Arch of Hysteria, 1993
French, American, 1911
bronze with silver nitrate patina
83.8 x 101.5 x 58.4 cm
National Gallery of Canada (no. 41581)
© Louise Bourgeois
Stemming from her interest in the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of pain and fear, Bourgeois was drawn to the arch of hysteria as theorized and represented by the nineteenth-century neurologist Jean Martin Charcot (1825-1893). While working at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, Charcot sought to represent hysteria by documenting the performances of his female patients.
The physical tension of the hysterical arch - an intense muscular contraction, resulting in immobility and paralysis of the limbs - is emblematic of an equally extreme emotional state. Bourgeois makes this highly vulnerable position even more so by suspending her male figure from the ceiling. In choosing to represent him in an attitude traditionally associated with the female, the artist transgresses the social and sexual roles assigned to women, challenging the misconception of hysteria as a female malady.