- Art, Obsession and Possession:Is Freud Still Interesting?
Hans Bellmer and Pablo Picasso were artists who have been characterized, in professional and personal terms, as both possessive and obsessive. If "possession" and "obsession" have a suitably Freudian ring, it is because they chime with much contemporary scholarship seeking to treat artistic works as objects through which to construct the (absent) artist as subject through psychoanalysis. The two examples of such methodology by Sue Taylor and Lisa Florman considered here both attempt to reassert the explanatory power of Freudian theory at a time when it seems in wide decline; one could even be forgiven for thinking that orthodox psychoanalysis had retreated from medical science into the highly subjective realm of art criticism. So, what can psychoanalytic theories contribute to our appreciation of art and our understanding of artists?
For Taylor, the art of Hans Bellmer is a psychoanalytic gold mine yielding rich nuggets of classic Freudianism: the Oedipal complex, the castration complex, fetishism, etc. are apparently all vividly (almost diagrammatically) represented in Bellmer's oeuvre. Much is made, for example, of the artist's relationship (or lack thereof) with his distant and authoritarian father, the compensatory over-affection for his mother and the obsessive attachment to his young female cousin. Using available biographical data and the artist's works as evidence, Taylor probes deep into the psyche of this complex, paranoid and highly articulate man in order to make a number of claims about his unconscious motives and desires. One such claim is made fairly tentatively early in the introduction: "I propose here that [Bellmer's] impassioned expressions of father hatred might work to cover over a repressed homosexual attachment, a hypothesis that runs counter to other psychoanalytic accounts of his oeuvre" (p. 13). To some, this would seem an extravagant assertion since there is very little evidence of homoeroticism in Bellmer's art; yet by the end of the book it has become an almost indisputable fact: "Bellmer sought punishment for his own deeply repressed homoerotic desires and murderous oedipal wishes through fantasmatic violence displaced onto the female body" (p. 198). This diagnosis may be consistent with Freudian theory, but is less convincing to anyone neutral, under-informed or critical about orthodox psychoanalytic doctrines.
However, if the standard Freudian explanations of Bellmer through his work remain dependent on questionable theories, Taylor's excavation of less familiar Freudian territory throws up more productive ideas. In the sections of the book dealing with the sensation of the "uncanny," she quotes a passage of Freud that draws magic back into the realm of civilization through the agency of art: "In only a single field of our civilization has the omnipotence of thoughts been retained, and that is in the field of art. . . . People speak with justice of the 'magic of art' and compare artists to magicians. But the comparison is perhaps more significant than it claims to be" (p. 54). Perhaps Freud's familiarity with non-Western beliefs left open in his mind the possibility that occult phenomena may exert real force, at least through art. Certainly the suggestions of occultism in Bellmer's work are pronounced, although Taylor does not mention them explicitly. Take, for example, the mystical belief in the possessive power of effigies (dolls, masks and fetishes) containing living forces or the figure of the Androgyne, a staple of occult ideas and a recurrent image in Bellmer's art. The androgyne, both male and female, symbolized a concept largely alien to Western empiricist logic—the co-presence of opposites without contradiction or cancellation. Yet psychoanalysis is itself full of such paradoxes, and Taylor marshals several examples in her favor. She cites Donald Kuspit's post-Freudian definition of the fetish as "the illusory comfort of union with the mother and simultaneous disengagement, detachment, disidentification from her" (p. 60).