Why the world needs to be a bit more hysterical

Cell (Arch of Hysteria) (1992-1993). Steel, bronze, cast iron, and fabric 




Cell (Arch of Hysteria) (1992-1993) represents the enduringly persistent yet patient voice of the 80 year old feminist artist, Louise Bourgeois. Bourgeois utilises the human body to illustrate her own memories, traumas and emotions in pursuit of cathartic relief, her personal motto being that 'Until the past is negated by the present, we do not live.' This resolute process of self-exploration during an era of patriarchal, removed, and philosophical art challenged both the validity of autobiographical art, and on a larger scale, the validity of being an emotional being within a logical world. Bourgeois' Arch of Hysteria depicts a male hysteric, challenging the historical stereotype of the hysterical female; enslaved by her emotional body, while the male is able to transcend this connection in the pursuit of logic and reason. Feeding off the symbolic value of hysteria, the work literally embodies a long suffered battle for the recognition and re-evaluation of emotion. 

The motif of the hysterical arch was repeated throughout Bourgeois' work through the 90s into the early 2000s, and Arch of Hysteria 1993-1994 was among the first of her bodies that she subjected to such a position. The work itself is a part of her Cell series that was exhibited in the travelling exhibition Locus of Memory. Upon walking into the steel panelled cell, one encounters a headless bronze cast of a thin nude male arched upwards at the navel laid out on a narrow bed with the white sheets. Upon the sheets, the French expression je t'aime (I love you) is hand-painted more than 80 times in red. This recital is described by Bourgeois as being her 'punishment' when she made a mistake in primary school.  Witness to the scene, a looming antique band saw stands ominously at the side of the figure. The figure, the steel panels and the band saw set a cold, grey, green colour palate, broken only by the red of the strangely tragic expression of love staining the bed sheets.

The success of this work is in the correlation and relationship between the different objects. On a material level, the interest is in the cold, hard surfaces of the steel walls, band saw, and bronze figure, juxtaposed with the soft bed sheets with their sentimental message. The innocent functionality of the band saw is transformed in the enclosed space into some sort of medieval torture device next to the agonised figure. Even the battered walls of the cell suggest a narrative of violent escape attempts. By enticing the viewer into the cell, Bourgeois succeeds in physically imprisoning them within her nightmarish scenario, as both witnesses and unwilling participants.

Bourgeois was born in 1911 in Paris to a middle class family in the business of tapestry sales, repairs and adjustments. She loved her parents, her mother especially, and learnt to draw by designing patterns for damaged tapestry. Bourgeois was not however a normal child, as suggested by Ulf Küster, she must have realised from an early age that her keen perception of the world was beyond that of her playmates.= She would keep diaries of her experiences, a habit that continued throughout her life, and it was perhaps in this way that she was able to hold onto childhood memories and nightmares and use them in her art over half a century later. Throughout her writings she repetitively claims that her greatest childhood trauma, and in turn, inspiration was her father's 10 year affair with Bourgeois' stay-in governess during Bourgeois' youth. The torment of the young artist's existence became her knowing mother's silence on the subject right up until her young death in 1932. Bourgeois took her mother's revenge against her father upon herself, which ultimately manifested itself in her art. This revenge is seen in cornerstone works such as Destruction of the Father 1974 in which Bourgeois constructs an installation showing a scene in which she appears to have had dismembered and devoured her father on the dining room table. From this childhood, the themes of Arch of Hysteria 1992-1993 emerge; an interest in self-exploration and analysis, a feminist voice, and an emotional foundation that supports the next 80 years of her artistic career.

Out of school, Bourgeois initially studied mathematics for their 'unchanging rules' and patterns, but she soon turned to art as a way of moving forward from her troubled past. She studied at many of the major art schools in Paris until she met her future husband, American Art historian Robert Goldwater and moved to New York with him the next year. Bourgeois' life in New York throughout the later half of the early 20th century and the entirety of the second half into the 21st century was vitally important to her artistic development. New York from the 1940s to 2010, the year of Bourgeois' death, was home to many of the greatest artistic minds and developments of the century. But despite the frenzy of different artistic movements around her, Bourgeois stayed true to her autobiographical, cathartic art often utilising the human body in a way that was both conceptually and physically very different to that of her fellow, often male, artists. Art curator Ulf Küster describes her as “the link between modern art and contemporary art” accrediting her with the injection of emotion and narrative into modern art.

In her almost exclusive use of emotion and memory as her artistic medium, Bourgeois supported a growing notion of the validity of existing as an emotional being, as opposed to the perfectly rational and logical male stereotype that both men and women alike were to aspire to. The wing of feminism that developed during the first half of Bourgeois life was based on the male's argument that women were too emotional to be fit to run public life. The result was that women would attempt to bury their emotional nature in order to be accepted into male society as equals. Bourgeois' work supports the counter argument to this claim, being that men are too unemotional to be fit to run public life. Suggesting that it is therefore unnecessary and damaging for both men and women to ignore emotion, and contrarily important to embrace and understand its benefits. Within art, these ideas started to become explored in the work of the abstract expressionists and into the work of feminist artists towards the end of the 20th century. Autobiographical artists working during the 90s such as British artist Tracy Emin, express their memories and emotions in remarkably similar ways to Bourgeois who was working similarly over half a century earlier. Bourgeois was working far beyond her time, and it is unsurprising that the moment the art world catches up with her around the 1960s and 70s coincides with her long awaited recognition as a cornerstone 20th century artist.

In her own way, Bourgeois was born a feminist artist, a reaction to the Freudian-like experiences she had with her mother and father during her childhood. Bourgeois was well read in the theories of psychoanalysis and underwent over 30 years of psychological treatment herself. One can see connections between Bourgeois motifs within her work Destruction of the Father and even her dismembered penises with Freud's theories. However, perhaps most importantly, Bourgeois' style of working similarly to Freud's 'talking cure' in which she unearths and faces her deepest anxieties in her art, reveals the closest relationship the artist has with the infamous psychoanalyst. However, despite these strong connections, both Bourgeois and Freud felt they could do little for one another. Bourgeois admitting, 'the truth is that Freud did nothing for artists, or for the artist's torment.'  She seemed to feel as if the artist was beyond the help of Freud's theories. For Bourgeois, who embraced he pain to fuel her art, torment was something to be utilised, not destroyed. Freud seems to accept this shortcoming in his work, admitting, 'before the problem of the creative artist, psychoanalysis must lay down its arms.'

Bourgeois explored a handful of reoccurring motifs during her artistic career; houses, genitals, needles, falling, dissection, fear, and even spiders; but they were all in some way connected to the human body, which was ultimately Bourgeois' supreme means of expression. Hysteria was another of these motifs that appeared later in her work. Bourgeois identified herself as a 'self-confessed' hysteric and used the image of the 'arch' of the hysteric body as historical way of depicting pure, unrestrained emotion, agony, fear, frustration. Historically, hysteria was seen as an exclusively female malady. It was a very popular diagnosis during the 19th century for a wide variety of illnesses  thought to be caused by the Grecian notion of a free-roaming womb causing havoc randomly throughout the body in its sexual frustration. Many of the symptoms associated with this now discredited illness included perverse sexual desires, irrational anger and frustration, and strong, unrestrained emotion. Such behaviour that we now see to be a natural component of a human being's existence, especially justified considering the constrained circumstances women found themselves in during the 19th century. Feminist artist's such as Bourgeois  have been working off this mine of patriarchal misjudgement for decades, and for Bourgeois, the hysterical figure seemed to become a symbol of the importance of emotion. A symbol of the validity of being an emotional being despite the patriarchal definition of emotion as a disease to be cured. Perhaps equally important is Bourgeois' use of a male to depict the hysteric body, from which suddenly emotion is a human condition, not the part of a female that makes her less than a man. Louise Argon and Andre Breton seem to respect this idea stating,  “Hysteria is not a pathological phenomenon, and can, in all respects, be considered as a supreme means of expression.”

In Cell (Arch of Hysteria) Bourgeois embraces and celebrates the feelings of pain, fear, and anxiety, whilst revealing their irrevocable connection to love through the soft, je t'aime bed sheets below the agonised figure. Both the male and female viewer is invited upon entering Bourgeois’ cell to reflect upon the existence and the importance of the connection between the mind, body and heart.  The concoction of emotions in Arch of Hysteria represents Bourgeois' own personal emotional palette, but also presents the viewer with the basic components of the emotional conflict every human enjoys and suffers everyday of their lives. Bourgeois represents a feminist that supports the important re-assessment of both male and female stereotypes. Such a reflection can be confronting, as artist Adrian Piper describes his experience with Bourgeois’ work as physically and psychologically uncomfortable” but it is only through this discomfort that Bourgeois allows the viewer to experience her long sought after catharsis alongside her.



"Collections: Arch of Hysteria 1993." National Gallery of Canada. https://www.gallery.ca/en/see/collections/artwork.php?mkey=100798 (accessed August 28, 2013).

Griffiths, Morwenna, and Whitford, Margaret. "Feminism, feelings, and philosophy." &nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; In <em>Feminist perspectives in philosophy</em>. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. 131-151.

Jones, Jonothan. "Tracy was here." <em>The Guardian</em> 5 Aug. 2008: n. pag. <em>The Guardian</em>. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.

Joseph-Lowery, Frédérique. "Louise Bourgeois - artnet Magazine." Fine Art, Decorative Art, and Design - The Art World Online: artnet. http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/lowery/louise-bourgeois6-15-10.asp (accessed October 11, 2013).&nbsp;

Küster, Ulf. <em>Louise Bourgeois</em>. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011.

Kotik, Charlotta (Ed). Sultan, Terrie (Ed), and&nbsp; Leigh, Christian, (Ed). <em>Louise Bourgeois: the locus of memory, works 1982-1993</em>. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1994.

”Louise Bourgeois” - Interview with the curator Dr. Ulf Küster”You Tube video 6:00, Posted by Beyler Foundation Video, 13 Oct, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHE6JY3-vug

Patience, Kaitlyn (2011). "Hysterical Spaces: Curatorship and Meaning in the       Traveling Exhibition: A Case Study of the National Gallery of Canada’s “Hysteria and             The Body.”. Shift, Queen's Journal of Visual and Material Culture 3: pp. 1-23.

Raven, Arlene. "On The Issues Magazine: Fall 1994: Louise Bourgeois' Feminist Art by Arlene Raven." On The Issues Magazine The Progressive Woman's Magazine Winter 2013: We are all Savita. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2013. <http://www.ontheissuesmagazine.com/1994fall

Turner, Christopher. "Analysing Louise Bourgeois: art, therapy and Freud." <em>The &nbsp;&nbsp; Guardian</em> (Sydney), April 7, 2012, sec. Culture. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/apr/06/louise-bourgeois-freud?&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; newsfeed=true (accessed August 30, 2013).

Xenakis, Mâkhi, and Louise Bourgeois. Louise Bourgeois: the blind leading the blind. Arles: Actes Sud ;, 2008, pp.21