How Does Psychoanalysis Shape Our Understanding of the Production and Perception of Art Objects?
The ‘science of the unconscious’ was first devised at the end of the 19th Century by Sigmund Freud. Freud worked with patients seeking treatment with neurotic symptoms. In doing this Freud ‘discovered’ the structure of the mind. The most accepted model for this is the ‘tripartite structure’; comprising of the ‘id’ – the unconscious, the ‘ego’ – the conscious, and the ‘superego’ – the rational use of the conscious.
Freud was particularly interested in the ‘unconscious’ and through investigation of human behaviour he concluded that his patients’ problems stemmed from an unconscious which was repressed by culture. Included in this repressed unconscious were the ideas of sexual and aggressive desires and fantasies.
Freud was also interested in collected identities and in social structures which repeat themselves throughout historical groups. This is reflected in his use of mythology to explain his theories. For instance, the Oedipus complex (a young boy’s desire for the exclusive love of the mother and jealousy and an unconscious death wish for the father) takes its name from the Greek myth of Oedipus who unintentionally kills his father and marries his mother. Oedipus then goes on to symbolically castrate himself by blinding himself with his mother’s brooch.
Psychoanalysis also has many of its origins alongside Modernism, an artistic movement which was happening at the time which Freud was working. Artists took psychoanalytic theories into consideration and used them in the production of their work. They are often seen as transforming their socially unacceptable desires and instincts through their creativity.
To investigate his new science, Freud turned to primitivism to try and find the origin of our desires and to ascertain how culture evolves. During this period art also began to move away from the constraints of patronage and artists began to follow their own ideas. This gave artists such a Gauguin the chance to pursue their interests in the field of primitivism also. Gauguin was personally dissatisfied by life around him and was seeking a more pure way of life. He went to rural France and tried to identify with the land and the native people. In an example of his paintings, ‘The Rich after Sermon’, Gauguin uses a primitive style which we can see in his use of black outlines and rich natural colours. The subject also illustrates the purity of religion.
The Surrealist movement was also actively engaged with psychoanalysis although Freud himself dismissed them because their art would always be restricted by rationalisation and mediation. Salvador Dali, a Surrealist, painted detailed dream landscapes with “forms placed in illusionistic space… images may be recognisable, but the relations between them are deliberately enigmatic, as in a dream.”
Another artist which used psychoanalytic theory was Joan Miro. He is often associated with the Surrealist movement although he rejected membership to any artistic movement. He undertakes his work through automatism, spontaneously creating art pieces “without conscious aesthetic or moral self–censorship” . Whilst painting, ‘Peinture’, (1927) Miro tried to enter his unconscious mind by starving himself and to experience hallucinations. In the painting itself Miro draws a tenuous line across the painting to leave suggestions of form; we might interpret there to be a breast on the right–hand side of the picture for instance. His forms always remain unfixed and at the level of suggestion. This infers that his works are purely open to personal interpretation and we perceive his work differently depending on our own psyche and our own influences. We can therefore see how psychoanalysis can be used by the artist in the production of art work and by the viewer when we try to understand why the artist took that approach to his art and why we as interpret it as we do.
In his effort to understand the unconscious, Freud tried to interpret dreams. He used these interpretations as well as biographies to create a theory of psychobiography to try and establish how an artist’s life is related to his artistic production.
Freud specifically looked at the life and works of Leonardo da Vinci who was said to have had a ‘memory’ of a vulture striking him in the mouth with its tail . Freud used the symbol of the vulture and the action of striking to relate the memory to ideas about his sexuality and his relationship with his mother. He also gathered his evidence by looking at da Vinci’s painting of ‘Saint Anne’ which Freud took to be a representation the artist’s family.
This method of psychoanalysis is very unreliable as the use of memories and dreams can be misinterpreted, the person analysing the evidence may have a biased view and the use of biographic evidence is very subjective. It is also very difficult to analyse artwork from hundreds of years ago because different social influences, including the patron, must also be taken into account. However, psychoanalysis can raise some interesting issues for art historians to consider when try to understand how to perceive art objects.
Art historians interested in issues of identity, sexuality and gender have also made use of psychoanalysis as a method of interpreting the actions of artists. Claude Cahun uses countless images to express her self. Her interests lie in using gender and sexual difference. She would often photograph herself dressed as, and in the role of, a man and would take on a male persona. We can use psychoanalysis to understand why Cahun presents herself to the viewer in this way, to represent the patriarchal art world around her. We can see that she did not want to be a man but instead wanted to try and break down the boundaries which exist between genders. Psychoanalysis is useful to art historians in this way.
There are many theories within psychoanalysis which stem from the fore–mentioned Oedipus complex. One of these is that men have more power than women. However, this power over women lapses when we consider the idea of ‘castration anxiety’. There are two ways that the male unconscious can escape this anxiety; the first is through re–enactment of the original trauma. This has associations with sadism. The second approach is “complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of fetish object or turning the represented figure into a fetish itself so that it becomes reassuring” . This leads to fetishistic scopophilia (pleasure in looking) and hence ‘the gaze’.
Man Ray was a Surrealist photographer and he illustrated an article by Tristan Tzara for the Surrealist magazine, ‘Minotaure’ in 1933. Tzara’s article, ‘On a Certain Automatism’ addressed issues with contemporary fashion trends, specifically in terms of hat fashion, looking at the fedora in particular. In the article, Tzara himself uses psychoanalytic theories to suggest that fashion was a type of unconscious expression. Man Ray also considered psychoanalytic ideas of fetishism when he photographed two different images of hats for the magazine.
The hat is worn by women as a phallic form itself; this is to compensate for the idea of loss due to castration. It is seen by Surrealists as an extension of the head which envelops the unconscious mind, rather than as an ornamental accessory.
In his photographs, Man Ray implies the presence of an imagined spectator. His use of high camera angles means that the hats are viewed from above to show the crown – a position from which the woman herself cannot see herself. The photographs therefore benefit others rather than the female model herself.
In the first of the two untitled images the split crown fedora takes the metaphoric form of the female genitalia. The camera angle means that the hat almost entirely conceals the face – making it a mask. It also suggests decapitation or castration.
The second of the images focuses on texture which draws attention to the surface and makes us aware if its tactility. The focus on texture makes a transition from touch to sight and leads to scopophilia, central to fetishism. The photographs are examples of fetishism; the replacement of sexual difference for the object of the hat. The photographs isolate the object, “disconnect it from surrounding context, give it undue attention and use unfamiliar angles to focus compulsively upon it” .
Photography, as a medium, is suited to the representation of fetishism due to the fact that the “timeless quality of photography… is comparable to the timelessness of the unconscious and of memory” . This timelessness, the idea of death and castration, relates back to fetishism. The photographic form is also successful because it can be held, appealing to the viewer’s sense of touch whereas a cinematic image cannot be handled; only seen. There is also the point that the camera takes a ‘true’ image of what really exists.
The cinema also uses a ‘true’ image to project its ideas. However, Metz sums the fetishistic appeals of cinema and photography by stating that ‘where film is more capable of playing on fetishism, photography is more capable of itself becoming a fetish’6. This is similar to Mulvey’s idea that the sadist’s escape from ‘castration anxiety’ demands a story, which makes it more suited to narrative cinema. “However, fetishistic scopophilia can exist outside time as the erotic instinct is focused on the look alone” .
Psychoanalysis has been used as a method to draw conclusions about art objects throughout the 20th Century. It raises many interesting theories about the nature of the unconscious and is very useful to art historians trying to understand more about the Modernist movement which rose at the same time as Freudian concepts. However, Freud’s theories are based on assumptions and personal interpretations of individual artworks, they are unscientific and there is no evidence to prove or disprove his ideas. His theories raise concerns because they are sexist and condescending towards women. Psychoanalytic motions can also be discredited as they often do not take into account the social, economic and political influences in society at the time work is produced.