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  • Light and Darkness in Landscape Paintings by the Wolf Man
  • John H. Baker (bio)

In the one hundred and one years since Freud (1918) published his famous case history of Sergei Pankejeff, known in subsequent psychoanalytic literature as the Wolf Man, revisionist understandings have steadily appeared reinterpreting both Freud's understanding of his patient's condition and the condition itself. It is not at all surprising that these reinterpretations follow and express the general evolution of psychoanalysis during these same one hundred and one years. For example, Harold Blum's 1974 interpretation of the Wolf Man's personality as borderline in "The Borderline Childhood of the Wolf Man," is lucid and compelling yet nonetheless epitomizes that era's reification of details for that category of disorder. Without citing additional examples of revisionist interpretations that can be understood from within psychoanalysis' history, it is nonetheless also interesting to note that some of the revisionist body of thought and opinion is historically conditioned by forces outside the history of psychoanalysis. For example, one can understand Lacan's various proclamations about the case in relation to his social context in the post-war, post-occupation era of early 1950s France,1 and Lawrence Johnson's The Wolf [End Page 485] Man's Burden (2001), in its utter skepticism of authority, as a reflection of the widespread vitality of post-modernist theory and criticism in the first decade of the 21st Century.2

In this paper, my reliance on an understanding framework based on the writings of Ernst Kris, in his Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (1952), may seem to the reader to be no less historically conditioned, or more specifically, limited by the ideas of ego psychology that informed Kris' thinking. But it is not on Kris' ego psychology that I will rely but rather on the way he combines sophisticated insights from the discipline of art history and psychoanalysis in order to study the creative process in art. His idea that "art is not produced in an empty space, that no one artist is independent of predecessors and models, that he is part of a specific tradition and works in a structured area of problems" (1952, p. 21) is ultimately not so much derived from ego psychology's hypotheses about individuals' capacities to function autonomously (from their own personal issues) in the world. Rather, it is a fundamental axiom in the study of the history of art. No matter what Kris (or Hartmann or Rapaport or their circle) believed about ego autonomy, the history of art has in itself its own coherences of time and place through the framing and limiting idioms of which artists have always created, and it is for this reason that there is a history of art at all rather than an anarchy of semi-pathological (or fully pathological) expressions. For Kris, the artist works within the realities of the stylistic idioms of his time and place "in the historical development of art itself which determines in one way or another his modes of expression and thus constitute the stuff with which he struggles in creation" (1952, p. 15). That this art historical axiom would seem to validate the possibility of some degrees of ego autonomy is beside the point of this essay (although possibly not beside considerations in comparative psychoanalytic theory). What matters here is that, when we observe psychopathological departures from the art historical mainstreams of style and meaning, we use them to sharpen our understanding of the relations between the individual artist and his or her historical moment.3 In this sense Kris's thinking seems to produce an understanding that is more than the quantitative sum of the insights he derived from each of his disciplines separately. [End Page 486]

Following Kris, and specifically in the case of the Wolf Man's paintings, I will consider them in relation to Impressionism—the idiom, or mode of expression, that he chose—and also to his recurring depressions, which appear as an indisputable condition of his suffering no matter what one's theoretical orientation to his personality might be.4 As is well-known, the Wolf Man suffered from serious and recurring depressions throughout much of...


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