal part of female existence.

Bourgeois is a woman artist making works that are inherently and self-assertively 'feminine' in their subject matter, color, and materials. By using sewn fabric as her medium for artistic expression, she is drawing on a long association between women and the craft tradition. The 1970s feminist movement did much to revive interest in female craft traditions as a means of rebellious self-expression, much as it did with hysteria. From the 1970s onwards there was a steady stream of women artists working in fabric using traditional craft techniques within the 'fine art' tradition as a challenge to the dominant privileging of 'masculine' materials and artistic processes. Bourgeois did not start working with fabric until some considerable time after the main thrust of the feminist movement, perhaps allowing her a gap for reflection, echoing that suggested by the relative lateness of her sculptural explorations of hysteria. However, Bourgeois is certainly not the only female artist working with fabric around this time. Glenn Adamson argues that feminism spoke so effectively to the craft discourse because craft constitutes 'the expression of subcultural identities'. He further suggests that 'feminist theory has been important in its contention that craft is best seen as a pervasive, “everyday” activity, implicated in the contingent flux of modern life.' I have already argued that the hysteria embodied by Bourgeois's arched figures is part of lived, everyday female experience, at a remove from the voyeuristic spectacle depicted in earlier representations of hysteria. The quotidian nature of the craft tradition, and its historical role as an important part of female existence, similarly allowed Bourgeois to engage with the 'contingent flux of modern life', as Adamson puts it, despite being drawn from a culture that is centuries old. Adamson defines craft in simple but broad terms, as 'the application of skill and material-based knowledge to relatively small-scale production.' He sees craft as an open discourse and as a part of modern life, in that it is engaged with by contemporary practitioners across a wide range of disciplines and social classes; Bourgeois's relationship to craft is similarly open-ended.

Much of the critical literature on changing perceptions surrounding craft is informed by Rozsika Parker's 1984 book The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. In this seminal work, Parker examines the historical distinction between art and craft and its gendered implications, using embroidery as an example of women's complex relationship with and responses to an art form that has long been closely associated with the feminine. She explores the contradictory forms of embroidery, demonstrating how it has been both a source of pleasurable creativity and oppression. Embroidery has been the means of educating women into the feminine ideal, and of proving that they have attained it – witness the history of samplers, for instance – but it has also proved a weapon of resistance to the painful constraints of femininity. [...] Limited to practicing art with needle and thread, women have nevertheless sewn a subversive stitch, managing to make meanings of their own in the very medium intended to foster polite self-effacement.

Louise Bourgeois | JM Art Management
Louise Bourgeois, Seven in Bed, 2001


Women's relationship with sewing has always been a complicated one. Parker does not present embroidery as an outright act of rebellion, suggesting that it both enforced domestic roles and accepted definitions of femininity, but also simultaneously provided an artistic and discursive space within which women might take the opportunity to express themselves. She argues that 'the art/craft hierarchy suggests that art made with thread and art made with paint are intrinsically unequal: that the former is artistically less significant. But the real differences between the two are in terms of where they are made and who makes them.' That is to say, art made with thread is produced by women in a domestic context (traditionally for a domestic purpose) whilst art forms such as painting and carving are historically usually produced by male artists within studios or the academies.

Louise Bourgeois and her sculptures such as Arched Figure hold a highly unusual position within this discourse. Frances Morris suggests that 'like drawing, [...] sewing involves hand and eye and is simple to accomplish at the kitchen table', where she spent most of her time during the period in which she produced her stuffed fabric figures. These small dolls were produced in the home by an elderly woman, playing to traditional associations between the craft of sewing, the feminine and the domestic.

However, much as the bad stitching belies the sophisticated sculptural technique, the situation is more complex than this. Bourgeois worked from her home throughout her career and had a studio in the basement of her Chelsea brownstone. As Jerry Gorovoy puts it, 'the whole house was a studio. Louise was not into domesticity at all.' Bourgeois combined the home and the studio in a unique way. Photographs of her house after she died to show a tall pyramid of gifts where biscuit tins and whiskey bottles are sculpturally stacked in order of size, much like her fabric pyramidal sculptures such as Untitled (2001). In the basement hang huge dismembered limbs sewn in pink fabric, surrounded by tables covered with spare fabric, spools of thread and domestic items like a radio, a dustpan and an iron, which was presumably used to remove creases from the fabric before she transformed it into sculpture; her sculptural tools during this period are also those used for household chores. Morris has pointed out that although Bourgeois had a studio in Brooklyn from the early 1980s, by the mid-1990s she went there infrequently, being too old for the travel. Working from her kitchen table suited her age, her working method and her type of production. Jerry Gorovoy has confirmed that the dolls were indeed made in her Chelsea townhouse and that they were 'hand-sewn by the artist.' For Bourgeois, whose art is both personal and universal, the spheres of domesticity and artistic production are inherently linked.

In Lucy Lippard's 1978 essay 'Making Something from Nothing', the feminist critic and champion of Bourgeois explore the separations between art and craft, “high” craft and hobby, and how those definitions relate to gender and class. She describes a contemporary revival of 'our mothers', aunts' and grandmothers' activities – not only in the well-publicized areas of quilts and textiles but also in the more random and freer area of transformational rehabilitation.' She suggests that 'on an emotional as well as a practical level, rehabilitation has always been women's work.' This chimes closely with how Bourgeois saw sewing as a sort of emotional 'reparation', whilst also acting in a 'transformational' capacity. Rozsika Parker writes in her introduction to the 2000 reprint of The Subversive Stitch that, had Bourgeois begun working with fabric earlier, she would have been the subject of a good proportion of the final chapter of the book. She suggests that 'her work, to my mind, associates stitching not only with reparation but also with aggression and destruction', comparing this to 'the dual face of embroidery', which acts as a running theme in her book. Lucy Lippard also seems to be speaking presciently to Bourgeois's much later works in fabric. She ends her essay by saying:

It seems all too likely that only in the feminist art world will there be a chance for the “fine” arts, the “minor” arts, “crafts”, and hobby circuits to meet and to develop an art of making with a new and revitalized communicative function. [...] Visual consciousness-raising, concerned as it is now with female imagery and, increasingly, with the female process, still has a long way to go before our visions are sufficiently cleared to see all the arts of making as equal products of a creative impulse which is as socially determined as it is personally necessary.

Louise Bourgeois, Couple IV, 1997 | JM Art Management
Louise Bourgeois, Couple IV, 1997

Fabric, leather, stainless steel and plastic, 20 x 65 x 30 1/2”

Wood and glass Victorian vitrine: 72 x 82 x 43”

Courtesy Cheim & Read, Galerie Karsten Greve, and Hauser & Wirth

Photo: Christopher Burke, © Louise Bourgeois.


At first glance, it would seem that Lippard's vision for a feminist 'Utopian realm' in which all forms of making are considered equal has been realized in Louise Bourgeois. Certainly, her hysterical bodies in the fabric are deeply concerned with the female condition, 'female imagery' and especially 'female process'. Few would claim that they are lesser art forms than her earlier works in various traditional and non-traditional materials; through these varied processes she has created a series of very different works which are generally accepted as 'equal products of a creative impulse.' However, it seems unlikely that Bourgeois would have been able to make and exhibit these works if she didn't have her hugely long career behind her, during which she had worked with almost every available material, including traditionally masculine bronze and marble. She also had the accolades of the artistic world to her name, particularly in her retrospective at MoMA in 1982. She displays Arched Figure in a traditional museum display case, placing her hand-crafted piece within an institutional context, and suggesting that these fabric works exist at a complex intersection between art and craft, feminism and femininity.

Whereas Arch of Hysteria (1992) borrows the anatomy of a grown man, the Arched Figure and Arch of Hysteria in the pink fabric are small, causing them to resemble a child's toy or doll. However, just as the crude, child-like stitching hides a sophisticated sculptural process, the doll-like appearance of the figures brings to our attention, through a jarring juxtaposition, their highly sexual corporeality. They are by no means childlike, with their swollen appendages and their flayed-looking skins.

The soft fabric brings to mind comfort and childhood, but this sensation is also simultaneously destroyed by its ripped and frayed construction. As Bradley Quinn argues, 'as she deconstructs textiles to basic forms, [Bourgeois] intentionally subverts the soothing tranquillity traditionally associated with textiles.' The softness of the fabric seems to invite a haptic encounter and sensations of touch are evoked, but the dolls are simultaneously somehow repulsive. With their psychically-charged presence, they feel reminiscent of dolls used in therapeutic play. Many of Melanie Klein's psychoanalytic theories stem from her ideas about play therapy for children. She stated 'my work with both children and adults, and my contributions to psychoanalytic theory as a whole, derive ultimately from the playing technique evolved by young children.'

Bourgeois knew Klein's work well, as Mignon Nixon explicates, and even considered becoming a child psychologist herself during the 1960s. In-play therapy, dolls allow children to reveal their unconscious through play, much in the way that free association works for adults; Klein wanted to be able to analyze children as she analyzed adults, using toys to allow the child the express their imaginative unconscious. In more directive forms of play therapy, dolls allow children to act out scenarios that might be too embarrassing or confusing to verbalize and are particularly (although sometimes controversially) used to help children express their experiences of sexual abuse.

Louise Bourgeois, Oedipus, 2003 | JM Art Management
Louise Bourgeois, Oedipus, 2003

By Courtesy Cheim & Read and Hauser & Wirth

Photograph: Christopher Burke


Dolls for the therapeutic play currently in circulation range from anatomically-detailed plastic babies, to clothed wooden 'families', to soft and malleable 'cuddly' figures. Many of these bear little resemblance to Bourgeois's dolls, but these latter soft figures are certainly comparable.

Eva-Maria Simms points out that 'in the history of psychotherapy the doll of play therapy has become the “anatomically correct doll” in recent years, and the controversy rages over whether these dolls are an appropriate tool for discerning sexual abuse in children.' She goes on to say that here 'the focus is on the doll as a representation of the sexual body which allows the child's play to enact (or imagine?) sexual relationships symbolically, and allows the therapist to discern precocious and disturbed sexual knowledge in the child.' The dolls of play therapy are 'representations of the sexual body' (at all ages) but not of the sexualized adult body in the way that Bourgeois's fabric figures are. The company Teach- A-Bodies sells play therapy dolls which are around the same size as Bourgeois's figures. They are made from 'a polyester knit and stuffed with polyfill which makes them soft and cuddly' and comes wearing simple modern clothes. However, on removing the clothes, the adult couple's bodies are found to be fully sexual; the male dolls are designed with 'chest hair, underarm hair, pubic hair and a circumcised penis' whilst the female dolls have a 'clitoris, underarm hair, pubic hair, and vaginal opening.' An additional pack including a 'baby in utero with attached umbilical cord and placenta' can also be purchased; these fabric fetuses look strikingly similar to some of Bourgeois's works, which frequently feature babies which are external to the mother's body but still attached with an umbilical cord. To the adult mind, these therapy dolls are rather terrifying; their softness, intended to make them 'cuddly', seems at odds with the anatomically-correct, if rather sterile, the sexuality of the doll hidden beneath its clothes. Bourgeois's dolls, by contrast, do not hide their sexuality. Indeed they do not seem to hide anything: their whole process of making is visible in their 'skins'. Their intended audience is, of course, made up of adults rather than children. They simply touch and a tactile encounter but they are not actually intended to be touched or played with. The softness that is necessary in the dolls to entice the child to play with them in the first place is, in Bourgeois's works, rather an evocation of childhood and of a psychically-charged and personal past in which dolls held a great significance.

The therapy dolls, like Bourgeois's, are attractive and repulsive at the same time. The doll must be something to which the child can relate and onto which she/he can project her/his imagination. However, because the doll is intended to be used as a form of catharsis, it must also be something the child can ultimately reject and abandon after memories, experiences and unconscious imaginings have been played out. Alex Potts and Eva-Maria Simms both explore the psychological significance of dolls through the writings of Rainer Maria Rilke. For Rilke, the doll is something frightening. The child pours love and a projected personality onto the doll, only to find after a time that it will never respond. As Potts puts it,

The doll anger because, after presenting itself as another being that can respond without reserve to us, it stands revealed in its “soulless and utterly irresponsible material”, an alien and indifferent. As such, it alienates us from ourselves: “We could not make a person or anything of it,” explains Rilke, “it became a stranger to us, and all the confidences we had poured into and over it became foreign to us.”'

Louise Bourgeois | JM Art Management
Louise Bourgeois, Couple, 2004


Rilke sees the doll as the first thing to subject on the child the terrors of the larger universe, and as a reminder of death: 'At a time when everyone was still intent on giving us a quick reassuring answer, the doll was the first to inflict on us that tremendous silence (larger than life) which was later to come to us repeatedly out of space, whenever we approached the frontiers of our existence.' The doll is unsettling, both known and unknown, living and dead. Simms further suggests that the doll's 'unresponsiveness' simultaneously 'supports and destroys the imaginative reality of the child's play.' The child both reaches out to the other being embodied in the doll and is also forced to examine him/herself, recognizing that the make-believe is self-derived. For the adult viewer, being faced with one of Bourgeois's dolls provokes a similar moment of simultaneous reaching out to the other and introspection induced by its unresponsiveness.

Potts argues that the paradoxical attitude towards the doll explicated by Rilke is one that can be applied to a viewer's experience when faced with a piece of sculpture. This 'contradictory response to sculpture [...] is one that alternates uncomfortably between the sense of identification we have when we see sculpture as a charged auratic presence, and the sense of alienation that results when it is exposed as the ordinary inert object it literally is.' Bourgeois's works, as both insistently sculptural and insistently doll-like, doubly embody this idea of simultaneous identification and alienation. Their 'charged presence' is undeniable, as their similarity to (and distance from) the female body in a state of distress imbues them with a power which is both psychical and physical. Potts further argues that 'convincing sculpture thus can only come into being by enacting a radical contradiction within its very processes of production – the sculptor has by some impossible imaginative leap to transform the petty materiality of the well-made luxury object into the auratic charge of the true work of art.' This is interesting in relation to Bourgeois's Arched Figure or Arch of Hysteria since the 'auratic charge' of these works arguably lies in the very 'petty materiality' of a sculpture which is ostensibly neither a 'luxury object' nor appears to be 'well-made'. Nevertheless, there remains a complex and paradoxical issue at the heart of these works. As sculptures they teeter between being 'ordinary inert objects' and being actively 'charged auratic presences', raising questions about their process and deeply challenging conceptions of the sculptural object. As dolls, they occupy a similar threshold, on which the viewer remains unsure whether they are best seen as identifiable personages relating a shared experience, or as indifferent and unresponsive matter, the screaming open mouth of Arched Figure conveying that empty 'tremendous silence' which so terrified Rilke. Hanging in the air, displaced in their environments, they hover uncomfortably between sensations of childhood and adulthood, between nursery plaything and sculptural objects.

Bourgeois's dolls, such as Arched Figure and Arch of Hysteria, offer up the possibility that they can act, intentionally or otherwise, as a form of therapy. Their resemblance to people and their stripped-down appearance, undifferentiated in terms of cultural indicators such as hair and clothes, allows them to receive the imagined projections of the viewer; like the dolls of play therapy, they seem to be presented as sites for psychic encounters. The visibility of their stitching raises the possibility that their production also acted as a form of therapy for the artist. Of course, as I have already suggested, not even if we had a record of every word ever spoken by the artist could we really know whether or not this was the case. Nonetheless, whether used specifically as the tools of play therapy or as the contents of an ordinary toy box, dolls act as surrogates for emotions, providing a form of catharsis at various levels. Bourgeois's dolls, in their highly adult physicality and their presentation in a museum context, offer up the possibility that they can act with a similar sort of surrogacy; in particular, I believe, as a surrogate therapy for hysteria, which the dolls suggest by their nominal and formal references to the condition. This is, of course, problematic because of hysteria's varied symptoms and its not- currency as a contemporary diagnosis; it is also impossible to be certain whether this therapy is intended for the artist or the viewer, or both. Nevertheless, the dolls offer a version of hysteria enacted. I do not mean this in the two-dimensional theatrical sense, as exhibited by Charcot's and Surrealism's version of hysteria; rather, the viewer is presented with a sculptural and bodily manifestation of hysteria, which is both psychically charged and physically recognizable. The simultaneous sense of identification and alienation elicited by these sculptures makes the process of viewing them cathartic, in which the viewer can both identify and reject the symptoms of a hysterical tendency.

Louise Bourgeois | JM Art Management
Louise Bourgeois


Over the last fifteen years of her life, Bourgeois made, by my calculation, around 50 doll-like figures in fabric. Ten of these works relate directly to hysteria, either titularly or because they are representations of arched figures. Many others depict further aspects of female bodily experience, such as sex and childbirth: there are twelve which represent copulating couples and seven which are concerned with pregnancy, childbirth or a mother and child. Several of the works which are not ostensibly about the condition nevertheless seem to make a formal reference to the arching body of hysteria which so fascinated Bourgeois. For example, in Do Not Abandon Me (1999) Bourgeois presents a representation of a woman giving birth, arching her back as she does so, in the same pink fabric and bold stitching as her Arched Figure and Arch of Hysteria, made around the same time. For Bourgeois, the female body in extremis, whether in hysteria or childbirth, is a lived part of the bodily experience of being a woman. Indeed hysteria (etymologically connected to the womb) is a 'normal' accompaniment to the facts of female existence, such as maternity, as we have seen. Simone de Beauvoir similarly notes the innately hysterical nature of the female body particularly in the context of female experiences such as sexual initiation, menstruation, and pregnancy. It is this distinctly female body, of sensual sexuality, pregnancy, and maternity, that Bourgeois employs to represent her hysteric in these later works. As for manifestations of the elision of psychic states with their bodily signifiers, these works are intensely powerful; hysteria, with its symptoms which have no physical origin, provided Bourgeois with a subject through which to address these inescapable anatomical destinies of being a woman.

Over the course of her career, Bourgeois drew on two fundamentally different models of hysteria. The first is embodied in her 1992-93 works, Cell (Arch of Hysteria) and Arch of Hysteria, and is more traditionally sculptural both in its heritage and in its execution and materials. It is connected to the voyeurism and theatrical visuality of the photographs of hysterics taken at the Salpêtrière under Jean-Martin Charcot, which defined how hysteria was viewed for much of the twentieth century. Bourgeois accessed this version of hysteria through her connections with the Surrealists and with psychoanalysis. The other model of hysteria, with which she engages through her later fabric works, makes use of alternative means of production which are the connection to the domestic, the doll and a gendered craft tradition. In this version, hysteria is a condition that involves a deep-seated and lived bodiliness. It relates to a much wider vision, concerning the fundamental physical functions of being a woman. Hysteria in this form has its source in various channels; it comes from Simone de Beauvoir and the feminist movement and the active application of psychoanalysis in therapy, particularly in play therapy. It also stems from Bourgeois's own personal experiences of being a 'hysterical' woman, in her roles as artist, wife, and mother. It is this latter model that provides Bourgeois with the freedom to begin making sculptural works in an anti-sculptural material (fabric) and to raise powerful questions concerning the nature of the sculptural object. By using traditionally feminine methods of production to explore the female body in extremis in this way, Bourgeois problematizes the representation of the female body and invites the viewer to consider the inevitable lived bodily experiences of women. Through these fabric works, Bourgeois opens and contributes to a discourse in which representations of the female body can be identified with and understood through the sculptural and material terms of their making, allowing new questions to be asked about women as viewers, as viewed subjects, as bodies, and as artists.

Louise Bourgeois | JM Art Management
Louise Bourgeois

"Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented - which is what fear and anxiety do to a person - into something whole."

Louise Joséphine Bourgeois

Dec 25, 1911 - May 31, 2010

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© Anna Souter, 2014 |


JM Art Management


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