Louise Bourgeois, Arched Figure
“Bourgeois was no stranger to suffering. Her father inflicted it on her in many ways, yet even though she could inflict it on those near to her just as wilfully and pitilessly, in Louise’s case regret always followed, whereas in that of Louis, so far as we can tell, it never did. Against that background, the most extreme of Bourgeois’s tormented dolls are an exercise in projecting ingrained anxiety about possible violation and abuse and channelling her cruellest retaliatory impulses into surrogates rather than acting them out on real people.”
Louise Bourgeois’s Arched Figure belongs to a group of important works focused on the psychological phenomenon of hysteria: a nervous condition identified in the Nineteenth Century by French neurologist Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot which bore unexplainable and often violent physical symptoms. With its name taken from the Greek word for womb, ‘hysterika’, hysteria was identified as inherently female in nature. As strikingly captured in a line drawing from Charcot’s studies at the Parisian insane asylum at Pitié-Salpêtière Hospital, the famous trope of the ‘hysterical body’ – a convulsing figure with a pronounced arching back – would become a motif of central importance in Bourgeois’s oeuvre. Its first appearance can be traced to Cell III of 1991; an installation which features a small marble figure, whose arched back and long flowing hair is based on images from the archive at Salpêtière. In subsequent variants on the theme, however, Bourgeois would, to quote art historian Robert Storr, “turn the tables on tradition” (R. Storr, Intimate Geometries: The Art and Life of Louise Bourgeois, London 2016, p. 522).
“Bourgeois effectively thrust Charcot’s pseudo-scientific iconography back in the face of patriarchal power, in the process simultaneously disowning it in the form that she had received it and remaking it as a way of empowering women.”
In Cell (Arch of Hysteria) (1992-93) and the emblematic bronze Arch of Hysteria (1993), Bourgeois cast her studio assistant Jerry Gorovoy as the works' headless arching forms. The latter is one of Bourgeois’s most recognised sculptures; a gleaming Brancusi-esque figure that forms an endless golden loop, suspended mid-air. Here, Bourgeois playfully inverts the sexual politics of Charcot’s, and later Freud’s, prejudicially gendered explanation of hysteria. As Storr writes: “Bourgeois effectively thrust Charcot’s pseudo-scientific iconography back in the face of patriarchal power, in the process simultaneously disowning it in the form that she had received it and remaking it as a way of empowering women” (Ibid., p. 523). Created a decade later, however, the present work returns the hysterical arch to the female realm, and subverts it further still.
Contra to the continuous loop of hard shining bronze of Arch of Hysteria (1993), the soft female body of Arched Figure – armless, stuffed and stitched together from pink gingham fabric – exudes a home-spun quality associated with the typically ‘feminine’ pastime of sewing and mending. The essential aesthetic difference between these works – one a male body articulated in pristine polished bronze and the other an ungainly rag doll of stuffed pink chequered cotton – suggests an alternate reading of the politics at stake within the male/female dynamic of hysteria. Bourgeois’s use of materials and facture here serves to underline that for women hysteria was a symptom of psychological deviance or deficit, while in men, the same behaviour has been perceived as something, akin to an appreciation of the gleaming acrobatic Arch of Hysteria, to be cherished and venerated. Once again, like the amorphous plaster and latex works of the 1960s, Bourgeois’s unwieldy fabric body both defies and undermines the purity of modernist forms and classical archetypes of beauty, as well as presenting deviant femininity in all its glory.
Bourgeois’s interest in hysteria finds precedent in the work of the Surrealists who were fascinated by Charcot and his performative and visual approach to studying mental illness. The back-breaking hysterical arch can be found in works by Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí, while Breton wrote that “beauty will be convulsive or not at all” in his second book Nadja: An account of a one-side affair with a hysteric (A. Breton quoted in: R. Storr, Intimate Geometries: The Art and Life of Louise Bourgeois, London 2016, p. 520). What’s more, the present work, alongside the disconcerting rag dolls which Bourgeois began making towards the end of the 1990s, echo the stuffed-fabric sculptures made by Surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning in the mid-1960s. Rather than a question of influence, however, the similar use of fabric and sewing speaks to concerns that are both feminine in nature and linked to old age production. Indeed, in contrast to the Surrealists whose works exoticized the female hysteric, and Tanning’s anatomical aberrations in streamlined soft form, Bourgeois’s unwieldy and macabre rag-dolls invoke an overriding sense of pain and suffering – a pronounced trait of the artist’s late work.
Like uncanny children’s toys taken out of the context of play, these works hark back to the Bourgeois family’s Aubusson tapestry business and her mother’s craft of tapestry repair. Far from the fine-detail and expert precision of tapestry sewing however, these works are mangled, clumsy and violent in their execution. Using a vocabulary associated with the artist’s childhood yet aberrant and tinged with the pain caused by her father’s philandering and belittling behaviour, these works embody pain as a vehicle for exorcizing it. As Storr outlines: “Bourgeois was no stranger to suffering. Her father inflicted it on her in many ways, yet even though she could inflict it on those near to her just as wilfully and pitilessly, in Louise’s case regret always followed, whereas in that of Louis, so far as we can tell, it never did. Against that background, the most extreme of Bourgeois’s tormented dolls are an exercise in projecting ingrained anxiety about possible violation and abuse and channelling her cruellest retaliatory impulses into surrogates rather than acting them out on real people” (Ibid., p. 532). Presenting a departure from the traditional materials of bronze and marble used in earlier iterations of the arch of hysteria motif, Arched Figure invokes the regressive impetus of the artist’s powerful and celebrated body of ‘Old Age’ work. Created when the artist was in her eighties, the gnarled, clumsy stitches of Arched Figure weave emotional remembrance with psychoanalytical theory, Surrealist imagery and gender politics to create a work of myriad allusion and emblematic status.