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March 20, 2012

Museum Fleuri

I attended the Louise Bourgeois day conference last weekend at the Courtauld Institute of Art organized by the Freud Museum in London to accompany its current exhibition: Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed, curated by Phillip Larratt-Smith.

Mignon Nixon, professor of Art History at Courtauld read a paper which explored, among other works, Bourgeois’ 1968 Bronze sculpture Janus Fleuri. Her talk entitled, “Freud Fleuri”, discussed the installation of Bourgeois’ sculpture over the Freud’s treatment couch in the Freud museum.

Janus Fleuri

Louise Bourgeois's bronze JANUS FLEURI (1968)
suspended over Freud's couch at The Freud Museum London.
Courtesy The Easton Foundation
Photo: Ollie Harrop, © Louise Bourgeois Trust

The bronze sculpture, Janus Fleuri, has been interpreted as having a midsection that symbolizes vaginal folds, and two protrusions growing off either side of it that can be read either as penis heads, clitorises or both. Indeed, the Greek god Janus, who presides over beginnings, crossroads, bridges and entrances, faces both ways. His inclusion in the appellation of this sculpture suggests a bi-gendered reading. Might it be hermaphroditic, including both genitals in one, or gender dialectical, holding the tension between the two separate genders?

One of the functions of the recent conference was to report on Bourgeois’ revelation that she underwent a full course of psychoanalysis and to discuss the contents of her memoirs from that time. It is now known that much of Bourgeois’ art was made while she was in analysis. This Janus-like glance back to her life history will allow for art historians to re-interpret new meaning in her art in light of her revelation.

Curator Philip Larratt-Smith’s decision to hang Janus Fleuri over Freud’s treatment couch was, according to Museum director Carol Seigel, relatively last minute. He had originally considered hanging it over the Egyptian mummy head that stands next to the couch in Freud’s office, but in what must have been a moment of great insight, decided to hang it over the couch. Mignon Nixon, in her paper, reads this installation’s significance from the point of view of the gaze of the analyst and analysand. The mise-en-scene of the couch in Freud’s Viennese treatment office kept the analyst and the analysand separate: their gaze directed towards different objects. Nixon suggests that Freud’s gaze probably rested on the many pieces of art that he had packed into his office. The analysand, however, had only her thoughts, afloat in free association over the couch, to gaze at. Nixon sees Janus Fleuri, hovering over the couch at the museum as standing for Bourgeois’ thoughts as they hovered over her on the couch of her own analyst, Henry Lowenfeld.

I want to suggest that this installation, Janus Fleuri over Freud’s Couch, is itself a work of art and the artist is curator Philip Larratt-Smith. It is different than the typical museum installation, in which a work of art might be installed in a frame, on a plinth, or in some other setting. In this case, the setting, especially Freud’s couch, interacts with Bourgeois’ sculpture. The components of Larratt-Smith’s art installation are historically significant materials from the history of art and psychoanalysis and they both lend significance to whole. Freud’s couch was given to him by a grateful patient, Madame Benvenisti, in 1890. Standing today in the Freud Museum in London, it carries in it the crystallized labour power of the Viennese worker who made it, the accumulated pressure of Freud’s patients who laid on it as they opened up their lives to the founder of psychoanalysis, the anxiety of flight and ransom from the Nazis, and its current status as a synecdoche for psychoanalysis. Janus Fleuri, flying over the couch, suspended by a wire, carries in it Louis Bourgeois’ artistic labour power, the meaning that it had for her as she made it and its place in art history. These two objects both unite and clash. They unite insofar as they both speak of psychoanalysis and self-discovery; they clash insofar as they may take up opposing places at the barricades of feminism. The couch is a space where female genitals are subsumed under the weight of a theory that views them as representing lack; the sculpture is a place where they have grown wings and now fly, insistently announcing their presence. Philip Larratt-Smith has given visitors to the Freud museum a significant installation—a powerful work of art—that can serve to interrogate the relationship of psychoanalysis, art and feminism.

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