Psychoanalysis and Art: The Artistic Representation of the Parent/Child Relationship (Book Review)

Author:  Blum, Elsa, Harold P. Blum, and Jacqueline Amati-Mehler
Publisher: International Universities Press
Reviewed By: Harriet Basseches, Vol. 26 (3), pp. 76-77

This is a terrific book of applied psychoanalysis! If you will permit me an unscholarly remark for very scholarly work: It was fun to read. Psychoanalysis and Art is a compilation of individual papers written by seventeen psychoanalysts, one of whom is also an art historian. In addition, two other art historians and the Director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, are represented. The first editor, Elsa Blum, is a clinical psychologist and member of Division 39. The book grew out of a conference held in Florence, which focused on parent/child relationships as rendered in art, especially art of the Renaissance. My sense is that the participants in this conference had a wonderful and enriching time. I wish I had been there. The pleasure in the subject matter shines through most of the papers, which are amazingly erudite and knowledgeable about the art that they attempt to analyze from a variety of psychoanalytic perspectives.

The book is divided into three parts, following a preface by Elsa Blum in which she briefly summarizes the topics of the chapters. The first part titled, “Introduction,” sets the tone for the book, giving a basic orientation to the transition of art from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, establishing a cultural setting for the art of the Renaissance period, and discussing the first example of applied psychoanalytic interpretation, Freud’s treatise on Leonardo Da Vinci. The second part offers papers elaborating psychoanalytic thinking about various Renaissance artists and art works, interspersing art historian commentary with the psychoanalytic, and demonstrating a marked compatibility between the thinking derived from the two disciplines. The third and final portion of the book, titled “Beyond the Renaissance,” covers interesting psychoanalytic expositions of two European artists and their work, an overview article of Mother and Child representation through twentieth century art renderings, and an illuminating discussion about Japanese mother and child Ukiyo-e woodblocks of the Edo Period (1600-1867). There are photographic examples of many of the art works discussed (some in color). The quality of the reproductions, however, permits only identification of the art to enhance understanding and no more, which had the effect, at least on this reader, of inducing a great yearning to see the actual works. The editors provide two indices, subject and “name,” as well.

The ideas emerging from this joint study of art and psychoanalysis focus on the Renaissance, a time of greatness in the history of art (among other areas of enormous creativity). As explained in the early chapters by the Director of the Uffizi, Annamaria Petrioli Tofani, and by two Italian psychoanalysts, Adolfo Pazzagli and Emma Piccioli, the focus of artistic portrayals of Madonna and Child motifs (here connoting Mother and Child within the religious denotation) shifted from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance: from flat, decoratively colored, symbolically abstract presentations in a rigidly held form of religiosity to a focus on the human being as individual, considered capable—as had not been the case, since antiquity—of unimaginable possibility. Humanism was at a height, and among many centers, Florence was at the pinnacle of creative development, where there was a coalescing of artists and art studios.

We also learn that among the well-to-do middle class, the custom was prevalent for mothers to give up, as it were, their offspring who were often housed for the first years of life with a wet nurse in a peasant home far from family of origin and for children fairly early (at eight years old, for example) to be apprenticed to masters of some trade or profession. Moreover, perhaps serendipitously or perhaps common practice, several of the greatest of the artists of the Renaissance were illegitimate children. For some, their experience was to have two mothers and lose and gain each, and for others, at least in the instance of Michelangelo, the experience was to lose one’s mother altogether in early childhood through death.

Analysts in this volume speculate on the impact of these known life experiences on the actual works of art, analyzing elements in particular works to construct understanding of the artists’ attitudes toward their environment and selves, particularly in regard to their own mother–child, father–child, and triadic relations, but also regarding sibling rivalries. Further, these analysts develop hypotheses about the inner life of the artists as much as they do about their interpersonal attitudes and relationships. It is fascinating to see the interweaving of the knowledge that the analysts have acquired through research on the lives of the artists as well as the works of art themselves to construct the ideas imparted in the papers. Applied analysis could be called “wild” since the artists’ associations are, at least for the most part, absent. (There are occasional reports of personal letters.) Thus, these applications of analytic thinking are closer to historical analyses than psychoanalysis. With the awareness of that limitation, it was, nevertheless, enjoyable to read the different assessments, and to absorb information from the differing psychoanalytic perspectives that were in evidence without being bombarded by debate about the various points of view.

At this point in the review, I am conflicted between urging the reader to read the book to learn first hand some of the fascinating analyses that were attempted or describing in more detail some of the premises. Perhaps I can compromise by describing three of the fifteen papers attempting to conceptualize family life and dynamics, although it was challenging to select among the articles for comment since so many are of interest.

I selected “Infantile Sexuality in Renaissance Cupids and Cherubs: What do Cherubs Dream of?” by a French psychoanalyst and past President of the IPA Daniel Widlocher (Chapter 9) because it brought to mind such a novel way of thinking about such figures. Widlocher traces the history of cupids from antiquity to their renewed appearance—“bursting forth” (p. 140) again only in the fourteenth century—and cherubs, which were shown representing the sacred continuously from biblical times up until 1439, when the work of Donatello changed the representation and consequent meaning. Widlocher develops a thesis that “Putti, cherubs or cupids…[“become humanized” and] are actively involved, by dint of their infantile sexuality, in scenes accomplished by adults…. They become witnesses to scenes…in which adults behave with great liberty, indeed shamelessness” (p. 141-142). Further, Widlocher attests, “What is represented concerns above all the birth of desire and the excitement that gives it expression” (p. 144). I recommend reading his paper to understand the way Widlocher develops his contention.

In one more of these fascinating papers, Bettina Meissner, a German psychoanalyst, wrote Chapter 14, “Las Meninas of Velazquez: Pater semper incertus.” ‘Meninas,’ we learn are maids of honor attending royalty, and ‘pater semper incertus,’ is Latin for the uncertain father, which could be a reference to illegitimacy. However, the author explains that she is referring to Velazquez’s highly ambivalent feelings toward both his natural father and his transferential father, King Phillip IV of Spain, for whom he served. Meissner’s detailed analysis of Las Meninas coupled with her knowledge of Velazquez’s life allows her to make a strong case for her suppositions. These culminate in her conclusion that Las Meninas is “a classic example of the formation of illusion in a potential space” (p. 249) and that for the artist carrying “the inner image of a pater semper incertus [it has a] special function for a creative process” (p. 253).

I close with the Japanese psychoanalyst Osamu Kitayama’s Chapter 17, “Japanese Mothers and Children in Pictures of the Floating World: Sharing the Theme of Transience.” From this exposition we learn that the mother and child (almost always a boy child) in the Edo period were often depicted in side-by-side viewing together of some third object of interest that emphasized their togetherness but also their separateness and the transitoriness of the objects of life.

The authors of the compendium, who attended the conference, come from Europe, Latin American, the United States, and Japan. The book truly reflects the world of psychoanalysis and the richness of thought that psychoanalysis can bring to the world of art and to those of us interested in that interface.

Harriet Basseches

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