Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art

Article excerpt

MIGNON NIXON Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005. 352 pp.; 103 b/w ills. $40.00

Suicide. Madness. Institutionalization. Accident. Illness. The biographies of many of the women artists associated with and influenced by Surrealism contain a litany of tragedies-think of Kay Sage, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Francesca Woodman, Eva Hesse, and Yayoi Kusama. Art historians recite these bleak details over and over like incantations, willing them to help us make sense of the unsetding power of these artists' works. We plunder their lives (or untimely deaths) to give shape to their art. Perhaps for women, Surrealism's emphasis on repetition and fantasy provided a resource for working through trauma. Yet recourse to the biographical is disproportionately pressed on these female artists, particularly the presumed intimacy between their art practice and their fraught personal circumstances.

What to do, then, with an artist like Louise Bourgeois, who, despite her share of sadness, suffering, and struggle, is still sane and thriving well into her nineties? Mignon Nixon's beautiful and provocative new monograph Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modem Art makes the case that neither Surrealism-which the artist herself disavowed-nor biography are sufficient singular lenses for understanding Bourgeois's art. Neither, though, does Nixon think either term should be completely discarded. Billed as the "first full-scale critical study" of Bourgeois's work, Fantastic Reality posits an interplay between art and psychoanalysis without reductively psychoanalyzing the artist. When Nixon turns to the question of trauma, she does so not out of a morbid fascination with an artist's early demise that then gives sharp focus to the short career preceding it (as is seen in much writing on Woodman). Instead, she explores the significance of the death drive at the beginning rather than at the end of life: that is, within infantile subject formation as delineated by the pioneering object-relations psychoanalyst Melanie Klein.

While Bourgeois's art has been subject to feminist psychoanalytic readings, informed by Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and Luce Irigaray, Nixon's pioneering book asserts that her art is above all Kleinian.1 As Nixon points out, Bourgeois herself was steeped in the practical and theoretical ramifications of Klein's work. In fact, in the mid-1960s, she considered becoming a child analyst; Nixon persuasively makes the case that "Bourgeois's investigation of child analysis with the intention of becoming a therapist consistently informs the development of her art" (p. 7). Nixon does not force a Kleinian template onto Bourgeois's objects; instead, she presents a lucid dialogue between the art and the theory, explicating resonances between Klein's influential theories about childhood aggression and the artworks, while also using the artist's practice as a springboard for her extended meditations on Klein's case studies. She suggests that the art "extends, and at times contests" the vast but neglected theoretical terrain of child psychoanalysis (p. 6). In Nixon's deft text, Bourgeois's work talks back to the theory and furnishes a powerful discursive tool for understanding Klein.

The conversation between Klein and Bourgeois clarifies, in particular, the sculptural element of Bourgeois's work (though Nixon does not limit herself to Bourgeois's sculptural practice, looking also at drawings, performance documentation, personal photographs, photo-and-text magazine projects, engravings, and installations). Bourgeois herself has remarked on the familial origins of her sculpture: "Once we were sitting together at the table, I took white bread, mixed it with spit, and molded a figure of my father. When the figure was done, I started cutting off the limbs with a knife. I see this as my first sculptural solution" (p. 265). While Nixon lets this brief anecdote hover in her text without further explication (these are the concluding sentences of her final chapter), it perfectly encapsulates her overarching premise about the centrality of aggressive play within Bourgeois's art. …