‘Some of the grandest and most overwhelming creations of art are still unsolved riddles to our understanding. We admire them, we feel overawed by them, but we are unable to say what they mean to us.’
Sigmund Freud The Michelangelo of Moses (1914)
I’m currently drafting a lecture series for BA Fine Art and Fine Art with Psychology students at the University of Worcester connecting concepts of art, psychology and society. So I was very happy when Tanya Carpenter and Luke Devine, two colleagues from the psychology and politics departments respectively, invited me to contribute an online lockdown lecture on Freud, Psychoanalysis and Culture during the suspension of campus activities in Summer 2020. It gave me the opportunity to draw out, in broad brushstrokes, the importance of Freud for 20th century art and the psychological aspects of its interpretation.
Arguably no individual psychologist had a greater impact on modern art than Sigmund Freud, especially during its formative phase at the beginning of the last century. Although Freud’s influence on the visual arts began to wane by the 1950’s as the Modern gradually gave way to the Contemporary, the legacy of psychoanalysis has remained strong in the fields of art theory and criticism and the traditions that have defined them (notably deconstruction, feminism, Frankfurt school critical theory, Marxism, post-colonial theory, semiotics and structuralism). In the 1980’s, when in UK art schools these discourses came to be collectively known as Theory, no critical studies program would have been complete without at least one lecture on Freud and psychoanalysis.
The influence of psychoanalysis on Surrealism is well known to anyone with an interest in 20th century art. My personal journey into art and theory began when I saw reproductions of the paintings of Salvador Dalí, Giorgio De Chirico, René Magritte and Dorothea Tanning in the art room of my secondary school. In the same books as these images I read about psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and his disconcerting theories about childhood sexuality, repression and the unconscious mind. Ten years later I found myself writing a PhD thesis on Georges Bataille, a writer whose work was entangled in the turbulent birth of Surrealism in Paris during the 1920’s and 30’s, and who, like several of his Surrealist colleagues, had entered into psychoanalysis at that time.
My own research keeps returning to the intellectual milieu of Paris in the 1930’s, a period of intense artistic, philosophical and political ferment in which several important figures in the ensuing decades of French cultural life were embroiled. The 30’s began with the Paris Colonial Exposition (in response to which the Surrealists staged a counter exhibition, The Truth about the Colonies); and the first Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic mission to Africa (for which Bataille’s close friend and fellow Surrealist Michel Leiris was archivist and secretary). It saw the consolidation of Soviet Communism under Stalin; the rise of Hitler and National Socialism in Germany; the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich; the beginning of WWII and the occupation of France by the German army. All were events that Bataille and his Surrealist colleagues attempted to understand from psychoanalytic, religious and sociological perspectives.
My current interest in correlations between art, environmental psychology, inter-species communication and what I have elsewhere called paranoid critical theory, are lines of inquiry seeded by writings first published in Surrealist art journal Minotaur in the 30’s. The most important of these is Roger Caillois’ essay ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia’ which combines reflections on insect mimicry, psychopathology and sorcery. Caillois’ attention to the trans-disciplinary potential of surrealist insight was shared by the influential French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whose essay ‘The Problem of Style and Paranoid Forms of Experience’ was published in Minotaur in 1933, and Salvador Dali, who outlined his paranoiac-critical working method in the same journal. Lacan’s famous formulation of the mirror phase, which was to have a profound influence on cultural and critical theory from the 1960’s, was directly informed by Caillois’ ideas. Lacan’s puzzling writing and lecturing style, with its tautological word plays and convoluted conceptual formula, owed much to the Dali’s paranoiac-critical method, intended less to explain and clarify his ideas than to disturb, confuse and unsettle his audiences.Continue reading “Beware the Boa Constructor! Freud, Modern Art and the Riddle of Interpretation”