Between Terror and Ecstasy

By Chevrier, Jean-François | Tate Etc., Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Between Terror and Ecstasy


Chevrier, Jean-François, Tate Etc.


Etc. Essay: Artistic hallucination - Stories of hallucinations in art and literature date back to the Bible, but the idea of the artistic hallucination is more recent. As the author of a new book on the subject reveals, the terrain that encompasses artists from William Blake to Sigmar Polke "covers a vast field of experiences between terror and ecstasy", and has embraced many art movements, including Romanticism, Symbolism, Expressionism, Surrealism and the psychedelia of the 1960s

According to the current psychiatric definition, an hallucination is a "perception without an object", a mental (or psychical) creation which has the appearance and authority of a perception, but does not refer to any reality verifiable by the senses. It intrudes into conscious life, and in the nineteenth century was seen as the typical symptom of madness. Its causes were subject to speculation: were they psychophysiological or purely psychical? For centuries, the phenomenon had been attributed to the power of the imagination and disturbances affecting it. In the vocabulary of classical antiquity, hallucinations had the nature of phantasmata, products of the imaginative power known as phantastikon. An object of study first of alienism, then of psychiatry in the nineteenth century, the hallucination preserved that link between phantasm and fantastic. The hallucinating madman was called visionary, because he saw things that other people didn't.

The term hallucination was applied retrospectively to the visions of the mystics in their state of ecstasy, such as those of the characters in the Christian story, in particular the hermit saints such as St Anthony, or Christ himself, who had been subjected to temptation by the devil. Thus, a psychological (or, more precisely, psychophysiological) explanation was given to experiences traditionally attributed to the supernatural, and of which artists had provided countless more or less fantastical representations. This amounted to the naturalisation of the irrational. Thomas Carlyle (Sartor Resartus, 1831) spoke of "natural supernaturalism". The hallucinatory vision was the "elsewhere" of realism.

The specific notion of artistic hallucination was put forward in 1866 by another author, Gustave Flaubert, responding to an enquiry from his friend Hippolyte Taine concerning the sources of the literary imagination. For Flaubert, the expression refers to the author's mental state when he is entirely absorbed in his work, when he sees his characters, when he hears them, when everything that he imagines, objects, landscape, setting, has assumed greater presence for him than his actual surroundings. In its pathological manifestations, hallucination has the nature of an alienating strangeness. It is suffering, terror. Because space is doubled, perception is disparate: one perceives both what is and what is not. In its artistic form, it is a total absorption, a beneficial alienation; it is joy, plenitude and ecstasy. This gap defines the breadth of the art of the imagination from the nineteenth century onwards and, more particularly, the ambivalent, tormented and ecstatic character of forms of the art termed "visionary" in the tradition begun by William Blake. The history of artistic hallucination corresponds to the age of the sciences and techniques of the psyche (psychiatry, experimental psychology and psychoanalysis). It also covers a vast field of experiences between terror and ecstasy.

The imagination feeds on examples, it doesn't emerge from the void. It is renewed through the life of forms, but also comes from the mechanisms of delirium nourished by artists' biographies. These two processes are constantly intermingled. The transmission of cultural models and the apprenticeship in the "trade" produce norms that artists contradict - and renew - by mobilising more or less eccentric resources of imagination and delirium. The history of artistic hallucination thus intersects with the discovery of the art of the insane, but is not reducible to it, insofar as it also concerns those who have never been subjected to psychiatric diagnosis. …

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