“Well… I guess that’s what you’d call ‘the conscious’.”

A warm welcome to guest poster Joanna Walsh.

I’m reading the guide notes on the walls of the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. They’re annoying me. I’m seeing the exhibition with a friend. It’s always good to have someone to complain to.

“Look, here it says about how miserable she is again: ‘depression, anxiety, the fear of abandonment, of loss of love.’ It says it’s all going on in the ‘depths of her unconscious’.”

Although Bourgeois’ material comes from the unconscious, and often from misery, she transforms it with tough, highly-articulate and playful conscious thought.

Ok – let’s look at the most immediately obvious things about an artist who is shown in the bank of photos outside her exhibition, unfailingly smiling. She smiles wisely, secretly, ironically, openly; she smiles from inside her sculptures; she smiles at Andy Warhol; she smiles wickedly and most famously holding under her arm a latex phallic sculpture entitled, ‘little girl’.

Let’s look at her early, isolated, stick-like, sculptured human figures whose fragile attempts to connect with each other are described by the artist with a nod and a wink – look at those two stick-people standing together, the ‘female’ inclining her head toward the ‘male’, ‘listening’ (as in the title of the piece) clearly not only with affection, but a definite touch ‘yes, dear, very nice, dear,’ in her attitude.

It’s so hard to ignore the hard hysterical, joke-y surrealism which inhabits her sketches and prints of ‘house-wives’ – women imprisoned by their domestic role. So – let’s not ignore it.

Her 1960s ‘body parts’ sculptures of penis-breasts, which she teasingly denies are sexual are not only ‘repellant, and unsettling’ but also meltingly and sensually textured: here is someone who enjoys sex and likes to play around with gender.

It’s good to see a room of pieces inspired by the artist’s mother whom Bourgeois had a deep need to rehabilitate from her role as silent witeness to a powerful and adulterous husband. Bourgeois transforms her into an enourmous spider – a huge, twisted being; the domestic become monstrous through a change of size – but also a friendly maternal force with her well-protected bundle of eggs. In the end, this spider scares me less than the ones I find in the bath. I’d like to have this spider on my side.

And let’s not shy away from the fact that Bourgeois’ work is and has always consciously followed fashion. As maxi-skirts followed minis, so Bourgeois’ early Giacommeti-like figures were superseded by her installation works in the 1980s then by her currently fashionable use of embroidery and textiles. If she’s ‘impossible to categorise’ it’s not through iconoclasm but her knowing and eclectic use of any art movement she finds lying around.

The slightly po-faced exhibition guide has concentrated on Bourgeois’ pain rather than the angry, intelligent, tough jouissance with which she transforms into a clearly-articulated visual language her hard, priviliged, trivial, serious life.

We get to the last of the noticeboards. My friend agrees:

“They keep on going on about the subconscious meaning. I don’t think it’s subconscious. It’s – what do they call that thing that’s above the subconscious.”

“Well… I guess that’s what you’d call ‘the conscious’.”


“I am a scientific person. I believe in psychoanalysis, in philosophy. For me the only thing that matters is the tangible.” Louise Bourgeois