Louise Bourgeois and Leonora Carrington: Oracles of the Unconscious - AN ESSAY
In my experience, art can move in one of two ways. It can breeze through us, relatively unchanged by our interpretations—or it can settle in, latching onto some essential part of who we are, often against our will. The work of Louise Bourgeois and Leonora Carrington has left a deep impression on my creative thinking. In challenging unreality from reality, distorting and contorting that which we know, they were able to produce something we know far better—what we won’t always admit to knowing, as it draws uncomfortably close to definitions of madness. In experiencing these female artists, I began to feel inexplicably understood. It is this understanding that fascinates me most, as it seems Bourgeois and Carrington were engaged in a conversation of the unconscious. In writing this essay, I hope to join the conversation in some small way—inviting these artists to the same table for a discussion on their similarities, differences, and explorations.
Experiencing the art of Louise Bourgeois is something like approaching an object or creature that looks foreign and familiar at once. You can’t be sure if it’s dead or alive, but you feel suddenly that you should turn around—that something is watching you watch it, something terrifying, dangerous, and important. As Bourgeois herself declared—'I really wanted to worry people, to bother people,’ (Peltz 2010); it seems that her objective was achieved. Although, it was only at the age of seventy that her work received the recognition it deserved, with the opening of a solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Bourgeois’ entire career was illuminated, earlier sculptural works uncovered and praised on a global stage. Swiftly, she became an icon for her fearless endeavours and bold use of wide-ranging materials. ‘The reward is an intense encounter with an artist who explores her psyche at considerable risk,’ wrote New York Times critic Grace Glueck (Peltz 2010). Bourgeois, born in Paris (1911), produced art during the Surrealist Movement, though she denied any association with it, instead declaring herself an existentialist. Themes revolved around childhood and womanhood, with roots stemming deeply back to the former. ‘My childhood has never lost its magic,’ Bourgeois stated. ‘It has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama—all my works in the past fifty years, all my subjects, have found their inspiration in my childhood,’ (Rastelli 2018).
Leonora Carrington was born only a few years after Bourgeois (1917) and never felt like she belonged within her conservative, English upper-class family. As a teenager she left Crookhey Hall behind (her childhood home and the backdrop to one of her best-known paintings), and was drawn to Max Ernst, a surrealist painter. In seeing his work for the first time, Carrington recalls the thought, ‘ah, this is familiar; I know what this is about. A kind of world which would move between worlds … the world of our dreaming and imagination,’ (Moorhead 2019). Surrealism for Carrington was an escape, a new home filled with others who could teach her, know her, and nurture her imaginings. A spiral of events sent her to Mexico, where she spent most of her life exploring oil painting, mixed-media sculpting, cast-iron and bronze sculpting. Her paintings are unsettling, atmospheric scenes that don’t demand attention as Bourgeois’ pieces do—but instead draw you in slowly, only then revealing watchful eyes, sinister figures and ghoulish faces within compositions that unnerve and disturb the longer they are studied. But in a similar way to Bourgeois, Carrington manages to offer comfort in the strange, like a poet might achieve by stringing an unutterable thought into tangible words. This is a space where the truest, most complex feelings start to take shape, ironically, through abstraction.
Bourgeois and Carrington are often associated with the surrealists, and though Carrington embraced the association whilst Bourgeois rejected it, both artists were undeniably drawn to matters of the unconscious. Carrington stated, ‘I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse … I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist. I painted for myself. I never believed anyone would exhibit or buy my work,’ (Paul 2021). The extent to which an artist creates for public consumption as opposed to for themselves, may speak to the authenticity of an artwork, or how intimate it feels. Of course, this is a generalisation—many works are created for display, such as political art intended to encourage a shift in thinking. Carrington never considered herself particularly political. She had a ‘vehement aversion to labels’, but in retrospect may have been considered an ‘eco-feminist’ or ‘New Ager’ (Moorhead 2019).
Instead, Carrington focused on processing her past through the characters and stimuli from her environment, two rich subjects that merged in fascinating ways after her move to Mexico. The local markets were a source of inspiration—‘the appearance and demeanour of the people, to the variety of foods, plants and animals, to the landscape and the contact with the dead.’ The city was brimming with ‘dazzling colours and bright sunlight,’ and people who were ‘open and friendly,’ yet also ‘magical and mysterious’ (Moorhead 2019). Bourgeois, on the other hand, was enchanted by New York, ‘its clean cut look, its sky, its buildings, its scientific, cruel, romantic quality’—in her own words (Rastelli 2018). From these vastly unique experiences in two very different cities, much can be divulged when it comes to the lenses these artists used to observe the world, and which curiosities and aesthetics informed their work—Bourgeois leaning into hard edges, finding meaning in simplicity, and Carrington gravitating towards more vibrant, complex scenes that lent themselves to the fantastical.
Louise Bourgeois and Leonora Carrington have much to say, and though their languages are individual expressions of style, material and mood, they dip into a common, unconscious sphere of thought. The distinctly dreamlike atmosphere of their pieces rears up against conservative values and techniques, challenging the boundaries previously established by realism and true-to-life depictions. In exploring pain, pleasure, and the uncanny, these daring works are a light for our darkest corners, for better or worse. The radical art of Bourgeois and Carrington has seen increasing recognition and appreciation over time. Fortunately, both artists were able to witness this before their deaths, only a few years apart.
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