Artists: Notes on Art Making

What differentiates psychoanalysis from other schools of psychological speculation is its claims to be a complete philosophical system by itself. There is practically no field of human activity and endeavour that it has not sought to interpret anew. It has its own theories to offer regarding the origin and nature of religion and ethics and its contributions to the study of literature and art have been impressive. The contribution of psychoanalysis to art rests upon its analysis of the symbol. The Freudian analysis of the dream showed that it is by overdetermination that an image becomes a symbol since the distinguishing characteristic of the symbol is that in addition to its intrinsic meaning and sometimes quite overriding it, it is overlaid with another significance arising from the history of the personal and collective psyche. The symbol, however, was certainly not unknown to traditional art. In European religious painting, for example, the Cross was a perfect symbol of religious feeling, which could at once induce the right aesthetic receptivity in the beholder by its associative saturation. But in surrealism and certain types of abstractionism, psychoanalysis made it possible for art to utilise symbolic significances arising respectively from the levels of the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The psyche of man floats like an iceberg in the ocean of time. The greater portion of his mental life is submerged below the surface. Symbols belong to both the levels, but the symbols of the upper stratum, developed during the historical Process, had been exhaustively used it art. Therefore, argued artists like Max Ernst, Joan Miro and Salvador Dali, the time had come to reinforce these symbols by those drawn from the unconscious as well. Thus surrealism, it will be noted, did not confine itself to the symbols of the unconscious but drew for itself material from both the strata. It sought to depict the super-reality of the human personality, extended in both levels. The technique, employed in this effort, was the technique found in the fabrication of dreams. Natural objects also appear in dreams-but in strange juxtaposition. And it was in this very strangeness of their composition that their symbolic significance was to be sought. There were the theoretical bases, from which emerged the haunting compositions of the surrealists. Things are either too dull in their places or are there by sheer inertia. The function of art was to snatch things from the security of their normal existence and put them where they have never been before except in dreams. And since dreams are projected by frustrated personal desires, surrealist art is sometimes motivated by frustrated social desires. This explains its ideological affinity to the Left. But the passion has not been reciprocated since Communism, consistent with its own outlook, believes that the remedy for social maladjustments is not compromise in dreams but revolutionary action. The Logic of abstract is not so sound. In a strenuous attempt to explain Picasso, Zervos wrote that his technique is never to set his will in opposition to his vision. The abstractionist, it is argued, tries to record directly, to transpose with-out any editing the stream of his unconscious. The attempt is similar to that made by Joyce in Ulysses but language being the instrument for the communication of meaning, this technique in literature cannot enjoy the freedom from logic which it can in painting. It is also claimed that during this process, many of the symbols of the collective unconscious are salvaged for the advantage of art. Whether or not the advantage has been real, it is true that psychoanalytic research has laid bare the existence of certain archetypal images, whose symbolism embraces a wide variety of manifestations. The existence of such symbols was studied by Schemer even before Freud and a great amount of work has been done in this field by Wilhelm Stekel and Jung. In Jung's short but significant study in Chinese mysticism, The Secrets of the Golden Flower, we come across such an archetypal image, the mandala. The mandala is a circle or a magic ring, the archetype of all concentrically arranged figures. The mandala according to Jung, is present in the palaeolithic sun wheels of Rhodesia, in the sand drawings used in the ceremonies of the Pueblo Indians in the mystic traditions of ancient Egypt, in the esoteric mysticism of Tantric Hinduism and Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, in Byzantine, Celtic and Gothic art and the heraldic rose of the Tudors. The fact that Jung found mandala drawings among the mentally diseased, who could not have had the least idea of any of these connections, confirms the thesis that there are symbols of the collective unconscious, just as there are symbols of the personal unconscious.

We may now attempt the difficult task of making up our mind about the value of the psycho-analytic contribution to art. Abstract art seems just permissible and nothing beyond that. Reproductions of archetypal images have greater value in text-books of psychoanalysis than in the painter's studio. Besides, if these images are the legacy of the race, they probably inspire the designs of the commercial artists working for textile fabrics and wall paper as much as they inspire `creative' art and they are much more pleasing. There is less scope (or humbug, too, in commercial art where the patterns have at least to be symmetrical while the 'genius' can perpetrate anything he likes. Further if we agree that art involves communication of significance, abstract art of this type would not be any art, since there is no communication and if there is any significance it is hidden from the artist's own consciousness. This is also the defect with stronger doses of surrealism. If they mean anything, it is not clear to the beholder and in theory it should not be clear even to the artist, in the same way that the significance of my dreams is not clear to me by virtue of their being my property ‘. But surrealist technique, employed with sobriety can enhance the suggestive power of the traditional metaphor and symbol, as is clear from the following examples from the verses of Terence Tiller, where the images evoked have the haunting pictorial quality of Salvador Dali's work but are not quite so puzzling. The crumpled pool of ours, the haunted reeds the crooked willow and the drifting singer. .. Now the great bones of ancient things lie foundered on the rotting beach . . . . In days of nightingales and when our streets are all nostalgic turnings and the west A broken harbour, there will be terror walking Psychoanalysis has had extensive and profound ramifications and even the claim that the doctrine, along with Marxism, dominates the pre-sent epoch, cannot be too easily denied. But time has yet to pass before we can make a final assessment of its exact legacy to us.

Published in Silpi, June 1947, page 13-14
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