Psychoanalysis

                                      Deanna White

Max Ernst, The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells the Dappled Fire Damps and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses (c. 1921). Gouache, ink, and pencil on printed paper on paperboard, The Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

Figure 1. Max Ernst, The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells the Dappled Fire Damps and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses (c. 1921). Gouache, ink, and pencil on printed paper on paperboard, The Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

Psychoanalysis is a set of theories introduced by Sigmund Freud in the late nineteenth century. Freud proposed that human behavior and experiences were influenced by the unconscious mind. When applied to art, a psychoanalytic approach takes artwork as a representation of the artist’s anxieties, conflicts, repressed desires and emotions, and as a key to examining his/her unconscious. Freud stressed that art experience allows primitive fantasies to escape repression and gain symbolic satisfaction.1 According to Howard Hibbard, psychoanalytic analysis is based on understanding how art functions in relation to the two minds present in a work of art, the artist and viewer.2 This theory looks to explain the latent content encoded into a work of art.

Some of the first artists to adopt psychoanalytic theories into their practices were the Surrealists in the 1920s. Surrealists sought a resolution between two seemingly contradictory states—dream and reality—into a new concept of reality which André Breton referred to as surreality. 3 The surrealist Max Ernst followed Freud’s teachings and applied the scientist’s work to his practices after studying psychiatry prior to World War I.4

Ernst believed using psychoanalysis gave insight into the unconscious mind, allowing him to develop as an artist.  In his 1921 chromolithographic print, The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells the Dappled Fire Damps and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses [Figure 1], phantasmal microscopic figures align to create a machine-like diagram. Ernst may have used newly accessible photos from microscopes to create a fanciful, biotechnological dream world.5 He created his print by inverting a botanical chat from a commercial catalog, and then selectively blacking out parts in gouache.6 In doing so, Ernst diverts the original scientific meanings of his sources. The word “gramineous” from his title mimics scientific vocabulary for grass cells, emphasizing his satirical attitude towards the sciences. His work criticizes the faith in technological advancement because of the atrocities of World War I.

Ernst, like Freud, believed that human sexuality was innate in every person, ultimately driving societal development. Ernst is illustrating mitosis through the protrusions and positioning of the cells to create sexual overtones, alluding to sexual behaviors. Ernst further develops this theme by including hairs jutting out from the organic figures, suggesting a state of sexual arousal. The sensual energy of Ernst’s figures show that, in spite of technological advancement, sexuality will always be the foundation of society.

Psychoanalytic theory gives art historians the ability to analyze art as a conversation between the artist’s mind and the society the artist comes from.

Footnotes

  1. Joao Pedro Frois, “Lacan in Art Education,” Visual Arts Research 36:2 (2010): 4.
  2. Howard Hibbard, “A Psychoanalytic Approach to the History of Art,” Comparative Literature Studies 4:4 (1967): 360.
  3. Charles E. Gauss, “The Theoretical Backgrounds of Surrealism,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 2:8 (1943): 38.
  4. Samantha Beth Kavky, Authoring the Unconscious: Freudian Structures in the Art of Max Ernst (University of Pennsylvania, 2001), 281.
  5. Leah Dickerman and Anne Umland, Audio Program Excerpt Dada. Museum of Modern Art, 2006. http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=35940.
  6. Haim Finkelstein, “Screen and Layered Depth: Surrealist Painting and the Conceptualization of Mental Space,” The President and Fellows of Harvard College Acting Through the Peabody Museum Archaeology and Ethnology 51 (2007): 183.