Sighing over ubiquitous externalizing tendencies in our global culture and in the art world, I often yearn for inwardness, depth, and opportunities for engagement with whatever is ineffable, irrational, unconscious, or mystical—forces that have impelled art from time immemorial. Allow me to beg your indulgence as I don a shawl and, disguising myself as Madame Blavatksy, summon a ghost.
Presto! In glides the spirit of an insufficiently well-known psychoanalytic art writer by the name of Ernst Kris (1900 – 57), dressed in tweeds with bowtie and pocket handkerchief. Kris refuses—unlike his Viennese mentor Sigmund Freud—to give archaeology the right to trump aesthetics; he never waxes leaden when speaking of art. On the contrary, Kris arrives with art history not medicine in his portmanteau, although he has espoused the clever Marianne Rie, Freud’s physician’s daughter, a revered psychoanalyst in her own right. The love of art is honed in Kris, a distinguished curator of sculpture and applied arts at the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum. 1938 dawns, and, as Jews fleeing Europe’s Nazification, he and Marianne escape to London, then, two years later, to New York. Kris pens turgid essays on art and psychoanalysis. In America, he is a practicing psychoanalyst with newly burgeoning interests in childhood and creativity.
Kris is no visual artist but an artist of ideas, probing the mutual and necessarily different needs of artists and beholders; he knows that each artist is quintessentially a beholder. Both must hold their breath and plunge, and float or swim or doggy paddle, nearly drown, forgo the water, shake dry, shudder perhaps, glance back, and all according to no foreseeable plan. By anyone! Dense writing, typical of a classical, Teutonic education, obscures but never obstructs his thought. Kris’s sentences reveal their meaning not as if through naked panes of glass or damask lined portières, but rather through shades of mesh, so that paraphrasing him works better than direct quotation.
Kris reaches for aesthetic ambiguity. His magic key is Freud’s 1905 metaphor of “switch-words,” where we are asked to picture a line of associations as if lying along a railway track with occasional ambiguous words that send us off on a different set of rails in an unanticipated direction. Kris amplifies this image: works of art generate fecund symbols emanating from an artist's unconscious, stimulating a parallel process in the beholder. While the content of any response differs from what the artist had originally felt, it partakes in the selfsame quality of associative visual thinking we find in dreams. We find ourselves being carried off on rails of our own but needing and wanting the work, because it beckons us back, and we are enthralled by what we can almost but not completely fathom. New channels are opened in us by the work, made available, though not fully connected. We are hooked and want more. What the artist communicates, says Kris, is no preexistent content, but rather the conditions for continual re-creation of the work of art in the mind of the beholder, who draws, like the artist, upon the resources of the unconscious mind from within a state of receptivity.
Something like this happened recently to me in the presence of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s remarkable 2008 sculpture, “All That Rises Must Converge / Red,” shown with her series, “The Malcolm X Steles.” Despite the artist’s politically-inflected title, this seven-foot-tall queen steps out of history into the timeless realm of the unconscious, like an apparition. Let me try to summon her now.
Seeming to rest on a skirt that falls in skeins like rivers of blood that has coagulated all knotted, tangled, braided, and looped, she makes me wonder how what is heavy can lean on what is light and soft. Wherein lies our truest strength? I gaze upon a headless, armless albeit majestic and complete queen. I switch rails now heading toward Paris, where lives that broken survivor of classical antiquity, the exquisite marbled Venus de Milo, pallid by contrast, and emblematic of pitiable feminine victimhood. A whorled red skein of yarn just below where her heart should be, the new queen dominates all surrounding space. Reigning triumphant, she is not without anguish. She has loved; she has bled. Her presence forms a center that expands outward from herself, just as each of us does, from infancy onward, starting within our own bodies and reaching beyond. Her crimson brilliance communes with me, giving substance to the way women have fallen and risen again. Bronze armor and sanguineous skirts of silk and marine cord signal the antithetical but elemental stuff of women’s lives. She switches me, as I stand by her, to rail after rail after mental rail.
Slowly the specter of Ernst Kris recedes. Madame Blavatsky's glittering blue eyes fade into the deep brown of my own. I remove the shawl with a sigh and sense an afterglow that, unlike so much ephemera, I know will stay within.
ContributorEllen Handler Spitz
Ellen Handler Spitz writes on the arts and psychology and children’s aesthetic lives. She is an Honors College Professor at the University of Maryland (U.M.B.C.).