Suspended with impossible, ethereal weightlessness before the viewer, the gleaming figure of Arch of Hysteria is amongst the most exquisite embodiments of the essential drives which run at the very core of Louise Bourgeois’ celebrated artistic practice. Within the taut musculature and expressive pose of the bronze figure, internal states of being achieve tangible and compelling form as, with deft mastery, Bourgeois transforms the human body itself into her medium. Conceived in 1993 and cast in an edition of six plus one artist's proof in varying patinas the following year, the present work is one of only four examples remaining in private hands, in addition to examples held in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Hakone Open-Air Museum of Japan, and the artist’s Easton Foundation in New York. Further testifying to the significance of Arch of Hysteria, an example of the sculpture has been included in virtually every major exhibition of the artist’s work over the past two decades, including the celebrated 2007—2009 retrospective Louise Bourgeois, organized by the Tate Modern in London and traveling to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. and, more recently, the widely acclaimed exhibition Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A pristine totem to the beauty of the human form, Arch of Hysteria is heir to a celebrated sculptural legacy that stretches back centuries; while the anatomical perfection of her figure invokes such sculptures as Michelangelo’s David or Rodin’s The Kiss, however, the gleaming bronze of Arch of Hysteria is emphatically modern, recalling the mirrored surfaces and sleek minimalism of Brancusi’s Bird in Space or Donald Judd's stacks. Achieving classical beauty within the purified vernacular of Contemporary art, Arch of Hysteria transcends precedent to stand as irrefutable testament to the unparalleled beauty and profound power of Bourgeois’ sculptural practice.
Arched to an extremity that belies its lithe grace, the curved figure of Arch of Hysteria achieves the powerful geometric allure of abstract form: beginning with the hands, the eye can follow the curving arms upward into nimble shoulders, over articulated ribs and taut navel, and down the arc of the legs to finally rest upon the delicately flexed toes, mere inches from the outstretched fingertips. Within the bronze form, Bourgeois describes the subtle nuances of the human body with extraordinary specificity, rendering every curve, pucker, and rib with painstaking intention. Describing the irresistible allure of Arch of Hysteria, critic Diane Armitrage comments: “It’s beautiful and mysterious and can engage you simply on a superficial level because the treatment of the bronze is so richly attended to. For this headless, arched body, Bourgeois has chosen a gold patina that also incorporates a spectrum of metallic hues… depending on the viewing angle and the time of day, light from two windows illuminates the subtle display of human veins, distended ribs, and the delicate musculature of Bourgeois’ model.” (Exh. Cat., Milan, Fondazione Prada, Louise Bourgeois: Blue Days and Pink Days, 1997, p. 214) The ethereal suspension of the work lays testament to Bourgeois’ dexterous mastery of her materials: hovering level with the viewer’s gaze, the weightless delicacy of the form seems impossible given the hardened sheen of the bronze cast. Eschewing the canonical sculptural base, Arch of Hysteria is tethered only to the ceiling, imbuing the upturned figure with a sense of movement and implied vulnerability. Arching skyward, the curved figure before us appears have been paused in the midst of divine ascension and, as if grazed with a Midas touch, transformed from flesh to gold in a single moment.
As apt to collapse as to take flight, the acute tension of Bourgeois’ cambered figure imbues the sleek sculptural form with unprecedented emotive intensity. Typifying the very best of the artist’s prodigious output, the arched body acts as corporeal catharsis, a subconscious interior made outward, a physical reconciliation of psychic forces. One scholar describes: “As a form in space, this Arch of Hysteria is dynamic and fluid, yet also fraught… Walking around and around this body, I think of the artist and her fearless ability to plunge into her own undercurrents of turgid emotions.” (Ibid., p. 214) In title and theme, the present work refers to the work of Jean-Martin Charcot, a nineteenth-century French neurologist best known for his pioneering work on ‘hysteria;’ a nervous condition primarily associated with women, hysteria described the physical manifestation of psychological trauma and neuroses within the female body. The artist first explored the theme of the ‘hysterical’ body in an elaborate installation titled Cell (Arch of Hysteria), presented at the Venice Biennale in 1993, in which the arched figure is enclosed within an ominous steel vault as reminder of the inescapable nature of emotional and psycho-sexual drives. Conceived the same year, the elegant simplicity of Arch of Hysteria distills the formal ambivalence of the earlier installation to its essential conflict and, indeed, to the very crux of Bourgeois’ practice: the vital link between conceptual forces and corporeal form. Describing her inquiry in terms highly reminiscent of the present work, Bourgeois asks: “When does the emotional become physical? When does the physical become emotional? It’s a circle going round and round.” (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, The Body Transformed, 2003, p. 18) Within Arch of Hysteria, Bourgeois creates an impassioned figure that is, both visibly and metaphorically, suspended between gendered dualities; cast from the body of the artist's longtime studio assistant and friend Jerry Gorovoy, the present work subverts Charcot’s antiquated diagnosis of the female body as inherently neurotic by activating the male body as sculptural expression of this psychoanalytic narrative. Totemic and profound, the hovering golden figure is truly ambiguous, its graceful form eluding clear distinction to instead encapsulate the universal potency of the individualized human experience. Curator Deborah Wye reflects, “The work of art serves a psychological function for Bourgeois, for she believes that making art is the process of giving tangible form to, and thus exorcising, the gripping, subconscious states of being… By fulfilling this function, Bourgeois’ art achieves emotional intensity. She captures those exorcised feelings in her work and thereby animates it.” (Deborah Wye, “Louise Bourgeois: ‘One and Others,’ in Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Louise Bourgeois, 1982, p. 14) In its activation of the essential human form as manifestation of greater truths, the bronze figure of the present work falls within the sculptural tradition that links such icons as Michelangelo to Rodin, Giacometti to Brancusi, Arp to Judd; yet alongside these storied predecessors, the exquisite form of Arch of Hysteria seems at once more delicate and invincible, emphatic and elusive, sensuous and abstract than any single forebear. Describing the unique and unprecedented power of a Bourgeois sculpture, Wye concludes: “In comparison, however, her work does not seem so generalized, idealized, or otherworldly. Instead, it is specific, quirky, and individualistic. It provides an encounter rather than an object to contemplate. Instead of experiencing an essence or the sublime, we find in it a strikingly poignant and authentic reminder of our humanity.” (Deborah Wye, “Louise Bourgeois: ‘One and Others,’ in Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Louise Bourgeois, 1982, p. 33)
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