The best-known image of Louise Bourgeois is by Robert Mapplethorpe with a penis-sculpture 'Filette' tucked under her arm. She grins cheekily at the camera.
But what is 'Filette' about? A version of it usually hangs in Tate Modern from a butcher's hook. Now you can see it in the current retrospective (there is a very useful room by room guide here).
At a symposium at Tate Modern yesterday the psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell suggested a number of readings. 'Filette' can be the cut of meat - hence the butcher's hook. It can be a little girl, and apparently there is a famous paper by Otto Fenichel on 'The Girl = Phallus' that gives this the Freudian context (roughly the idea of a young girl desiring to become a phallus as a kind of coping mechanism) - not so far-fetched as an explanation of source as Bourgeois has a sophisticated knowledge of psychoanalysis as well as what Mitchell described as an unusual access to the raw emotions of childhood and infancy.
Although ostensibly simply a phallus, some people have seen this sculpture as ensheathed by female genitalia or even swaddled in a kind of security blanket. Most writers on Bourgeois have talked about phalluses and penises, but as Mitchell pointed out, many of the sculptural shapes are ambiguous between penis and clitoris, and this might fit with the idea that the inciting age for Bourgeois for her art was on which pre-dates an emphasis on sexual difference.
A key observation of Mitchell's is that the trauma that drives Bourgeois' work is the pain of rejection: the near-delusional jealousy that comes from the realization that someone else is loved more than her. This suggests to me a more violent interpretation (albeit expressed with a delightful sense of humour) that is consistent with her piece 'Destruction of the Father' (a fantasy of eating her father): here in 'Filette' her father's erect penis is strung up on a butcher's hook (the castration desire) and at the same time there is perhaps the wish to devour him (sexually?) implicit in the title that puns on her as the little girl and him as the piece of meat.