Since I popped to Kenwood during the week I have realised that I don’t make the most of the art on my doorstep. And so, on this particularly grey and rainy day, I donned a pair of wellies and set off for the Freud Museum. In a beautiful residential street in Hampstead is the house where Sigmund Freud spent the last year of his life.
The Freud Museum, 20 Maresfield Gardens. Own photograph.
Watching the traffic warden walk up and down with his camera, I had to sit in the car for 20 minutes waiting until the residents’ bays were available for everyone which gave me ample opportunity to admire the exterior of this gorgeous red-brick, revitalist, Queen Anne style house. Freud’s daughter Anna (along with his wife, sister-in-law and housemaid) continued living at Maresfield Gardens after his death in September 1939 and, on Anna’s death in 1982, in accordance with her wishes, the house was turned into a museum. It contains Freud’s collections of antiquities with around 2,000 items filling cabinets, shelves and every conceivable surface. It also houses Freud’s extensive library as well as memories of Anna’s own research; there is a room specifically dedicated to her upstairs which explains that she was a keen weaver and a knitting enthusiast, hence the presence of looms in the house.
Plaques on Freud’s House. Own photograph.
The study and library are preserved as they were at the time of Freud’s death and these take up a large portion of the ground floor. It is a mark of Anna’s devotion to her father and acknowledgement of the importance of his work that these rooms remain untouched – his spectacles still sit on his desk.
Freud’s Study. Image via www.freud.org.uk.
Here, visitors can see the original analytic couch (a gift from a grateful patient) where patients would reveal everything that came to mind and where psychoanalysis was born. This is the heart of the house and reflects the complexity and diversity of Freud’s life – colourful oriental rugs carpet the floor, antiquities litter the shelves and the walls are lined with books. The guide to the house discusses Freud’s obvious passion and dedication to collecting. In fact, everybody seemed to be leaving the Museum with a shopping bag, their interest having been sparked by this remarkable property.
Freud’s couch. Image via www.freud.org.uk.
Freud’s eclectic collection of furniture and art can be seen across the rest of the house too. This includes portraits of him by Ferdinand Schmutzer and Salvador Dali – a work on blotting paper that shows Freud’s head based on the shape of a snail.
Salvador Dali, Portrait of Sigmund Freud, 1938. Image via www.freud.org.uk.
The museum regularly holds special exhibitions and it was mainly for this reason I was visiting today. Heading into the conservatory (now the shop) to buy entrance tickets affords a lovely view of the garden which was very important to Freud, who reflected his own interests through the changing seasons. It has also been preserved and Anna’s trowel still rests beside a terracotta flower pot. Today, the garden is occupied by a Louise Bourgeois spider, one of the most enduring images from her oeuvre. This marks the start of Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed which shows the impact of psychoanalysis on her art and thinking. Although she was always ambivalent to pigeon-hole her work into one genre, she readily admitted that her pieces were a form of psychoanalysis – a confessional art that allowed her to express some of her complicated feelings about her past and come to grips with her anxieties, directly accessing her unconscious. She was also fascinated by Freud and, as part of the exhibition, the Museum has republished her essay Freud’s Toys, a piece in response to an exhibition of Freud’s collection, with a short introduction from the curator, Phillip Larratt-Smith.
Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1994. Image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read and via www.freud.org.uk.
When Bourgeois died in 2010 she had given Larratt-Smith permission to display her newly discovered writings alongside a series of sculptures. Viewing them side-by-side, in the house of the father of psychoanalysis, allows us to see how Bourgeois found sculptural equivalents for the psychological states of fear, guilt, aggression, and so on.
The exhibition seeks to offer a unique insight into Bourgeois’ cathartic practice, looking at her art and writings as a whole. The dining room, which opens off the conservatory is given over to the first room of the Bourgeois exhibition and includes the work Knife Figure, 2002, a fabric variation of her earlier femme couteau. Here, the woman’s identity has been displaced as her head has been replaced by an attacking knife. In Freudian terms, the knife may be seen to take on a phallic form warding off the fear of castration hence the amputated leg. Bourgeois’s parents made a living repairing and restoring tapestries so she grew up surrounded by textiles – it was this early exposure to fabric that led to it being such a vital component of many of her works.
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled (double sided), c. 1960. Image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read and via www.freud.org.uk.
We are afforded a more personal experience by seeing her work in such an unusual, intimate setting. Although it was busy, the Freud museum can only accommodate around 200 visitors a day so it’s never going to be swamped. Half way up the stairs, flooded in light from the large bay window, is Dangerous Obsession, 2003, where a fabric figure holds a red glass sphere as one would cradle a baby. The glass orb is fragile, symbolising vulnerability, while its colour represents violence, jealously and intensity. The work suggests ideas of being fixated on something lost or unobtainable, possibly an object of love, but it points to the danger of this psychological state and shows its consequences of melancholy, and possibly even insanity.
Louise Bourgeois, The Dangerous Obsession, 2003. Image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read and via www.theartsdesk.com.
Two of the three upstairs rooms are also given over to the exhibition. Across Bourgeois’s work we see her interest in ideas of confinement and captivity through her use of vitrines and cages. Cell XXI (Portrait), 2000, is a fabric form made from towels that hangs from the roof of a caged cell. The work is hard to categorise; it is both figurative and abstract, a fusion of male and female with two faces that are asymmetrical yet complementary. There is another comparable work here from 2001 that includes mirrors in the corners that offer different perspectives of the different faces. The hanging nature of the heads means that they are ever-changing, always susceptible to new configurations and perceptions.
Louise Bourgeois, Cell XIV (Portrait), 2001. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
Also upstairs is Untitled, 2000; on one side, a multiplied collection of breast-like forms (made from Bourgeois’s collection of berets) have been clumped on top of a fabric torso. The use of the breast and the maternal metaphor is frequent in the artist’s vocabulary as she looks at herself as mother to three sons and worries about her increasing dependence on others. The form on the left is an abstract rubber element that is surrounded by spools of thread – the thread references both her mother’s profession and the delicacy of relationships. The needles in the rubber suggest the pinpricks of memory, trauma and anxiety. Resembling a figure laid out for surgery, the whole work shows Bourgeois’s increasing anxiety and her fear of abandonment.
Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 2000. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
Psychoanalysis has never been one of my strongest areas but this exhibition clearly elucidates Bourgeois’s artistic development as she struggles to come to terms with her past. Through her writings she records her emotions and anxieties, analysing the conflicting feelings of her three roles – artist, wife and mother. They enable us to see how active her engagement with psychoanalysis was until the end of her life, defining the connections between her thought and sculptural processes.
Louise Bourgeois, Loose Sheet, c. 1957. Image courtesy of The Easton Foundation and via www.freud.org.uk.
This exhibition is just the right size, neither too small nor too big – it’s a revelatory insight into Bourgeois through Freud and it sits perfectly in the wonderful, domestic setting of Freud’s house.
Louse Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed is at the Freud Museum until 27 May 2012, www.freud.org.uk.