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May 13, 2006


Follow-up to Psychoanalysis from Team Colour

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.

May 05, 2006


Follow-up to Psychoanalysis from Team Colour

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.

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