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Elements of Surrealist practices
in contemporary visual art:
Louise Bourgeois’ critical reworking
of Surrealism

by Dr. Joachim Stark MA
Nuremberg 2008

This study about Louise Bourgeois’ work is part of a vaster research project designed to assess to what extent artists since the 1960s have redefined, criticized and made use of Surrealist practices in their own works art. Here are reproduced the abstract and the introduction to the work on Bourgeois. The entire study on Louise Bourgeois comprises about eighty pages DIN A4, illustrations included. If you are interested in a copy please write an email to Joachim Stark.

The entire Study is now available as e-book and as print edition at www.grin.com .


This research project wants to assess to what extent Louise Bourgeois is employing Surrealist practices in her work. Another question which I will attempt to answer is, in what way and to what effect Bourgeois criticized the practices of historical Surrealism and how she has developed these practices further in order to adapt them to new subject matter, for instance feminist themes.

Chapter I tries to elucidate, how art historians and art critics since the 1980s referred to Surrealism when interpreting Bourgeois’ work. It is possible to show that Bourgeois used the concept of the “Surrealist object” for her installations. However, she did this in a way in which the female body is only present by implication. The erotic dimension, which was of great importance for the Surrealists, is destroyed by allusions to old age and death. Bourgeois’ installations of the 1990s can therefore be considered as a radical and feminist reuse of the surrealist object.

Chapter II looks at works which imply allusions to the unconscious and psycho-analysis, like the installations Arch of Hysteria (1992/3) and Precious Liquids (1992). Here, as in the other chapters, I also take into account Bourgeois’ own comments on her work. Although artist’s comments do not represent a definitive interpretation of a work of art, this aspect seems justified as Bourgeois claims that her art is the result of her direct access to her unconscious. At least according to Freud this direct access is impossible, the unconscious being something impenetrable, which communicates with the conscious only by signs which have to be interpreted. However, in her installations Bourgeois consistently makes allusions to the erotic and desire, but she also shows their reverse side: fear, pain, violence, voyeurism, ephemerality, and the ambiguities of male and female identity.

Chapter III looks at the overall social, political and cultural context of the 1960s and 1970s, to which Bourgeois responded with her art, for instance by supporting the Women’s Liberation movement. It seems likely that the story of her personal traumatic experiences as a young girl in France, which she published at the beginning of the 1980s, was motivated so late in life by changes in the art world, where Modernism had lost its impact and where art again should deal with content, meaning, the biographical and emotion.

I conclude: Louise Bourgeois uses the aspects of emancipation and critique, which were inherent in historical Surrealism, in order to criticize the patriarchal, affirmative aspects of Surrealism. At the same time she develops Surrealist practices further in order to deal with new subject matter, like feminism, the body, and emotional violence.





For most art historians Surrealism or the Surrealist movement began around 1924 with the First Surrealist Manifesto, and it ended around 1945, after World War 2. At this point, most art historians maintain that many artists, who had been more or less official members of the movement, had subsequently embarked on artistic projects of their own. In addition, the spatial proximity of individual artists had come to an end. It was those artists who had originally lived in Paris or at least in France before the war, who, with the outbreak of World War II or soon afterwards, moved mostly to New York, or other places in the United States. Until the 1980s for most art historians the development of Surrealist art after 1945 was not worth mentioning. MOMA curator William S. Rubin for instance in 1968 proclaimed that the big Surrealist exhibition at the Maeght Gallery in 1947 in Paris already conveyed the ambiance of a historical retrospective. For Rubin, Surrealism’s most precious contributions had entered the mainstream of contemporary art. Artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, and Allan Kaprow used elements of Surrealist art for their objects and installations.

Rubin could also have mentioned Louise Bourgeois, who in her paintings in the 1940s had been experimenting with Surrealist techniques of depiction. Since the 1960s she had returned to Surrealist practices, now in her sculptures, objects and installations. Simultanously, with her retrospective exhibition in the MOMA New York in 1982, William Rubin and other art critics labeled Louise Bourgeois’ work as Surrealist or influenced by Surrealism. The argument was that Louise Bourgeois being a Frenchwoman, who emigrated to America in the late 1930s, “knew the language of Surrealism well enough to perceive that, in sculpture, it had far from exploited its possibilities.”[1]

What is of interest here is purely the question whether and to what extent at least some of her works of art can be interpreted as employing Surrealist practices, like the “Surrealist object”, and relying on the unconscious as an important source of works of art. Another question which I will attempt to answer is, how and to what extent Bourgeois criticized the practices of historical Surrealism and how and to what extent she has developed these practices further in order to adapt them to new subject matter, for instance feminist themes.

Another aspect we want to try to assess is the biographical account, which Bourgeois has employed since 1982 in order to accompany and explain her works of art: a young girl “abused” by a family situation, which was characterized by a father who betrayed his wife, and a complacent mother, who used her daughter Louise to observe her father’s acts of adultery. My hypothesis is that this biographical element could have served as an overall link which was able to give a certain unity to an oeuvre, which appeared very diverse and where lots of different materials are used in order to represent a very diverse subject matter.

In addition, for almost six decades Bourgeois’ work has responded to different situations, social developments like feminism, but also changes in the art world, like the shift from modernist approaches to post-modernism, where new practices were established, like installation and environment, happenings and performance. These practices have forerunners at the beginning of the 20th century, in Constructivism, Dadaism, and Surrealism.

Historical Surrealism has always been an expression of an attitude towards life and society. It is therefore difficult to assess whether the work of contemporary artists can still be considered as Surrealist. The visual appearance of the work is fundamental here, but the intentions of the artist also matter, for instance when they have been explained by the artist himself in interviews for example. At this point they may reveal relevant aspects of the work. If the artist is interested in psychic automatism, the unconscious, psychoanalysis, the role of chance, the marvelous or the uncanny, then he or she is referring to Surrealist ideas. This does not mean that the artists could be defined as Surrealist. However, the question cannot be solved in the context of this research project. Here I just want to show that it is possible and perhaps even legitimate to interprete at least some of Bourgeois’ works as employing Surrealist practices. This does not exclude that there are a number of different approaches and interpretations, which would be equally justified, for instance a Feminist reading, or a consideration of Bourgeois’ contribution on the development of sculpture in the 20th century. However, it is a distinguishing feature of art in the post-modern situation that onlookers may react differently to works of art and that a work of art is more an impulse for a discussion about its different effects on different viewers, than for the discovery of a unique and fixed meaning.

However, Bourgeois reworked the Surrealist “toolbox” in order to adapt it to a new social and cultural environment characterized by individualism, critique of patriarchal authority, and feminism. She used Surrealist practices not to make Surrealist art, but to make an art which “exceeds, disturbs, destabilizes or puts in question its commodity status as trophy, decoration or fetish” and which thus “sounded the death knell for the universal subject, the universal viewer, the universal producer and a universal art.”[2]

[1] William Rubin, Foreword, in Deborah Wye, Louise Bourgeois. The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1982, 11.

[2]              Solomon-Godeau, Abigail, Feminisms Long March, Art in America 95, 6 (June 2007), 63-67, 67.