Cross-Fertilization between Psychoanalysis and the Visual Arts

             It is no accident that psychoanalysis flourished in Vienna in the early decades of the Twentieth Century amidst an explosion of innovative artistic movements.  While Freud’s contemporaries in Vienna - artists like Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele - exhibited powerfully emoting expressionistic paintings, otherEuropean artists such as Paul Cezanne and Wassily Kandinsky gave birth to Abstract Art. Freud, an avidcollector of antiquities and a connoisseur, formulated his metapsychological hypotheses at a time and place in the history of art that coincided with an exploration with abstraction and a drastic departure from artistic representational conventions. The etymological root of the word ‘abstraction’, from Latin, means “to draw away from, to separate”. Abstract art renounces form to express essence, and it is an unconscious creative process relevant to psychoanalysis. Abstraction goes into the making of any work of art, for evena photographic depiction of nature allows for the artist’s interpretation.  Abstract art, moreover, dwells in the purelysymbolic, on multiplicity of meaning, and clearly allows for the artistic expression of affect and of the artist’sindividuality. Ernest Hartmann (2000) emphasized the importance of affects in both psychoanalysis and contemporary art. He stated that both analytic work and modern artistry “involve the making of new connections guided by affect” (p. 73). He further per­ceived contemporary artwork as a contextualization of emotions.

            As psychoanalysis established itself and evolved throughout Europe and the American continent, its cultural impact was prominent in the development of Surrealism in Europe, and later, Abstract Expressionismin the United States.  André Breton (1969), the founder of Surrealism, and other artists such as Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, transformed psychoanalytic concepts into a pictorial style of dream landscapes and imaginative primary process paintings. Surrealists tried to reconcile theabstract with the concrete (Whitfield 1992) with their magical hyper-real images giving the viewer the experience of having a pictorial glimpse at the unconscious. One could also speculate that Abstract Expressionism, an artistic tradition born in the United States after World War II, was partly fueled by the Vienna of the early 1900s.   The Abstract Expressionists, exemplified by Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, were a group of American artists who elaborated on the concept, previously proposed by Kandinsky in Europe, to completely forsake representation orresemblance to the world and give colorand forceful brushstrokes central importance in the creation of a work of art.Abstract Expressionists painted in trance-like states directly pouring affect on canvas. To quote the observations ofthehistorians H.W. Janson and A.F. Janson (1992):“(with Abstract Expressionism)…painting became acounterpart to life itself, anongoing process in which artists face comparable risks and overcome dilemmas confronting them through a series of conscious and unconscious decisions in response to both internal and external demands” (p. 438).

             Freud’s formulations, in particular the importance of the unconscious, psychic determinism, the concept of primary process, the technique of free association, and the interpretation of dreams, are an integral part of the cultural armamentarium of contemporary artists, aesthetes, critics, and art historians.  Psychoanalytic theory and technique became relevant to the development of artistic traditions in the Twentieth Century and the fields Psychoanalysis and Aesthetics became intertwined ever since in a journey of cross-fertilization.

César A. Alfonso

Breton, A. (1969), Manifesto of Surrealism, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.  

Hartmann, E. (2000), The psychology and physiology of dreaming: A new synthesis, in L. Gamwell (Ed.),    Dreams 1900–2000 Science, Art and the Unconscious Mind, Cornell University Press, New York, pp. 61– 76.  

Janson, H. W. and Janson, A. F. (1992) A Basic History of Art, Prentice Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New   Jersey.  

Whitfield S. (1992), Magritte, South Bank Centre, London.