Louise Bourgeois: the woman who carried his penis under her arm

In the early 1980s, Robert Mapplethorpe takes a formidable photo of Louise Bourgeois, where the latter looks into the lens with a smile that would make the Mona Lisa jealous and a face full of wrinkles like a turtle. A nice old woman, apparently harmless, wearing a coat of black feathers. Except that under her arm she carries with great carelessness an object that could be a handbag. But it’s not: it’s a huge male member. Yes, a very realistically sculpted penis, whose forehead the woman holds with her right hand as if it were the front of the bag. Therefore, when the eye slides from the old woman’s smile to the large penis she carries under her arm, that smile takes a completely different path. And come on. It’s being scornful, sarcastic. Or satisfied? Without knowing exactly what: about himself, about sex or about its representation? In any case, of what the artist carries around as the wild satire of a purse.

At the center of the exhibition that the Art Museum in Basel recently dedicated to Louise Bourgeois, are two female artists: one is Bourgeois, the other Jenny Holzer, who curates the exhibition entitled The violence of handwriting over a page. Louise Bourgeois x Jenny Holzer. Forty years ago, Mapplethorpe had already in the Bourgeois already seventy seen the disrespectful artist who, with the painful slowness typical of female careers, had finally established himself in the world of art. What does Holzer see in you today? And what does it show us? Something more complex perhaps, and above all something that we can no longer define as truly disrespectful. For the simple fact that the sacred no longer exists. And therefore the gesture that was once interpreted as profanity can finally reveal itself for what it is: a fundamental core of psychological violence, which represents a constitutive fact in our individual and collective life. And therefore it should no longer be framed in the sphere of the disrespectful, but rather in the everyday. How it was after all, the paradoxical penis bag in Mapplethorpe’s photo.

Jenny Holzer is an American artist known for her large-scale installations that use words, written texts to create works of art with a political message. Entrusting her with an exhibition about Bourgeois is an interesting challenge: Holzer reads Bourgeois’ work as if it were a palimpsest and exhibits it, highlighting its many overlaps between writing and image. Two words stand out in the title of the exhibition: “page” and “write”. Together with a third who introduces them, almost motivates them: “violence”. There is no writing that “over” a page without violence. The violence that takes place on the blank page, but also the violent movement that drives us to write. Or to paint and sculpt. Jenny Holzer invites us to cross Bourgeois’ work, sometimes monumentally, sometimes ironically subdued, and draws on the original thread of writing. A common thread, as we will see, very similar to an umbilical cord that takes us straight into someone’s body. Someone who is not there, but who is at the same time ubiquitous.

The mother’s body, one might speculate, which Bourgeois represented in one of his most famous works as a giant spider. Or the father’s penis, without which the old woman with the wrinkles of a turtle (who will be lucky to live a whole century, between France and the United States: today is the anniversary of her death, which occurred 12 years ago) she would never be born. We can all say that we have a penis under our arm. And a sheath on the head. Freud gave us this poisoned gift more than a century ago and we have carried it with us ever since, in more or less hidden parts of us.

Not because it was not so before, in the pre-psychoanalytic era. But afterwards it will be as if a foolish sculptor had made a mastodon copy of the genitals, to deliver it to each of us: a very detailed and realistic copy, but at the same time so disproportionate that it turns them into exquisite mental objects. In this sense, Louise Bourgeois is the brilliant artist of a twentieth century full of psychic currents, exploding like lightning in a dark sky, which we crossed at the back of the unicorn that was psychoanalysis. And to remember it today, in a time that we could define as post-psychoanalytic, has a feeling not only historical but above all artistic. Ends peace with the little smile on Mapplethorpe’s photo that seems to say: “you are right in wanting to forget your father’s penis”. And at the same time: “But if you think you can do it, you are stupider than you think”.

After all, psychoanalysis has been what it has been and has had the influence it has had, above all because it has used an unprecedented and incredibly ambiguous treatment tool: the word. The same words that are at the center of this exhibition, where Holzer chooses to show us a Louise Bourgeois who paints and sculptes while she writes. Or to put it better, he paints and sculptes because he never stops writing. Fills not only his paintings with words, but compulsively pages and pages of diaries, notepads, scattered sheets. As if art did not exist without this constant flow of writing, which with its reflective and sometimes unimaginative power pulls with it and forces us to lean over the abyss of our trauma and the black holes we are made of, in the only form. where we may be able to make them exist: the linguistic.

If we only understand everything as language. An idea, also very much the twentieth century, which it is not always possible to support, if not by creating enormous mental tensions and sometimes paying unreasonable prices. First of all, in relation to the body, which we have learned to regard as a great mental mystery and a complex cultural construction: therefore always basically elusive, absent. But at the same time we can not insist on erasing as a set of cells, organs, diseases, wounds, life and death that is the closest we have to the present. And therefore to what we could define, with all caution and doubt in the case, “true”. It seems to me that the “force of writing through the page,” to which this exhibition is entitled, is all here: in that we tear ourselves between the supposed truth of the body and the equally unfathomable truth of language. But also in our need to strengthen ourselves, and therefore to redeem ourselves, almost sublimate ourselves by taking into account this fundamental violence. Given which Bourgeois was an absolute master, as the exhibition at the Art Museum in Basel documents and the encounter with Jenny Holzer’s artistic universe emphasizes: for this reason the image of the woman carrying her penis under her arm, from which we are partying, it seems so intense . And even touching, in its deep mixture of truth and mockery, concreteness and unreality.

So in front of the panties that stand out on the exhibition’s poster, with the red inscription “The day the bird was attracted, it soiled its nest” (“The day the bird was attracted, it soiled its nest”) what remains to be done? Laugh or cry? As in front of the series of embroidered writings, hovering between the ancient memory of ex-votos and the ultra-modern of quotes that multiply into phrases made on social media or on tourist stuff, from bibs for children to aprons for cooking. In any case, in Bourgeois’ work we are always confronted with the mysterious compilation of a dizzying, chaotic and dense depth, with the rare, almost stupid and enchanted surface of a chorus. Where everything is feminine, deep as well as superficial: but a feminine always perceived as a disguise and trap. From the broom she holds like a scarecrow over a black and white checkered dress, to the tower of velvet pillows that just seem to have come out of her grandmother’s dusty living room. Until the abolition of the masculine and feminine in the gloomy and tender embrace of two dolls in the air, forever permeated in an amorous or simply sexual act that mixes the story with torment.

The word prevails in the different rooms, but it does so in the most bizarre and surprising ways. Sometimes the writing stands alone and takes the form of a drawing as if it were a visual poem; at other times it is framed, colored, repeated, shouted, enumerated, sewn onto the fabric. Or written on top of sticks, as if it were music. He often divides the space of the canvas with the image, in a fantastic iconic textual spread. As in the painting where two nipples can be glimpsed, which looks like two eyes enclosed in a shell of concentric lines, while we read below: “Seen from a child’s point of view.

A 12 or 14-year-old boy was on holiday from school and you could suddenly see how his facial expression changed, the expression of fear. The fear of perceiving chaos, as I said “. Or in the extraordinary space dedicated to the body, incredibly throbbing in its various parts (gut, arms, cramps and more), which words and drawings deliver to the pity of our gaze like scalps. That end up in the bloodstream: does not everything actually begin and end in a lake of blood? Exhibited, really thrown in the face of the public. But there is also an irresistible lightness in art, which roots through the pain to cross it. “Pain is the business I am in”, which we read elsewhere attached to a pillowcase.

The woman who carried his penis under her arm went through a century of our history. He did this by spreading his works with words and turning a multitude of words into works. That mighty and ridiculous phallus he takes for a walk can represent an infinity of things, and even none. But why not a metaphor for the great artists ‘brush or chisel, or about the great writers’ pen? All men who for centuries have not hesitated to relate their artistic skill to their sexuality. Brush, chisel or pencil than one little girl whatever (so Mapplethorpe’s photo is called), a little girl landing from Paris to New York in the late 1930s, she can finally choose to take it in hand. Decides, with a steady hand and a mysterious smile between his lips, to do what he wants with it.

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