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

Master's Thesis, 2008

63 Pages, Grade: distinction


Table of Contents


Personal Statement


Chapter I Rephrasing the Surrealist object

Chapter II On unstable ground: The unconscious as one of the foundations of Bourgeois’ art

Chapter III Between the personal and the political: Transforming and reworking Surrealism





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.

Personal Statement

No part of this dissertation has been previously submitted for a degree or any other qualification of the Open University or any other university or institution.

This dissertation is not related to the project prepared for A841 except that it also deals with a subject of contemporary art. The entire work has been prepared by me alone.


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]

Chapter I Rephrasing the Surrealist object

When interpreting and describing works by Louise Bourgeois, art critics and art historians almost regularly invoke Surrealism as an important background for the development of Bourgeois’ art.

The earliest example for compositions suggesting the Surrealist practice of combining incompatible objects in order to create the impression of chance, the marvelous or the uncanny, is the series of paintings produced between 1945 and 1947 and titled Femme Maison.[3] They show legs and lower parts of nude female bodies which in their upper parts, starting at the abdomen or the shoulders, are transformed into a house. The idea could be Surrealist in origin. Parallels can be seen in the exquisite corpse drawings, which the Surrealists produced collectively. Magritte’s painting Le Thérapeute (1941) comes to mind, representing a seated male figure, whose torso consists of a bird cage.[4] Other parallels are Dali’s sculpture Vénus de Milo aux tiroirs (1936), and his drawings and paintings Femme Tiroir (1936) and Le Cabinet anthropomorphique (both 1936).[5] Both the torsos and the female reclining nudes in Dali’s paintings consist of drawers. The subject originated in the expression “chest of drawers”, which Dalì took literally and which presented him with the opportunity to create a further representation of a Surrealist object, which was related to psycho-analysis: The drawers suggest the obscure, “unconscious” recesses of the human mind. Correspondingly, at the origin of Bourgeois’ paintings is also a play on words, the French “femme maison” denoting both woman-house and house-wife.[6]

For Deborah Wye, who in 1982 curated Bourgeois’ grand retrospective at the MOMA in New York, the relation of the Femme Maison paintings with Surrealism seemed obvious. Wye links Bourgeois’ Surrealist practices to the development of her biography, although in rather general terms. Following Wye, Surrealism, which stressed the exploration of the “subconscious reality”, encouraged Bourgeois “to tap the complex texture of her personal life as a source for her art.”[7] In these pictures “a woman’s most obvious sign of identity, her face, has been replaced by a house” which for Wye has a devastating effect, as domesticity becomes the very definition of these women, who have become prisoners of the house and also hide behind its façade.

Also for Rosalind Krauss, the Femme Maison paintings are “instantly reminiscent of a variety of Surrealist art”. Krauss is reminded especially of the exquisite corps drawings, produced collectively by several Surrealists in the 1920s and 1930s.[8] Behind this relationship on the level of style there is for Krauss another element of Surrealist art, the connection with art made by schizophrenics. However, Krauss does not want to maintain that Bourgeois was “influenced” by this aspect in Surrealism, which was most prominent in the 1930s and 1940s. For Krauss there was a strong grip of schizophrenic art on cultural imagination. The main point for Krauss is that Bourgeois’ presculptural art participates in the general exploration of schizophrenic art, which can be seen to connect with the experience of the “part-object”, which Bourgeois has used since the second half of the 1960s. In this respect, she concentrates on the depiction of penises, vulvas, breasts, mouths, eyes, which Krauss interpretes as “desiring-machines” (Deleuze/Guattari), for which Duchamp’s Large Glass, the bachelor apparatus, is one of the most important fore-runners.[9] Krauss’ description of the desiring-machines, which “produce” by intercepting human body fluids, is applicable to an installation Bourgeois created in 1991/1992: Precious Liquids. This installation will be considered later in connection with the role of the unconscious in Bourgeois’ work.

Another original contribution to the interpretation of Bourgeois’ art as a Surrealist practice, is Krauss’ introduction of the “informe”.[10] The Surrealist apostate George Bataille had created the term in the 1920s in order to circumscribe forms, which transcend formal logic and the distinction of categorical oppositions, like inside/outside, figure/ground, male/female, living/dead. As an example of the transgression of form, Krauss takes Bourgeois’ LeTrani Episode (1971, plaster and latex). The object consists of two ovoid superposed forms with pointed tips , the top one at right angles to its lower counterpart.[11] Material and form convey the impression of the biomorphic, and at the same time the ambiguous and perhaps contradictory impression of female breasts and limp penises.

Let us return to the Femme Maison series, which also have been compared with Surrealist objects of the 1930s, like André Masson’s mannequin, shown in 1938 during the “International Exhibition of Surrealism” in Paris.[12] Masson’s mannequin was part of the row of similar figures that lined the exhibition’s Surrealist Street. It is the head of the mannequin, placed within a bird cage, that invited art critics to interprete Femme Maison to be inspired by Surrealism. At the same time Bourgeois’ work was seen as criticizing and transcending Masson’s object. Where Masson makes a joke at the expense of women, using a static, lifeless femme fatale twittering like a bird, alluding to perversion and fetishism, Bourgeois’ woman house on the other hand seems animated and active. “Femme Maison exposes the futility of fetishism in its surrealist representation, the way in which it validates male sexual insecurity and dramatizes, even celebrates fear of the female body, often to violent or degrading effect. The Femme Maison highlights the effects of this anxiety for women.”[13] Other observers doubt that the Femme Maison series is indeed related to Masson’s mannequin or that it can be called Surrealist in the first place. Bourgeois’ striving towards “a conscious organization of meaning” through a linear drawing schematizing the figures, separates her representation from Surrealism’s commitment to breaking down rational structures.[14] There is one argument which supports the Surrealist reading of the paintings: The Surrealist approach could consist exactly in the juxtaposition of an exact, linear drawing on the one hand, and the incompatible signifiers on the content level. Many of Magritte’s paintings function that way. Their highly realistic mode of depiction contradicts the irreal and impossible combination of objects, which may happen perhaps only in a dream.

In the 1980s and 1990s Bourgeois returned again to the subject of Femme Maison, this time in the form of marble sculptures or objects made of plastic and clay.[15] In these versions the Surrealist appearance is less present, due to the homogeneity of the material.

Not only Bourgeois’ paintings of the 1930s and 1940s have been related to Surrealism,, but also objects, installations and environments, which have been made since the later 1960s. Objects like Torso, Self-Portrait, Fillette (1968), Janus Fleuri (1968), and Avenza (1968/9) have been included in recent exhibitions of Surrealist art.[16] Bourgeois’ early sculptures from the 1950s are also presented, for instance by the MoMA, as “Surrealist sculptures” (Sleeping Figure II, 1959). The wooden sculptures from the “Personages”-series are thus arranged among Alberto Giacometti’s Hands holding the void (Invisible Object), 1934, and Meret Oppenheim’s Le Déjeuner en fourrure, 1936.[17] The link to Surrealism seems evident, because Bourgeois in her writings and interviews often makes allusions to psychoanalysis, the unconscious, and psychic disorder caused by the family conflicts during her childhood in France.[18] In addition, quite often there also seem to exist formal parallels between works of Surrealist artists and works by Bourgeois, although this does not mean that Bourgeois has been influenced by that object or the artist who has created it. This impression of likeness or relation between certain works on the part of a viewer, familiar with Surrealist art, is induced by Bourgeois’ practice of juxtaposition between incongruous elements and grotesque overdrawings, for instance the long, thin, spider-like legs of the elephants in certain paintings by Dalì, or the legs of Bourgeois’ monumental spiders. This became one of the characteristics of the “Surrealist object” in the 1930s. Other works carry titles which seem to contradict the object represented. For instance the sculpture Fillette (1968). For the ordinary viewer it does not really represent a “little girl”, but an erect phallus. This object reminds us of Alberto Giacometti’s Objet désagréable (1931), also a phallus-like object, carrying barbs on its surface.

None the less, all these relationships notwithstanding, in an interview published in 2005 Bourgeois stated

I'm not a Surrealist, and I'm not particularly interested in their literary ways. I'm not interested in the dream world. I'm not interested in the idea of chance. I'm not interested in women as an object. I've always stated that I am a lonely long-distance runner, and that's the way I like it.[19]

Bourgeois only obliquely answered the question, the interviewer being an art student. However, her answer shows that she is very familiar with the important ideas of Surrealism and the feminist criticism of Surrealism which began in the 1980s (“woman as an object”).[20] Furthermore, she insists that she was following an entirely individual path. This position can certainly be subject to debate, as the concept of the author as an original, autonomous creator has been more and more dissolved during the past four decades under the impact of structuralism.[21]

However, in her answer to the art student’s question Bourgeois does not mention important aspects of Surrealism, like psychic automatism, the unconscious, psychoanalysis, the body, the erotic, desire, hysteria, the marvelous, the uncanny, the informe, the found object, the Surrealist object, politics and revolution of society etc. On the other hand, the unconscious, hysteria and psycho-analysis do play a considerable role in Bourgeois’ art, as the titles and the works themselves show, for instance Destruction of the Father, Arch of Hysteria, Art is the Guaranty of Sanity, Oedipus etc.

Bourgeois’ 2005 statement can be understood as a reaction against a classification of her art, which reaches back to 1982, when her first big retrospective was shown at the MoMA, New York. This exhibition finally brought the international breakthrough and recognition for Louise Bourgeois. At the same time, William Rubin and Deborah Wye, the authors of the exhibition catalogue, introduced the Surrealist heritage as a constituent part of Bourgois’ work.[22] According to Rubin, Bourgeois being a Frenchwoman “knew the language of Surrealism well enough to perceive that, in sculpture, it had far from exploited its possibilities. The organic, biomorphic language of the abstract side of Surrealist art wants to be three-dimensional, wants materials of more organic allusiveness than paint.”[23] For Wye, Bourgois is articulate about the underlying psychological motivations for her art. “In this regard, she is situated within the Surrealist tradition, which sees the exploration and expression of the unconscious as art’s primary aim (she also shares the Surrealist’s literary and poetic predilections).”[24] When Bourgeois in 1998 published a collection of her writings and interviews from 1923 to 1997, this undertaking can also be interpreted as an attempt to regain sovereignty and control with respect to the interpretation of her art.[25] Consequently, since the 1990s there seem to exist at least two strands of art historical interpretations of Bourgeois’ work: one that accepts Bourgeois’ texts as authoritative and accepts that Surrealism did not influence her art.[26] The other approach allows us to read Bourgeois’ works in the tradition of Surrealist practices and considers “the story of a traumatized and angry girl raging at her father” as a strategy aiming to explain a situational conflict.[27] The trauma and the anger being the result of a family situation during Bourgeois’ childhood, which was characterized by a father, who for several years committed adultery with Louise’s governess, who lived in the household and whose task was to teach English to the young Louise. Louise’s mother seems to have tolerated her husband’s extramarital relationship, but she used Louise to keep an eye on her husband’s und the governess’ activities. Louise Bourgeois herself has given an account of this situation in an article published in 1982.[28] In chapter III we will try to elucidate the social and artistic framework of the 1970s and 1980s, which may have motivated Bourgeois to present this story to the public.

The situational conflict, mentioned above, is caused by the dominant values of a society and culture founded on masculinity, as the feminist art historian Griselda Pollock argues. This dominant culture had difficulties in accepting the conjunction of two roles, considered as contradictory in one individual: woman as mother (and spouse) and as an artist. “Women artists have”, as Pollock put it, “until the YBA phenomenon, done well as only dead beauties or old ladies.”[29] Bourgeois therefore relates her work to her childhood, not to periods or experiences during her adult age. She is talking about the relationships to her mother and her father and keeps her own role as mother and spouse in the background.

For Pollock, Bourgeois’ relationship with the Surrealist heritage is a fact. She does not go into detail about these references. One work by Bourgeois from 1996 – Untitled - is of particular importance for her, as it points to the role of biography and age in Bourgeois’ work, which is becoming more and more relevant to her. It is worthwhile to discuss this object with respect to Surrealist practices as it is a rather late work – Bourgeois was 85 in 1996 - and it does show nevertheless references to Surrealist practices: As Griselda Pollock puts it from a feminist point of view:

This work suggests a form of mourning that also invokes the sense of time and personal history created through a radical, and feminist reuse of the surrealist object. The juxtaposition of body part and feminine clothing creates, with Louise Bourgeois’ decisive level of intensity, a borderline visibility for both Meret Oppenheim’s surrealist objects of the 1930s and, I would argue, for Mary Kelly’s feminist rephrasing in the 1980s.[30]

How does Bourgeois employ the “Surrealist object”; how does she develop it further, how does she “rephrase” it, and, perhaps, criticize it? Before considering the concept of the “Surrealist object” in its original sense, which was developed by Breton and Dalì in the 1930s, let us first explore the possible meanings and references of the work Untitled (1996), which, as I would argue, can be interpreted as a “Surrealist object”. Untitled (1996) and several additional installations by Bourgeois display woman garments, in different settings and installations.

Untitled (1996) is an installation consisting of cloth, bones, rubber and steel.[31] Technically it resembles a hall stand, in American English also called a “hall tree”. Indeed, the installation resembles a tree but with thin, strongly extended branches which are attached to an upright pole, about three meters high. The thin branches differ in length, the longest measuring more than one meter. The rather narrow, rectangular base indicates that the length of the branches and their position has been calculated in a way, such as to keep the structure in a fragile balance. At the outer ends of the eight branches, women’s clothes are suspended, white undergarments in silk and satin, filmy stockings, and a beaded, black cocktail dress. Old cattle bones do for hangers.[32]

First of all, it is an installation related to Bourgeois’ biography: the garments are hers, and they are from a time when she was in her thirties. How is it perceived by an onlooker, who is not familiar with Bourgeois biography and her intentions?[33] How is the lingerie seen, by women, by men? It cannot be excluded that male viewers should be attracted by the erotic aspect of female undergarments. Do men indeed see primarily the woman artist’s past, when she was 30 or 40 years old? This seems unlikely if we take into consideration that female undergarments are mainly strongly connected with the erotic and sexual desire. This aspect is related to surrealist practices. In the 1930s, the display of garments was a practice among Surrealists, for instance in the International Surrealist exhibition of 1938 in the Galerie Beaux Arts in Paris.[34] This exhibition had certainly been seen by Bourgeois, although this does not mean that her later art was “influenced” by certain works which had been exhibited there. In a letter dated March 1938 to a friend in southern France she mentions “the Surrealist exhibition” being among the latest subjects to be discussed in Paris.[35] However, it was the last exhibition of Surrealist art in France, before Bourgeois left for the United States and it is at least likely that she carried with her impressions of “Surrealist objects”, which mainly consisted of nude or partly dressed female dummies. The Femme Maison paintings, mentioned above also remind one of the nude mannequins in the Surrealist exhibition of 1938. However, there is a continuity between Femme Maison (1945-47) and Untitled (1996), which consists in the task of visualizing problems and situations of femininity by employing representations of, or alluding to the female nude.

For the Surrealists, woman symbolized Eros, a key agent in defying and subverting civilization[36] When male Surrealist artists focused on the female body in their installations, they celebrated the erotic power of the female body and the uncanny power of the feminine.

With these ideas in mind the Surrealists staged their exhibition of 1938. The exhibition became famous through the “rue surréaliste”, a long corridor with sixteen mannequins which the spectator had to pass by in order to reach the main exhibition room. The “Surrealist street” referred to the presence of the big department stores and consumerism in Paris. In the show-rooms and department stores, mannequins were used to present all kinds of clothing and, as an element of advertisement to entice the customer, usually a woman, into buying the commodity, this object of desire.[37] The Surrealists however had turned the female fashion mannequin itself into an animate object of desire through erotic or bizarre dress, accessories, posture and lighting.[38] Max Ernst presented a Widow mannequin, dressed in a black cape, hat and stockings. The parted cape drew the spectator’s eye to her sex. Sonia Mossé’s mannequin was veiled in green tulle, and the mannequin by Marcel Duchamp, titled Rrose Sélavy wore a waistcoat, jacket, tie and hat, her lower body naked to the viewers gaze (annexe, figure 1B). Duchamp once again had played the theme of the reversal of gender roles which he had started in 1921, when he was photographed in feminine appearance by Man Ray, wearing a woman’s eye make-up, hat, stole and coat, thus creating his female alter ego “Rrose Sélavy”, a pun on “Eros, c’est la vie”. Another mannequin, which has been much debated with respect to its relationship with Bourgois’ Femme Maison, is the one by André Masson, titled Mannequin with Bird Cage (annexe, figure 1A).[39]

Where the Surrealists used the visual presence of female dolls in order to arouse the imagination of the viewers and to provoke the public with their allusions to fetishism, Bourgeois avoids literal representations of the body and just exhibits lingerie which had once clothed a woman’s body. The body therefore is present by implication, as something that has existed in the past and is now reconstructed in the imagination of the artist and the viewer. The bones, which serve as hangers, remind one of the body in a state of advanced decomposition. They allude to death as an incident in the course of the artist’s – and every human being’s - existence, which yet lies in the future. However, the relationship to Freud’s theory of fetishism is present at least in this installation by Bourgeois. The artist could not have ignored this as she is familiar with Freud’s psycho-analytical theories as is documented in her review article on Freud’s collection of antiquities, which was published in 1990.[40] That the Surrealists were influenced by Freud is well known since Breton’s “Manifeste du Surréalisme” of 1924.[41] However, Freud in his “Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie” (1904/05), explains fetishism as a practice, in which the normal object of sexual desire (Sexualobjekt) is replaced by another object, which is entirely inadequate to serve the normal sexual drives, but which is linked with the sexual object. This may be replaced by objects which are not suited for sexual aims, like feet and hair, or objects which have been in contact with the desired person or his/her sex like “pieces of garments, white lingerie”.[42] It is likely that Bourgeois, in her own explanations of her work, only mentions a part of the possible and mostly obvious layers of meaning. She perhaps consciously leaves it the viewer to speculate about these unspoken layers of meaning.

In Surrealist practice between 1924 and the 1940s the representation of skeletons and bones is not common, although with their exquisite corpse -drawings, the Surrealists ironically addressed the subject of ephemerality of life and art as well. In certain objects by Alberto Giacometti, allusions to the decomposition of the body can be found, like the representations of a human (or primate) spinal column and a bird skeleton in The Palace at 4 a.m. (1933, New York, MoMA).[43] Salvador Dalì and André Masson also at times depicted the decomposition of human bodies.[44] Occasionally Surrealist photographers took pictures which showed the cruel reverse side of life in the metropolis, like the chopped-off cattle hoofs, photographed by Eli Lotar at the abattoirs of La Villette in Paris.[45] However, most of the Surrealists did not focus on memento mori subjects, as the overall orientation of Surrealism was humanist, optimistic and life-affirming (with the exception of George Bataille, who concentrated on the abject and base aspects of human existence).

Equally the display of garments as ready-made or found objects is not widespread in Surrealist art. The mannequins in the Beaux Arts exhibition of 1938 are the exception which proves the rule. However, Marcel Duchamp and André Breton again used a mannequin for the shop window decoration at Gotham’s bookshop in New York where Breton’s volume of poems Arcane 17 was presented. The mannequin - without a head - was dressed with nothing but a white, semi-transparent apron.[46] Examples for works using garments are the Veston aphrodisiaque produced by Dalì, covered over and over with liquor glasses, which was exhibited in the Surrealist exhibition in 1936 in the Charles Ratton Gallery in Paris. It was Dalì again who in 1938 designed evening dresses together with the couturiere Elsa Schiaparelli. One of these dresses was a slim black evening dress padded with the silhouette of a skeleton. The collection was shown in February 1938, at the same time as the Surrealist exhibition.[47] In addition there is the display of shoes, often integrated in Surrealist objects, for instance Dalì’s Scatological Object Functioning Symbolically (1931), or Meret Oppenheim’s Ma Gouvernante (1936).

Bourgeois could have used mannequins, dolls or her soft sculptures made of fabric, representing female figures in order to display the garments. Yet, as I have said, she avoids the direct representation of the female body. The body is present by allusion or implication. Bourgeois display of female garments in connection with the cattle bones can be seen as a critique of the Surrealist “father figures” Breton and Duchamp. The erotic dimension of the lingerie is destroyed by the representation of “real” death: the cattle bones in Untitled (1996) are not made of plastic, they are real.


[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.

[3] See annexe, figures 2A and 2B

[4] Gouache on paper,33 x 27 cm, private collection. Spies 2002, 274.

[5] Ades, Dali, 258.

[6] Morris, 142.

[7] Deborah Wye, Louise Bourgeois. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York 1982, 17.

[8] Rosalind Krauss, Louise Bourgeois. Portrait of the Artist as Fillette, in Krauss, Bachelors, Cambridge, Mass. 1999, 60.. The article on Bourgeois was first published in 1989.

[9] Krauss, Bourgeois, 64.

[10] See also Robert R. Shane, From Formalism to Informe and Back Again: Rosalind Krauss’s Use of Bataille, ArtCriticism 17 no2 (2002), 70-88.

[11] Krauss, Bourgeois, 71.

[12] Nixon, 58-63. See annexe, figure 1A. For the Mannequin by Marcel Duchamp, figure 1B.

[13] Nixon, 65.

[14] Whitney Chadwick, An infinite Play of Empty Mirrors. Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation, in Whitney Chadwick (ed.), Mirror Images. Women, Surrealism and Self-Representation, Cambridge, Mass. 1998, 18.

[15] Morris, 138, 142.

[16] Jennifer Mundy (ed.), Surrealism – Desire Unbound, Tate Modern, London 2001/02, 312/3.

[17] John Elderfield, (ed.), Das MoMa in Berlin, Stuttgart 2004, 16, 140-143 (exhibition of the MoMA collection, New York in Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 20 February -.19 September 2004).

[18] See also Gill Perry, Dream houses: installations and the home, in Gill Perry and Paul Wood (eds.), Themes in Contemporary Art, Yale UP/London 2004, 262/3.

[19] Jan Garden Castro, Vital Signs. A Conversation with Louise Bourgeois, Sculpture, 24, no 6 (July/August 2005), 29-33 : The question of the art student was: “There seems to be a Surrealist aspect in your work. Did the Surrealists help you in articulating your visual language? How does it feel to be rediscovered after your career and ideas had been overlooked in the past?” (p. 31)

[20] Whitney Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, Boston 1985; Mary Ann Caws, Rudolf E. Kuenzli, and Gwen Raaberg, (eds.), Surrealism and women. Cambridge MIT Press 1991

[21] Michel Foucault’s What is an author? is one of those seminal texts which deconstruct the concept of the author as ideological, as it masks the rules of power inherent in discourse. In fact, Foucault believes, if one dissolves the ideological function, the author is disappearing “in the anonymity of a murmur.” Michel Foucault, What Is an Author? (1969), in Charles Harrison / Paul Wood (eds.), Art in Theory 1900-1990. An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford UK / Cambridge, Mass., 1992, 923-928.

[22] Deborah Wye, Louise Bourgeois, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1982 (retrospective exhibition November 3, 1982 – February 8, 1983); foreword by William Rubin, at that time Director of the Dept. of Painting and Sculpture, MoMA.

[23] Wye, Bourgeois, foreword William Rubin, 11

[24] Wye, Bourgeois, 13, 14

[25] Louise Bourgeois, Destruction of theFather – Reconstruction of the Father. Writings and Interviews 1923 – 1997. Edited and with texts by Marie-Laure Bernadac and Hans Ulrich Obrist, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1998 (4th printing 2008)

[26] This is represented by the writings of Marie-Laure Bernadac: Sculpting Emotion. Louise Bourgeois; Paris 2006. See also the contributions by Bernadac in Frances Morris (ed.), Louise Bourgeois, London, Tate Publishing, 2007

[27] Griselda Pollock, Old Bones and Cocktail Dresses: Louise Bourgeois and the Question of Age, Oxford Art Journal, Vol.22, No.2 (1999), 73-100, 89

[28] Louise Bourgeois, Child Abuse, Artforum, vol. 20, 1982, 40-47

[29] Griselda Pollock, Old Bones and Cocktail Dresses: Louise Bourgeois, 91.

[30] Griselda Pollock, Old Bones and Cocktail Dresses: Louise Bourgeois, 97. Pollock is referring to Kelly’s Interim (1984/85).

[31] See annex, figure 3.

[32] Griselda Pollock, Old Bones and Cocktail Dresses: Louise Bourgeois, 92. The object measures 300,3x208,2x195,5 cm. Frances Morris, Louise Bourgeois, 190

[33] Bourgeois said about her installation: “Clothing is also an exercise of memory. It makes me explore the past: how did I feel when I wore that. They are like signposts in the search for the past.” Louise Bourgeois, Destruction of the Father, 363. The quote is from 1997, when Bourgeois exhibited at the Fondazione Prada in Milan.

[34] The exhibition took place from 17 January - 24 February 1938. The fashionable gallery was in one of the elegant Paris quarters, 140 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré. Alyce Mahon, Surrealism and the Politics of Eros, 1938-1968,London 2005, 35/6

[35] Bourgeois, Destruction of the Father, 27. Indeed, the exhibition won the attention of the international press and outraged much of the public. Throughout the run of the exhibition the general public packed the Galerie Beaux Arts. See Mahon, Surrealism and the Politics of Eros, 35. For Whitney Chadwick it was uncertain whether Bourgeois had seen the exhibition. Chadwick, Mirror Images, 16.

[36] Mahon, Surrealism and the Politics of Eros, 18.

[37] How mannequins were used for window dressing in the shops of Paris is illustrated by a photograph by Brassaї (c. 1934), titled Le Reve – Sur les grands boulevards. The shop window is displaying female under garments, the two svelte mannequins are wearing black and white brassieres and suspender belts. The ironic point of the image is the large dark mass of a stout lady looking at the lingerie displayed in the window. Brassai, Paris, 1899-1984, Cologne 2008, 124. Brassai’s photographic work was strongly admired by the Surrealists.

[38] Mahon, 44

[39] Mignon Nixon, Fantastic Reality. Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art, Cambridge, Mass./London 2005, 53-65.

[40] Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Toys, in Louise Bourgeois, Destruction of the Father, 186-90. Originally published in Artforum, vol. 28, no.5 (January 1990), on the occasion of the exhibition “The Sigmund Freud Antiquities: Fragments from a Buried Past”at the University Art Museum at the State University of New York. On Bourgeois’ relation with Freud and psycho-analytical theory will be dealt with in the following chapter.

[41] André Breton, Manifestes du Surréalisme, Paris 1985, 33.

[42] Sigmund Freud, Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie, Frankfurt 1961, 29/30.

[43] Construction in wood, glass, wire, string; 28¼ x 15¾, inches, 25 inches high (63.5 x 71.8 x 40 cm). The object is an example for Giacometti’s procedure at the beginning of the 1930s “to execute sculptures that presented themselves to my mind entirely accomplished. I limited myself to reproducing them … without asking myself what they could mean.” MoMA Highlights, New York 2004, 153. There are parallels between The Palace at 4 a.m. and certain Cells by Bourgeois.

[44] A human skull is depicted for instance in Dalì’s Les atavismes du crépuscule [phenomena obsessif], 1933, oil on wood, 13,8 x 17,9 cm, Kunstmuseum Bern, Switzerland. Concerning Masson we could mention his “Gradiva” (1939), oil on canvas, 97x130 cm, private collection. Mundy, Surrealism - Desire unbound, 64/5.

[45] Uwe M. Schneede (ed.), Begierde im Blick. Surrealistische Photographie, Ostfildern 2005, 64/5.

[46] Werner Spies (ed.), Surrealismus 1919-1944, Ostfildern 2002, 95.

[47] Dawn Ades, Dalì, München 2004, 457/8

Excerpt out of 63 pages


Elements of Surrealist practices in contemporary visual art: Louise Bourgeois’ critical reworking of Surrealism
The Open University  (Department of Art History)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
8050 KB
Louise Bourgeois;, Surrealism;, Contemporary Art, Feminist Art
Quote paper
Dr. Joachim Stark (Author), 2008, Elements of Surrealist practices in contemporary visual art: Louise Bourgeois’ critical reworking of Surrealism, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/148392


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Elements of Surrealist practices in contemporary visual art: Louise Bourgeois’ critical reworking of Surrealism

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free