Lynn M. Somers

"Louise Bourgeois’s Janus: A Case for Psychoanalytic Sublimation"

Friday, December 15 // 16.15h // JGU Fakultätssaal Philosophicum


In 1968, Louise Bourgeois fashioned five bronze sculptures hung from wire and titled Janus. Their roots
lie with the soft, visceral, late Modernist works she debuted in the watershed “Eccentric Abstraction”
show of 1966. The first, Janus Fleuri, joins two versions of its antecedent, Sleep II, at the base—a
polished marble form resembling the plumpish tip of a penis nestled into its foreskin. Tumescent lumps
yoked by a fleshy labial collar proclaim Janus Fleuri’s bisexual, ambivalent, and sublimated character.
The Januses are double-faced like their namesake, the Roman deity of beginnings and city gates who
could gaze both forward and backward. Bourgeois conceived the sculptures as whole, autonomous objects
within a dynamic and symbolic field, echoing a paradigm of object relations (W. R. D. Fairbairn and D.
W. Winnicott). An avid student of psychoanalysis, Bourgeois ignited inner antagonisms to convert
destructive feelings (“bad internal objects”) into something beautiful and acceptable (the “good” art
object). While reminiscent of Aristotelian catharsis, the Januses indicate a sublimation of labile material
and psychic energy. Sublimation effects the transmutation of matter or instinct from a lower state (somatic
or sexual) to a higher, presumably purer, plane of aesthetic existence. The ego forms a channel for the
stream of the artist’s instincts—facilitating imaginative play and metamorphosis—bespeaking a complex
mental process with a positive, not pathological, outcome. Freud thought of sublimation as a rare capacity
conducive, if not indispensible, to mental health. Bourgeois’s self-described “privilege” of recourse to her
unconscious suggests such gifts. Contemporary psychoanalyst Hans Loewald’s words dovetail with
Bourgeois’s convoluted bricolage in her late Modern sculptures: “Contradiction, conflict, spiraling,
reconciliation, a dissolving of achieved reconciliations, new resolutions of dissonances—these are at the
center of life and the mind’s life.” They represent Bourgeois’s Janusian thinking at its finest.

Lynn M. Somers (Ph.D. Stony Brook University, NY) is a scholar of modern and contemporary art history
and criticism and an adjunct assistant professor at Drew University (Madison, NJ), where she teaches
early twentieth-century art and the history of photography. Publications include “A Taste for Sham:
Examples of Perversion and Suffering in Contemporary Art,” Dialectical Conversions: Donald Kuspit’s
Art Criticism (Liverpool University Press, 2011) and essays in the online Routledge Encyclopedia of
Modernism (UK, 2017). Somers contributed essays to the Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century
Photography (Routledge, 2005), and The Encyclopedia of Sculpture (Routledge, 2003). Participation in
conferences and symposia includes papers on Walker Evans, Surveillance in the Space Between Literature
and Culture, 1914–1945, McGill University, Montreal (2016); Louise Bourgeois and domesticity, At
Home in the Space Between Literature and Culture, 1914–1945, University of Notre Dame (2015);
Bourgeois and psychoanalysis at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Scotland, Edinburgh and The
Fruitmarket Gallery (2014); and research on Sally Mann for The Feminist Art Project, College Art
Association’s 102nd Annual Conference in Chicago (2014), and the Savannah College of Art and Design
(2014). Somers is currently writing a book on transitional phenomena and the aesthetics of play in Louise
Bourgeois’s sculpture.