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Hardcover | Out of Print | 352 pp. | 7 x 9 in | 103 illus. | November 2006 | ISBN: 9780262140898
Paperback | $37.95 Trade | £31.95 | 352 pp. | 7 x 9 in | 103 illus. | September 2008 | ISBN: 9780262640701
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Fantastic Reality

Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art


The art of Louise Bourgeois stages a dynamic encounter between modern art and psychoanalysis, argues Mignon Nixon in the first full-scale critical study of the artist's work. A pivotal figure in twentieth-century art, Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911, France) emigrated to New York in 1938 and is still actively working and exhibiting today. From Bourgeois's formative struggle with the "father figures" of surrealism, including Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp, to her galvanizing role in the feminist art movement of the 1970s, to her subsequent emergence as a leading voice in postmodernism, this book explores the artist's responses to war, dislocation, and motherhood, to the predicament of the "woman artist" and the politics of sexual and social liberation, as a dialogue with psychoanalysis.

Convinced that she could express "deeper things in three dimensions," Bourgeois abandoned painting for sculpture in the 1940s, founding her art in one of the twentieth century's most radical and controversial accounts of subjectivity, the object relations psychoanalysis of Melanie Klein. Rejecting the Oedipal narratives of Freud and the dream imagery of surrealism for the object world of the infantile drives, Bourgeois turned to the child analysis pioneered by Klein, the figure Julia Kristeva has called "the boldest reformer in the history of modern psychoanalysis." With Klein, Bourgeois thinks the negative—fragmentation, splitting, and formlessness—where we might least expect to find it, in the corporeal fantasies of mother and child. This turn to the mother and the death drive at once in child psychoanalysis, Nixon contends, not only finds powerful expression in Bourgeois's art, but is echoed in the work of other artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Yayoi Kusama, and Eva Hesse, and in a return to Klein in recent art.

"Fantastic reality," Bourgeois calls the condition of her art. Starting from Bourgeois's investigation, through a multiplicity of forms and materials, of the problem of subjectivity on the very threshold of emergence, this book argues for a new psychoanalytic story of modern art.

About the Author

Mignon Nixon is Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at University College London and an editor of October magazine. She is the author of Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art and the editor of a previous October Files volume, Eva Hesse (both published by the MIT Press).


“Like many of MIT's October series of books, this book is thick with brilliant observations, but it requires a deep familiarity with, and care for, the particulars of international modernism, the full sweep of psychoanalysis and the ends of feminist theory.”—Publisher's Weekly
“Nixon has offered, in addition to a psychoanalytic interpretation of Bourgeois's abstract art, a rich repertoire of techniques through which abstract art can be used to probe psychoanalytic thought.”—Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association
“The brilliant observations that Nixon tosses out on almost every page not only enrich our reading of Bourgeois's art, but reaccess psychoanalytic criticism with a gusto that makes the book required reading.”—Canadian Art


“In Fantastic Reality, Mignon Nixon not only illuminates the work of this revolutionary artist but rewrites the history of sculpture in the postwar years.”
Linda Nochlin, Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
“This is a subtle and illuminating book. In reading the sculpture of Louise Bourgeois through the psychoanalysis of Melanie Klein, Mignon Nixon offers a new understanding of the neglected relations between surrealism, feminism and child analysis. Most importantly for the theory and practice of women's art, she finds in Bourgeois the creative potential of maternal ambivalence.”
Lisa Tickner, Professor of the History of Art, Middlesex University, London
“In Fantastic Reality, Mignon Nixon not only illuminates the work of this revolutionary artist but rewrites the history of sculpture in the post-war years. Emphasizing the crucial role played by Kleinean psychoanalysis in Bourgeois' artistic project, Nixon nevertheless maintains her focus on the specific formal qualities of Bourgeois sculptural inventions, drawing us deep into the mysterious sources of the artist's multifarious creation and its relation to the work of her contemporaries.”
Linda Nochlin, Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
Fantastic Reality is an extraordinary achievement. Not only is its view of Louise Bourgeois the most subtle account we have of her work's depths and passions, but Nixon's analysis also excitingly reanimates both feminist and psychoanalytic criticism. A tour de force.”
Anne Wagner, Department of History of Art, University of California, Berkeley
“Elegantly written and beautifully argued, Fantastic Reality investigates the art of Louise Bourgeois through the lens of psychoanalytic theory. Nixon is equally attuned to the formal texture of language and the psychic dimensions of modern and contemporary art. As a result, her book is not only marvelous art history—it’s a marvelous read.”
Richard Meyer, University of Southern California, author of Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art
“This exceptionally intelligent and illuminating study describes the art of Louis Bourgeois as a practice that has both drawn on and significantly expanded the psychoanalytic account of subjectivity. Attentive to Bourgeois's aesthetic as well as theoretical innovations, Nixon makes a convincing case for the artist as the key figure in the history of modern art, equal in consequence to Marcel Duchamp. Revealing some of the secrets of Bourgeois's intriguing art, the book offers a critical analysis that matches the exquisite complexity and elegant wit of its object.”
Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University