A Psychoanalytic Approach to Visual Artists

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James Hamilton's engaging book offers us his own unique insight into the unconscious factors involved in the creative processes associated with painting, filmmaking, and photography by studying the lives and works of a number of artists, each one having a unique personal style.In separate chapters, he looks at the lives and works of Mark Rothko, Joseph Cornell, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Clement Greenberg, Edward Weston, Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Quentin Tarantino, and Florian von Donnersmarck from a psychoanalytic perspective with emphasis on unconscious motivation and the quest for mastery of intrapsychic conflict. The book is bound to encourage further questions and hypotheses about the nature of these complex phenomena.

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CHAPTER ONE: Mark Rothko

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“I paint large pictures because I want to create a state of intimacy. A large picture is an immediate transaction; it takes you into it”

(Rothko, 1958, p. 87)

Mark Rothko, who was a member of the abstract expressionist school of painters that thrived in New York after the Second World War, devised his signature style of stacked chromatic rectangles or “multiforms”, as they were sometimes called, in his mid-forties, after experimenting, like Mondrian, for many years with other techniques and modes of representation since first beginning to paint seriously at the age of twenty-two. Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia on September 25, 1903, the youngest of four siblings, his childhood was extremely trying. As an infant, he was subjected to prolonged swaddling, which was to have lasting consequences for him (Breslin, 1993, p. 278). He was “fragile, sensitive, sickly” and not expected to survive because of a severe calcium deficiency requiring him to scavenge plaster from walls until the age of four, when the problem was finally diagnosed and his diet was supplemented with a quart of milk each day. He had an enormous appetite and could never get enough to eat as a child, which he dwelt on bitterly for the rest of his life. He experienced anti-Semitic persecution, often had rocks thrown at him on his way to and from school, and wore a knapsack as a protective shield. Czarist pogroms carried out by Cossacks were a constant threat, although it is doubtful he and his family were ever the victims of one.

 

CHAPTER TWO: Joseph Cornell

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“Like Cornell, placing infinity in a box”

(Maso, 1993, p. 147)

Joseph Cornell, known best for his meticulously constructed and exotic assemblages, is regarded as one of the foremost and unique American artists of his time. His life was dominated by his work, which he pursued quietly, always striving for perfection and purity. Born in Nyack, New York on December 24, 1903, he was the sixth in his family line to bear the name Joseph and the oldest of four children, having two sisters and a brother, one, two, and seven years younger, respectively. He was allegedly his mother Helen’s favorite, though she was capricious with her affection and he felt he could never do enough to justify the love she gave him. Described as “hypersensitive and moody,” he was a prolific reader during his childhood with a strong leaning towards the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, and tended to remain at home rather than engage with peers, complaining frequently of stomach aches to gain his mother’s attention. One of his “most cherished, precious memories” was of his mother nursing him while he was in bed with an upper respiratory infection which made him acutely aware of “mother-presence and mother-care” (Solomon, 1997, p. 13).

 

CHAPTER THREE: Piet Mondrian

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“In the new art the laws of harmony … no longer realize themselves in the manner of nature: they act more independently than they manifest themselves visually in nature. Finally, in the New Plastic, they are manifested entirely in the manner of art”

(Mondrian, 1917, p. 41)

The pathogenicity of childhood primal scene observation has been an issue of some controversy in psychoanalytic thinking. Greenacre (1973) believed that the witnessing of parental intercourse and its equivalents, the birth of a sibling or a miscarriage, in the first years can interfere with subsequent drive development, evoking primitive denial along with isolation of affect, rationalization, and displacement to bolster repression as a life-long method of dealing with such early trauma. This defensive constellation contributes to a defective sense of reality and, in certain instances, to the formation of an “illusory wall”, which reduces external stimuli and the chances for loss of control of libidinal and aggressive impulses.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Pablo Picasso

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“Someday there will be undoubtedly a science—it may be called the science of man—which will seek to learn more about man in general through the study of the creative man. I often think about such a science, and I want to leave to posterity a documentation that will be as complete as possible. That’s why I put a date on everything I do …”

(Picasso, in Brassai, 1966, p. 100)

The life and work of Pablo Picasso, arguably the most renowned artist of the twentieth century, provide an abundance of material for appreciating the role of the unconscious in the creative process.

Picasso was born on October 25, 1881 in Malaga, Spain and, because he was so lethargic and slow to breathe at birth, was given up as dead until a relative blew cigar smoke in his nose, to which he reacted vigorously. He was named after a paternal uncle, a priest, who had died in 1878, causing his parents marriage to be postponed for two years and raising a question as to whether he were not partially a replacement child. His father, Don Jose Ruiz, was an artist whose brother Pablo had been his patron.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Clement Greenberg

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“Nothing can be experienced esthetically without a value judgment, nothing can be experienced esthetically except through a value judgment”

(Greenberg, 2000, p. 59)

Clement Greenberg, one of the foremost and formidable art critics of his time, enthusiastically endorsed the abstract expressionist movement in New York during the 1950s and 1960s. He was, thus, in large measure responsible for the acclaim it received, making him an appropriate subject for the study of unconscious determinants of formal aesthetic appreciation.

Greenberg was born in the Bronx on January 16, 1909 and had brothers, Sol and Martin, and a step-sister, Natalie, who were four, nine, and nineteen years younger than he. His parents, Joseph and Dora, had emigrated to the United States from Poland and his father was a successful businessman. As a young boy, Clem tended to be a loner, kept himself apart from the rest of the family, and was prone to violent outbursts. When he was 4–5, he beat a goose to death, recalling later: “I took an ax and went after him … Geese can attack small children, you know. But I don’t think that’s why I went after him. It was cruel” (Rubenfeld, 1997, p. 31). Around that time he also started to “obsessively” sketch human torsos. In his late seventies, he rated himself “an artistic prodigy”, able to “draw photographically.”

 

CHAPTER SIX: Edward Weston

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“To see the Thing Itself is essential: the quintessence revealed direct without the fog of impression,—the casual noting of a superficial phase, or transitory mood. This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock”

(Weston, 1961b, p. 154)

Edward Weston, one of America’s foremost photographers, was swayed by unconscious elements in his choice of a professional career whose vicissitudes prompted many such statements as the above about his vocation and its goals.

Though the psychoanalytic literature on photography, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1990, is limited, the contributions have been significant ones. Fox (1957) has described the analysis of a photographer who

made use of his camera to gratify voyeuristic and exhibitionistic impulses with relative impunity as well as to achieve active visual focus on the external world. Photography had become a regressive substitute for vision, and his camera served as a mechanism for the control of visual intake and for the establishment of psychic distance.” The erotization of vision was the result of his relationship with a seductive but cold mother who provided little affection while having him pose regularly as a nude model for her paintings and also sunbathe with her, such that photography had for him implications of both devouring and stealing. (p. 93)

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Ingmar Bergman

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“Movies are, of course, fantastic media with which to touch other human beings, to reach them, to either annoy them or make them happy, to make them sad or to get them to think. To get them started emotionally”

(Bergman, in Singer, 2007, p. 28)

In referring to The Silence, one movie critic wrote that “it is a symphony of despair, a harrowing harmony of unspoken anguish and the unheard lament of the loveless. And it is, perhaps, the most psychologically complex and symbol-laden of Ingmar Bergman’s movies and one of his most demanding” while another pronounced it “the mature Bergman’s masterpiece” (Crist, 1964; Donner, 1964). The last in a trilogy which includes Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light, the story concerns three main characters—Anna, a young married woman, Johan, her six-year-old son, and Ester, Anna’s older unmarried sister. As the film opens, they are returning to Sweden by train from an unknown country. War is pending and through the windows of their compartment can be seen military trains passing on adjacent tracks, laden with tanks and heavy artillery. Their journey is interrupted when Ester, who has a serious lung disease, either tuberculosis or a malignancy, becomes too ill to continue traveling. They take rooms in a strange, almost empty hotel in a small town called Timoka, which in Estonian means “executioner”, where Ester is confined to bed.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: François Truffaut

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“One works with what happens to one in the first twelve years, and this base is inexhaustible”

(Truffaut, 1976, p. 34)

This chapter deals with the life and work of François Truffaut, who was in the forefront of the New Wave, or auteurism, in French cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, along with several other young directors, and will explore in depth the adaptive value for him of filmmaking.

Truffaut was born in Paris on February 6, 1932, an illegitimate and unwanted child. He had only the slightest contact in his early years with his mother, Janine de Monferrand, who was sixteen at his birth, and was placed with various wet nurses until the age of three, when he began to eat sparsely, lose weight, and looked as if he might die (Rabourdin, 1987, p. 11), His maternal grandmother, Genevieve de Monferrand, realizing how debilitated he was, took him into her home. She was a warm, kindly person who encouraged François to read from age five and let him go along with her to book stores and libraries. Her husband, Jean, was harsh and demanding. In François’s estimation,

 

CHAPTER NINE: Quentin Tarantino

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“If you ask me how I feel about violence in real life, well, I have a lot of feelings about it. It’s one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it … I wouldn’t mind making the most violent movie ever made … I don’t make movies that bring people together. I make movies that split people apart”

(Tarantino, in Clarkson, 1995, pp. 113, 245, 248)

Pulp Fiction, written mainly by its director Quentin Tarantino, was widely acclaimed, receiving the Palme d’Or for best picture at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and a 1995 Academy Award for best screenplay. One critic felt the movie was “A work of blazing originality. It places Tarantino in the front ranks of American filmmakers”, while another considered it “The most exhilarating piece of filmmaking to come along in years.” Tarentino was compared to Orson Welles: “Not since Citizen Kane has one man appeared from relative obscurity to redefine the art of filmmaking” (Dawson, 1995, pp. 2, 12). Within forty-eight hours of its release, Pulp Fiction grossed $9.16 million, quite remarkable for an independent production.

 

CHAPTER TEN: Florian von Donnersmarck

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“Filmmaking isn’t to do with being intellectual. In fact, that gets in the way … Once you learn the craft—and that’s not hard to learn—it’s more about using your own personality and tastes and trusting all that”

(von Donnersmarck, 2007)

Florian von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, which won an Oscar for best foreign film in 2005, is a detailed examination of the obsession of the former East German secret police (STASI) with spying on their fellow citizens, relying on a network of 200,000 informers. In 1984, Georg Dreyman, a forty-year-old playwright, is suspected of being too friendly with his literary counterparts in West Germany. His apartment in East Berlin, therefore, is electronically wired by the STASI and a listening post is set up in the attic of the same building, where all conversations detected by the hidden microphones are closely tracked, tape-recorded, and typed by Gerd Wiesler, a STASI captain and his assistant, a Sargeant Leye. Wiesler is highly aroused by the sounds of Dreyman and his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, a prominient actress, making passionate love.

 

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