Painting & Psychoanalysis (1999).

Has psychoanalytic theory any real relevance outside of clinical practice and procedure? One area beyond the consulting room that has been used since Freud for the application of psychoanalytic ideas and perspectives is that of art. Psychoanalytic theory and developmental models can provide very appropriate analogies for what is happening in artworks and in the creative process itself. A psychoanalytic interpretation can further offer a unique approach beyond the limitations of the traditional critiques of artworks based exclusively on descriptions and analysis of surface aesthetics, or on the currently popular reliance on historical context.

Painting is a definitive medium which not only provides fertile ground for the application of psychoanalytic theoretical perspectives, but can also serve to validate such theory. This is because the dynamic processes in action at the core of the painterly creative process offer a clear parallel with the clinical operational format of psychoanalytic procedure. In fact a strong case could be argued that the painterly creative process is in fact the authentic prototype for such procedure.

A common bond between painting and psychoanalysis is their shared aspiration to effect some sort of transformation or change either in the patient or in the spectator. At the heart of the painterly process is what might be described as a ‘therapeutic nucleus’, a creative core which forms the implicit potential offered by painting to effect a psychic rebirth. Painting, in its essence, is about healing and psychic development.

In the dialogue between the painter and the painting, the painter can engage with all the issues defining relationships, and may be concerned with the rehearsal and negotiation of those theoretical concepts defined and isolated in the psychoanalytic discourse. For example, in the relationship with the painting, the painter may test tolerable levels of aggression and gain a deeper understanding of the limitations of omnipotent over-control and projective identification. The processes of projection and introjection are acted out in an ongoing dialogue with the painterly surface which moves towards a position where the artwork is allowed its own autonomy, presence and space. In a Kleinian sense, the painter may continually re-enact the transition from the paranoid-schizoid position through to the depressive position, with its associated ‘reality testing’ and mature acceptance of diversity and of the independent object complete with its own inviolable characteristics.

This simulation of developmental process in the complex dialogue with the painting’s formal language, is inevitably accompanied by the strengthening of the painter’s own ego, as toleration to anxiety and guilt is built up. Furthermore, the spectator can be vicariously engaged in this creative structure, and in turn be carried through such developmental processes with a reciprocal effect on the ego and potential for therapeutic rebirth. Generally speaking, all the factors involved in psychoanalytic transference and countertransference relationships can be assumed to be potential factors in the creative dialogue. The painter effects a transference on to the painting, which in turn effects a countertransference back on to both the painter and also on to the culture in general.

At a very basic level the painter can be seen to indulge in a type of exorcism; symbolic fragments of alienated, hidden and repressed aspects of the self represented by dislocated, disjointed, uncontrollable elements of what has been termed ‘inarticulate’ unconscious form, are expelled and projected into the painting. The painting can then act as a vehicle to integrate, unify and make sense of these inchoate elements, and forms the structure within which such aspects can be re-presented to the artist in a reformulation which can be better apprehended by consciousness. In a crudely simplified scenario this has a parallel to the setting and procedure of a psychoanalysis, where the therapist, in the position of the artwork, might be expected to interpret and rationalise incomprehensible fragments of intense emotions, or irrational hatreds, thrown out by the patient in free association.

Anton Ehrenzweig describes the creative process thus:

The creative process can thus be divided into three stages: an initial (“schizoid”) stage of projecting fragmented parts of the self into the work; unacknowledged split-off elements will then easily appear accidental, fragmented, unwanted and persecutory. The second (“manic”) phase initiates unconscious scanning that integrates art’s substructure, but may not necessarily heal the fragmentaton of the surface gestalt…In the third stage of re-introjection part of the work’s hidden substructure is taken back into the artist’s ego on a higher mental level.

(The Hidden Order of Art, 1967, p.102)

In the first stage of this process, the projected fragmented parts of the painter’s self are represented in part by the initial marks made on the blank canvas which by their very nature can appear raw, offensive and fragmentary in their defacement of the pristine surface, and in their alienation from any cohesive and integrated ‘support system’ developed ultimately from such aspects as composition, aesthetics and creative structure. It is this dislocated and unrefined aspect of the initial inarticulate projections, involving inarticulate form, which can appear so persecutory and induce intolerable anxiety in the mind of the art student. Some students find the urge to refine, purify and rationalise can be so strong that difficulty can be experienced in producing even the most rudimentary initial marks necessary to develop a basis for a creative response and reaction.

How can mere marks on canvas induce such powerful responses? It is certainly the case that those aspects of form which are uncontrollable, involving inarticulate form, carry a powerful symbolic loading of anxiety and guilt. Such aspects include the inevitable scratches and striations within painterly gesture, the bleeding of lines, the impurity of discolourations, elements which cannot be consciously monitored or controlled during the creative act, or deliberately procured, but which have a profound unconscious, subliminal and emotional effect. This is why the amateur painter, trying to copy a masterpiece in an art gallery, will only ever produce a stilted and mannered copy; the emotional ‘handwriting’ of the original painter’s gesture will be lost. But why are these aspects associated with guilt and anxiety?

This is a complex question, but it can be shown from a Kleinian theoretical perspective that these initial raw projections in fact represent the unconscious formal analogue of the poisonous projections and expulsions of the bad parts of internalised objects involved in the paranoid-schizoid phase and in the process of ‘splitting’. Kleinian theory shows that it is anxiety in infancy which provokes our initial attempts at symbolisation, in order to displace and transfer that anxiety and guilt. The creative process re-enacts this dynamic process of symbol formation.

Anton Ehrenzweig further argues that the persecutory fears aroused in the artist faced with the fragmentation of initial inarticulate projections, are related to ‘oral-sadistic’ internalisations. That is to say such fragmentary projections, which represent and simulate the fragmentation of the ego, can be experienced as internal oral attacks by the super-ego on the ego. The object attacked in fantasy was internalised as a force intent on retaliation, incorporated into a super-ego inducing guilt and remorse, and externalised in the creative process.

Ehrenzweig goes further in explaining how the super-ego not only uses Klein’s aggressive oral origin of guilt and remorse, but also anal disgust to induce psychic repression and the accompanied repression of feelings of destruction and hatred through distaste and guilt. It is the induced psychic imperative to contain rather than scatter which adds to the persecutory anxiety of unconscious inarticulate form, which by its very nature must be projected and scattered.

To support such a contention, Ehrenzweig explains the relationship between uncanniness and disgust. Feelings of uncanniness are connected with a ‘return of the repressed’ untransformed. That is, repressed elements of unconsciousness find their way into consciousness without the transformation and anaesthetisation of symbolism and other ‘conscious compromise formations’. Freud showed that such a return evokes feelings of disgust and uncanniness. Ehrenzweig relates how Freud pointed out that the German word grauen, meaning feelings of uncanniness, is sometimes rendered as grausen, meaning disgust. This illustrates the deep connection and the use made of disgust in super-ego induced repression; if the repression is incomplete then feelings of disgust recur. In the analysis of creativity, it can be seen that inarticulate form in its raw state is a ‘return of the repressed untransformed’, and henced its loading of persecutory disgust and anxiety.

The painterly creative process in its early stages can, therefore, stimulate and re-enact the deepest psychic formulations, including the origins of repression. The painter’s handling and development of such threatening formal elements can generate a creative structure through which the spectator can be engaged and transformed. The modern painter often utilised the formal device of leaving exposed traces of the earliest formal marks in the work, through to aspects representing a complete resolution and which indicate a mature acceptance of fragmentation, negotiation of anxiety, guilt and aggression, and a general move towards the depressive position. It can clearly be seen from modern painting’s excavation of the inner creative structure, that such psychoanalytic concepts and developmental models are validated. But how is this achieved?

The alleviation of guilt, and development of a greater ego strength and toleration of disgust and anxiety, is achieved at the heart of this painterly dynamic, in a dialectical struggle carried out exclusively in formal terms between two opposing types of form. On the one hand there are those formal elements in the painterly language which are representatives of order, refinement of cohesion. They would include obvious shapes and clear lines, those definite perceptible organisations, which are basically the products of a deliberate engagement, and are recognised as being consciously determined. On the other hand there are the informal elements already described, which are dislocated, dissociated and uncontrollable. These inevitably escape deliberate conscious detection in the creative process, being only intuitively or subliminally detected.

It is in the dialectical core of the relationship between these two types of form that guilt and anxiety are determined. The consciously organised formal aspects of deliberate engagement are employed by repressive psychic agencies to ensure that conscious rational order and perception maintain dominance, an objective which is in part biologically adaptive. Feelings of guilt, anxiety and disgust are induced in the mind if the surface cohesive organisation is threatened in any way by the disruptive and transgressive forces of unconscious inarticulate form.

In the second phase of the creative process defined by Ehrenzweig, the dialectic between these two different types of form in the painterly structure can be mediated or resolved. During this so-called ‘manic-oceanic’ phase, those formal elements of definite cohesion, representing conscious deliberate determination and perception, can be painted out, obliterated, dissolved and subsumed within the unconscious painterly matrix. At one and the same time, elements of fragmented inarticulate form and their compounds with more definite configurations, will be joined and integrated within the whole. The removal from the scene of those formal representatives of conscious rational order and perception, also means that they cannot fulfil their function to keep order by arousing guilt an anxiety, often as already indicated, by arousing feelings of disgust. Simultaneously, inarticulate forms along with their own associated guilt and anxiety, are integrated and become an acceptable part of the whole.

In effect, therefore, the repressive psychic forces are neutralised, their agencies in organised forms are dissolved, guilt and anxiety are eliminated. The painter can fleetingly experience a feeling of total omnipotence and unchallenged control of all forms and what they represent in the mind. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, it is the painted portrait image which takes upon itself the anxiety and guilt of a dissolute lifestyle, whilst the subject, as a metaphor for the artist, acquires an omnipotent, guilt-free lifestyle and the ability to forever ressurrect a new psychic self.

Of this second stage in the creative process, which as noted already, integrates art’s substructure, Ehrenzweig further comments:

Then creative dedifferentiation tends towards a ‘manic’ oceanic limit where all differentiation ceases. The inside and outside world begin to merge and even the differentiation between ego and super-ego becomes attenuated. In this ‘manic’ stage all accidents seem to come right; all fragmentation is resolved. Because of the manic quality of the second stage, the following ‘depressive’ stage is all the more difficult to bear. Who has not experienced the grey feeling of the ‘morning after’ when having to face the work done on the day before? Suddenly the ignored gaps and fragmentaton and the apparent chaos of undifferentiation push into consciousness. Part of the creative capacity is the strength to resist an almost anal disgust that would make us sweep the whole mess into the waste paper basket. (1967, p.103)


The omnipotent control of all forms in this manic-oceanic stage, where all fragmentation and accident seem to be miraculously resolved, would seem to parallel and validate psychoanalytic ideas along the same lines. The Kleinian notion of omnipotence feelings is that they provide a type of failsafe fallback position to which the individual can retreat in the event of an unsuccessful transition to the depressive position with its implicit acknowledgement of uncomfortable realities. The painter’s dissatisfaction with a work, or inability to accept the inevitable anomalies which reappear when the manic-oceanic phase is left behind, might provoke a re-engagement with this all-embracing creative position. Again, in this way, the painter reworks fundamental developmental stages, perhaps to correct an early flaw or dissociation, or perhaps to ultimately strengthen ego toleration in the face of the impending depressive position.

It should be borne in mind that such creative processes also have a cultural dimension. Writers such as Adrian Stokes have related how cultures such as the Classical Greek, disdained the manic and omnipotent in art, considering it to be regressive and primitive. However, in cultures such as our own, the manic-oceanic in the form of abstract-expressionism represented a moment when there was a cultural embrace of the omnipotent in painting. Ehrenzweig has argued that resort to the manic-oceanic in a phase of complete abstraction, usually coincides with crisis. This is true of the individual, in both develpmental or adult contexts, as it is of the culture in general. Significantly, the word ‘crisis’ in its basic etymology, means ‘separation’, and the whole developmental transition from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position revolves around the individual’s separation from the all-embracing, omnipotent union with the mother, to the depressive recognition of her autonomy.

So it can be seen that the creative structure of painting can echo psychoanalytic concepts and developmental models.However, the creative process and the dialectic between differing forms at its core, is not only used to negotiate guilt and anxiety and to effect transition.The definite shapes of conscious engagement in a painting are not exclusively employed to maintain order in the manner described. They in fact have far greater significance for the conscious organising mind. They are also symbolic of the very physiological and psychological means though which we actually ‘see’, and locate ourselves in what we perceive to be ‘reality’. Furthermore, just as Jacques Lacan perceived that we are born into the context of a language or discourse, at a particular historical moment, are a function of it and become a fragmented product of that discourse at that time, similarly, the painter is born into a conventional set of forms, which in essence represent our conscious mode of constructing our reality.

So these forms in painting are are symbolic not only of our psychological processes of perception, but also of our processes of concept-formation, symbolisation and of our whole human developmental phases. This is why the painter can experience a momentary trance and psychic ‘death’, as these forms and all that they represent, are annihilated within the creative process. As these surface forms disappear, so does the very embodiment of all that symbolises our very sense of self. In the definitive example of the abstract-expressionist painting, the painter’s whole lifelong constructed self is deconstructed and dispersed into infinity. The contemporary notion of deconstruction is itself only a mannerism for tis authentic creative dissolution.

In this whole painterly creative process, the psyche of the painter is mirrored in a deep intuitive and subliminal engagement with the materiality of the paint medium, and the unconscious psychic structure is actually externalised and embedded within the painterly structure. As this psychic structure is externalised in a reflected imprint, not only issues of guilt and anxiety can be objectively determined, but in effect the painter’s psyche is fragmented and then restructured in a psychic ‘rebirth’. It’s as if the mind of the painter is removed from the brain, reprogrammed, and then returned in its regenerated configuration.

As the unconscious psychic structure is externalised and embodied in the ‘flesh’ of the paint, in effect the painter’s mind is temporarily vacated and the painter can experience a momentary trance or ‘death’ of mental faculty. This is the authentic ‘standing outside of and transcending oneself’ which defines ekstasis.

This is how the painter recreates a regenerated self in the reflective ‘mirror’ of the painting which induces a reciprocal restructuring in its real counterpart in the painter’s mind.



Stephen Newton, 1999.