Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Creative Art-The Case of Paul Gauguin

By Mather, Ronnie | PSYART, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Creative Art-The Case of Paul Gauguin


Mather, Ronnie, PSYART


The personal excesses of Paul Gauguin are relatively well-known. This paper argues that Gauguin was suffering from a disorder known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder and that this directly impacted his creative work, particularly in the later years. Gauguin's narcissism is readily apparent from both published biographies and from his own writings. But the nature and structure of his own narcissistic fantasies are also apparent in his art. These manifest themselves in some of his most famous works and constitute a defence against both anxiety and depression. Themes such as birth, death, the nature of the self are dealt with in a fashion typical of a narcissist prone to grandiose fantasies.

keywords: Gauguin, personality disorder, narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2007_mather01.shtml

The following might be regarded as an excursus on the autonomy of the creative imagination. Or, perhaps, an "ideal type" (in the Weberian sense) of an argument, an extreme argument, in stating the opposite; that is, that the products of the creative process are, in certain specific instances, reducible to the psychological state of the individual that has produced it. The "psychologizing of art" is reckoned by some to be very bad form, even by those who are somewhat engaged in so doing. It has a distinguished philosophical pedigree emanating from Nietzsche continuing through Freudian psychoanalysis and continuing with recent psychological approaches to art, the psychology of perception and advances in neurobiology. It usually takes the form of a "guilty reductionism", a concomitant avowal and disavowal of artistic license. Sociological treatments of art, on the other hand, have less stringent superegos being granted freer license in interpreting artistic developments in light of social movements and the changing balance of social forces. They are also regarded as more academically respectable or at least fashionable and have informed all sorts of art commentary and critique. There are very eminent examples of both approaches to the work of Paul Gauguin. Most psychoanalytic readings of Gauguin focus on a "personality vainly struggling to fend off the consequences of the feminine identification he made as a fatherless child" (Gedo, 1983: 147), a position repeated by one of the most recent treatments of Gauguin (Collins, 2001: 43). Sociologically informed treatments of his work have often focused on issues of colonialism, racism and sexism (Pollock, 1992; Solomon-Godeau, 1989). There is merit in both approaches. The following offers a psychological treatment of Gauguin. Specifically, that Gauguin exhibited all the symptoms of what is now termed "Narcissistic Personality Disorder". Understanding of the latter in actual fact is informed by classical Freudianism, "self-psychology" (Kohut, 1971), psychology and psychiatry. Various reasons account for this fusion, and there are tensions as well as harmony within this marriage. The lexicon of narcissism is still overwhelmingly psychoanalytical, but developmental psychology is now very firmly of the opinion that the child is much more outwardly directed than had been previously supposed. Narcissistic investment in the ego, as a general stage of human development, the idea of an objectless undifferentiated phase, (in more philosophical terms, an identical subject-object), is at least questionable. This is problematic, not only for the classical Freudian account but also for the two most recent influential accounts of pathological narcissism (Kohut, 1971; Kernberg, 1975) that presuppose such a phase. As well as specific disagreements the whole notion of "personality disorder" itself sits uncomfortably with the classical Freudian account of neurotic symptomology. The shift from symptom to much broader "character analysis" by Wilhelm Reich and "personality" by Adler promises a general fixity of the self perhaps at odds with the changing balance of forces favored by Freud.

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