Visual Arts and Psychoanalysis

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The visual arts make use of nonverbal representation and therefore require a different psychoanalytic approach than the language arts.

The Work of Art

The work of art can be considered as a compromise solution between impulses and defenses. Psychoanalysis can then try to reveal the unconscious ideas behind the creative work. But in the visual arts, even more so than in the language arts, it is form itself, more than the represented subject, that must be interpreted.

Sigmund Freud

The first psychoanalytic text to examine the visual arts was Freud's Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood.[1]

Freud opened the way for psycho-biography by demonstrating the impact of instinctual and infantile life on the artist's creative work. (In his analysis of La Gioconda and Saint Anne, he approached the analysis of formal elements: the Gioconda's enigmatic smile owes its existence to Leonardo's infantile life; the confusion of the bodies of Anne and Mary in the London drawing is said to be a form of condensation.)

Freud published "The Moses of Michelangelo"[2] but did not sign it, proof of his prudence in using psychoanalysis for the interpretation of artistic phenomena. Freud based his interpretation of the statue on his own feelings. Since he identified with the subject of the representation, he understood the statue in terms of his own emotional investment, thus opening a path to an approach to artistic phenomena that was little used by later psychoanalysts, who were primarily interested in an analysis of the process of artistic creation.

There were a number of important contributions to this field aside from the work of Freud: Otto Rank, Melanie Klein, Hanna Segal, Ernst Kris, Donald Winnicott, and Didier Anzieu.

Children's drawings and the work of psychotics have been used as nonverbal material, but strangely they have had little influence on the psychoanalysis of the visual arts.

Along with the approach taken by psychobiography and interpretations of the creative process, both of which are focused on the artist, psychoanalysis can also help us understand the work of art itself, providing it can avoid using verbal language as the only source of reference.

When Freud wrote that the lack of expression of the visual arts was due to the material used by those arts, he was referring to this.

The image is not only a metaphor or symbol; it signifies, through its materiality, the setting aside of its metaphoric or symbolic meaning and the context in which our perceptual field has classified it. It comes to prominence through the brilliance of its materiality as a new external perception that we nonetheless are able to recognize. For the visual arts much more than for literature, meaning is hidden in form, the result of the conscious and unconscious intentions of the author.

It is in the formal specifics of the work — that is, its style — that the process of figuration unique to the author is found. This is what Freud called, referring to the dream work, "pictorial language," our first mode of expression. The painted or sculpted image should not be considered only the transcription of verbal thought but the expression of a visual unconscious that preserves our earliest impressions.

The artist uses a sensory material that bears the traces of his first affective perceptions and experiences, producing a figurative representation that balances desire with external reality, actual perception with what has been irremediably lost.

The psychoanalytic approach to the arts requires a methodology first used by Freud in "The Moses of Michelangelo." The effect the work has on the spectator is the object of analysis. The image must be considered a libidinal object of investment that is offered to the spectator and apprehended on the basis of the effects it provokes in him. The work of art reactivates the spectator's unconscious desire and awakens, step by step, the representations he has used as a support. Through this associative process, the spectator-analyst juxtaposes the resonances the work provokes in him and the formal aspects that can be considered traces of the unconscious life of its author. It is through this chain of association that he will be able to reconstruct the fantasies that generated the work of art.

See Also


  1. 1910c
  2. 1914b
  1. Freud, Sigmund. 1914b. The Moses of Michelangelo. SE, 13: 209-238.