How does psychoanalysis shape our understanding of the production and perception of art objects?
Psychoanalysis in the perception and understanding the production of art unfurls the issue of how much the personal experiences and backgrounds of artists is reflected in their work. This is a psychological approach that was born from the work of Freud and Jung, although it is the theories set down by Freud, and of the contemporary analyst Schapiro that I will be discussing. It is not only the issue of psychoanalysis that needs to be considered but also the concept of psychobiography is also a concern that needs to be addressed as it researches further into the personality and character of the artist, analysing the emergence of motivations, therefore creating a fuller background to the production of their artwork. Yet, psychoanalysis and psychobiography are not without faults as analytical concepts and this is an issue that will be discussed in conjunction with works that have become as famous for mystery surrounding the artist as they have for the technique used to create the work.
In psychoanalysis one of the prevalent themes set down by Freud focuses on the issue of the familial relations. These issues centre on the supremacy between the parents but also between the relations between a child and their parent of the opposite sex. In this way the issue of gender is prevalent in Freud’s work, an attribute he bestows on old masters, an example being Leonardo da Vinci. From what can be gathered from da Vinci’s encrypted personal writings and his biography set down by others Freud drew out what he believed to be reoccurring motivations for da Vinci’s work. Freud saw da Vinci as a man that was somewhat dependent on a matriarchal environment as he passed from the house of his mother to the house of his step–mother and father from an early age. Freud believed that he was haunted by a dream of being threatened by a vulture as an infant in the cradle. In this way Freud linked this vulture imagery to his early sixteenth century piece “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” (1502–16) as he proposed that the profile of a vulture can be seen in the blue robe draped around the Virgin, with the tail of the bird being placed by the child’s mouth, almost seen to enter it. The identification of the bird in his dream being a vulture was significant as it provided a link between da Vinci as a child and the feminine. There was a belief that vultures were an Egyptian symbol of the other, as well as the idea that only vultures were in fact female propagating the idea of Virgin birth. The significance of the tail imagery relates to eroticism and vulnerability as the tail is associated with phallic imagery that seems to threaten the young child, who Freud believes is symbolically representative of da Vinci surrounded by his birth mother (the Virgin, a relative concept to his being illegitimate therefore not knowing his father from an early age) and his step–mother (St. Anne).
Although there are issues surrounding his family and divisions over the matriarchal figures in his life, it has to be acknowledged that in this case psychoanalysis is not the pure reasoning behind the literal structure or symbolic structure of the painting. At the time the work was being produced there was a significant culture for works that included St. Anne, accounting for her presence with the Virgin and child. Due to her presence and the placing of the figures in a triangle that dominates the composition this could account for Christ’s missing companion, the infant John the Baptist, to whom he was typically painted alongside. This absence due to the lack of space on the right results to a lamb being put in place of the absent Baptist infant. Yet, the greatest inconsistency as put forward by Schapiro is the fact that the vulture dream encountered by da Vinci, rather dubiously on reflection of the bizarre nature of the dream and the fact that it could have been a later dream imposed on his childhood memories, is the mistranslation of the word vulture, i.e. that it was not specifically a vulture that da Vinci identified, but just a large bird. Another idea that Freud touches on with his idea of da Vinci’s unconscious obsession with his two mothers is that of women being objects of fetishes and desire. This is an issue explored not only by da Vinci but also became a highly prominent theme within the work of the Surrealists and modern artists.
As a movement Surrealism was rooted in the innovative experimentation taken from the Dada movement, but was also influenced by the psychoanalytical works of Freud and Jung. Within the movement the involvement of women was seen to be fundamental as described by Briony Fer saying “Surrealism placed ‘woman’ at its centre, as the focus of its dreams” . Women represented objects of desire, and fetish but also due to the psychoanalytical idea that women were closer to madness as they were “closer to the irrational…the constant’ other’” . This was respected as the insane, like children, were able to depict the workings of the unconscious as they lacked elements of understanding that is inherent in `the works of the sane. Yet, like the majority of art history women were the subject of Surrealists works placed under inspection by either a male artist or a male spectator. Looking at Man Ray’s photograph of Meret Oppenheim “Meret Oppenheim à la presse” (1933) naked standing behind a printer’s wheel whilst covered partially in ink there is an undeniable eroticism to the concept of the painting as the woman is placed as an object of desire, an object to be longed for by the male spectator. Yet, despite this psychoanalytical concept this can not be the only explanation to the structure and set–up of the composition as it also exposes themes of modernity and the human body blending into the machine, more a call to arms against the effect of modernity than just pure fetishism on the part of the artist and spectator. In this way the desirability of the nude woman and the disjuncture of her naked body being placed alongside the printing wheel creates a shocking composition, therefore making a statement about modernity.
One of the issues surrounding modernity and culture was that of the gender difference between men and women. Freud put forward the idea that the difference between men and women was not based on biology but more of the culture in which they lived. This aspect is one that influenced the photographer Claude Cahun, as although born a woman she spent much of her adult life switching genders in front of the camera. In order to explain this the concept of psychobiography could be used as it could be reasoned that from an early age she was troubled by the removal of her mother to an asylum and later becoming anorexic, a disease usually associated with a want to change physical identity. Therefore in her photographs it can be seen that she seems to take on an androgynous state as it hard to tell whether she is in fact posing as a man or a woman. Her personal background is a useful possibility as to explaining why she worked with the issue of gender but is not the only possibility as between the 1920’s – 40’s there was an increased demand for the perfect faces of woman in film and advertising. With the removal of men as a sex symbol as described in ‘The Female Nude’ “…it can be said that the unclothed male model dominated the life class in European academies…until the late eighteenth century…there was a perceivable shift in emphasis to the study of the unclothed female model…the female nude had become the dominant form in European figurative art.” . The woman became the new object of desire but also the object that needed to be flawless. Ironically the object that men desired needed to be distorted in order to sustain appeal. This is shown in the work of Cindy Sherman as she takes her own image like Cahun and models it on the glamorous and desirable faces seen in Hollywood, despite the fact that the more she does this it shows the greater loss of her own identity. In this way psychoanalysis is useful in conjuncture with pressures on gender and sexual difference of the time as it exposes how the desires felt by men are influential in creating the masks women wear in order to retain desirability. The issue of the female mask was also scrutinized by Surrealists in association with psychoanalysis.
As a practise psychoanalysis and psychobiography are intriguing ways in which to view possible influences on the work of artists, yet it can not be supposed that they are accurate or even conclusive. As a concept both analyses can not be tested like other methods of science therefore lack certain grounding that can make their influence unquestionable. There is also the problem that psychobiography as well as psychoanalysis is purely subjective as it relies on the evidence given either by the artist themselves or taken from the opinions of others. In this way the analysis that is created is dependent on information that, itself could not be accurate, but could be translated incorrectly as seen in the case of Freud and Leonardo da Vinci’s dreamt vulture. Freud shows how he used information gained from the testimony of da Vinci but also findings he found in his own self–analysis and found links in da Vinci’s work that proved his theory, whilst ignoring information that could easily disprove his ideas. Yet, despite these drawbacks psychoanalytical works help to create underlying structures of possibilities that bring to the surface a range of ideas that would not initially be considered and yet help to explain aspects of both the production and perception of artworks.