Psychoanalyzing Art -- Art and Psychoanalysis by Laurie Schneider Adams / Looking at Art from the Inside Out: The Psychoiconographic Approach to Modern Art by Mary Mathews Gedo

By Wilson, Laurie | Art Journal, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Psychoanalyzing Art -- Art and Psychoanalysis by Laurie Schneider Adams / Looking at Art from the Inside Out: The Psychoiconographic Approach to Modern Art by Mary Mathews Gedo


Wilson, Laurie, Art Journal


Laurie Schneider Adams. Art and Psychoanalysis. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. 366 pp.; 135 b/w ills. $35.00

Mary Mathews Gedo. Looking at Art from the Inside Out: The Psycoiconographic Approach to Modern Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 311 pp.; 100 b/w ills. $64.95; $18.95 paper

Eighty-five years ago Freud made his initial excursion in a psychoanalytic exploration of visual art with his 1910 essay "Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood." This much contested essay is studied today from a variety of perspectives. Using insights garnered from his clinical work with a patient who reminded him of Leonardo (minus the genius), Freud set out to show how a vivid early memory can reveal core patterns of personality that are later expressed in a person's life and work.

Using Leonardo's journals, the biographical material available at the time, and iconographic and formal patterns he discerned in Leonardo's oeuvre, Freud constructed explanations for certain enigmas in Leonardo's life and character. In his only extended psychobiographical study, Freud artfully demonstrated his talent for psychoanalytic reconstruction. While working with his patients Freud had developed a remarkable skill of hypothesizing some of the forgotten early events and experiences in a person's life that had shaped adult behavior. Garnering clues from apparently minor discrepancies, inexplicably repeating patterns, and shards of various sorts from the distant past, Freud had successfully found keys to unlock the puzzling and troubling behavior besetting his patients. In other words, by deciphering the unconscious and applying his method to a known biographical figure, Freud could demonstrate the power and universality of the unconscious and reveal some of the ways memory and fantasy entwine and distort childhood experiences.

Candidates at psychoanalytic institutes read the Leonardo essay to learn about Freud's early theorizing on childhood sexuality, memory, narcissism, and in particular, a narcissistic type of homosexuality. On the other hand, the essay is sometimes offered to art history students as a cautionary exercise in the dangers of applying the theories garnered from one discipline to another and the consequent risks of ignorance. For Freud bashers from any discipline, it has served as a straw man--the small- and medium-size flaws in it are held up as proof of the irrelevance of the artist's inner life to his work--or worse, as confirmation that psychoanalysts are only interested in turning artists into "cases." The mad artist is a concept so compelling and ancient that few readers of Freud's essay have been able to discern that Freud's strenuous effort to explain Leonardo the man was not diagnosis or "pathography," but the effort of an exceptionally tolerant and nonjudgmental physician and humanist to understand his fellow man.

In 1914 Freud published "The Moses of Michelangelo"--his second venture in applied analysis and the visual arts. Using an entirely different approach from the Leonardo essay, Freud did what too few art historians do today. He looked hard at a single work, sketching, studying, measuring, spending hours and days on end in front of the work itself, questioning his own responses and trying to get inside the mind of the artist by learning to read the formal and iconographic messages encoded in the art object. Additionally, he studied previous scholarly responses to the work, seeking to comprehend the artist's intention by observing audience response. As usual, he found discrepancies within the work and the responses to it that could only, or best, be explained by his consideration of the artist's unconscious as well as conscious thoughts and feelings. Placing the work in the emotional context of its commission by a tempestuous, ambitious man of genius like himself, Pope Julius II, Freud unveiled a complicated reconstruction of passion and counterpassion simultaneously expressed by the Moses, befitting the author of conflict theory in psychoanalysis. …

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