Carl Jung’s paintings at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013
Carl Gustav Jung: The Red Book [page 655], 1915-1959. Paper, ink, tempera, gold paint, red leather binding 40 x 31 x 10cm 2009 Foundation of the Works of C.G. Jung, Zürich. First published by W.W. Norton & Co., New York 2009
The 55th Venice Biennale opened on 28 May this year and there seemed to be more delegates than ever. The galleries were heaving. The official selection housed in the Arsenale and main pavilion comprised paintings, prints, photographs and installations by ‘outsider’ artists. Outsiders are unknown practitioners, uncelebrated, untrained. The artists were invariably blind, deaf, depressed, disabled, dead, autistic or perpetually grieving. The curator, Massimiliano Gioni, chose his theme of works by unknown artists as if not only was one not enough, but that a hundred were not enough either. Whole galleries of one type of portrait, for example, were presented obsessively, repeated over and over again, to an overall effect of neglect of quality and a focus on quantity.
For me, there was too much to take in and judging by the speed of my companion attendees as they passed rapidly through the halls, it was too much for them too. And while much of the art in the Arsenale is often of a style that attracts much serious attention, the overkill of repeated images killed off any initial interest. However, what lifted it from its deathbed were the blurbs. The life histories of the artists outshone the actual art, blurring the lines between what activities soothed and what showed actual talent.
Take the work by Roberto Cuoghi, a man from Modena, Italy, who, at the age of twenty-four, attempted to transform himself into his father. He put on much body weight, grew a long beard, dyed his hair white, wore his father’s clothes and copied his mannerisms. For seven years he removed himself from his former life and only when his father died did he revert to his former self.
Another, California’s Matt Mullican expressed his experiences while on drugs and in trances through the installation of numerous rectangular blocks, named ‘That Person’ mounted on walls, showing his lived experience.
Linda Fregni Nagler from Stockholm created thousands of ghostly images of babies being held by fading and grey figures in the background, depicting the contrast between life and death, young and old. And in her desperation, Carol Rama from Torino, Italy, to express her unhappiness which emerged from a personal background of a mentally ill and hospitalized mother and a suicidal father, used any media at hand in her household, such as her mother’s lipstick and nail varnish, for her art. Art became her therapy.
Deaf artist, James Castle, from the USA, used his art to communicate. He was not taught sign language or writing, but collected different types of media for his art, including soot, discarded mail and homework. Much of this was stuck down with his own saliva.
Placed centrally in an area usually reserved for the Italian contribution in the Central Pavilion of the Giardini were numerous paintings by Carl Jung (1875-1961), all from his Red Book. These featured along with the works from two other famous names, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) and Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). Of these, Jung is most likely the best known. While his major work was in analytical psychology, his artwork, instrumental in his developmental process, was less well known. For those unfamiliar with Jung’s artistic renditions, Jung created a book about unconscious goings-on, comprising 205 pages of text and illustrations, 53 of which were full images. His Red Book (or ‘Liver Novus’, as he called it) was made in the sixteen years between 1914 and 1930. He interpreted these pages as products not from him, but from the collective unconscious. This, he believed, is a collection of unconscious experiences which we can inherit and where the archetypes in our psyches dwell. Freud would have called these ‘archaic remnants’, meaning that they are unconnected to one’s reality, but have entered the psyche without explanation.
It was during the sixteen years when Jung wrote and painted in his Red Book that he also developed his theories of archetypes and individuation. The mid-life crisis, a time when one’s existence, life’s successes or lack of success and one’s future become nagging, unavoidable questions. This period, he suggested, opens up an opportunity for assessment and change and, in some cases, a new orientation or focus. And he proposed that it can lead us to greater individuation.
Jung, through using trance practices, was said to activate his imagination and access neglected areas of his mind. Through observing the effects of trance work and hypnotism with one of his patients, Helene Preiswerk (1880-1911), Jung gave himself up to working with trances on himself. He started painting the images of what he saw from both trances and his dreams.
Questions about his slumberland experiences arose. In conversation with a friend, he deduced that his paintings were not his art, but that he was illustrating nature. Painting characters and visions from his dreams and trance imagery started at a difficult time for Jung at around the age of thirty-nine. He experienced the break up of his friendship with Freud and the consequential loss of esteem and reputation from this and tensions in his relationship with Emma, his wife.
During these trances, Jung met two characters: Elijah, a wise old man, who he named Philemon after a character in a dream and who he believed to be his guiding spirit; and Salome, who he considered was the personification of ‘anima’ in his soul, as the soul was regarded traditionally to be feminine. He interpreted the appearance to him of these two characters, Philemon and Salome, as the integration of two parts of himself moving towards improved individuation, one that followed the mid-life crisis.
Once Jung had immersed himself in his drawings and paintings, each day he created in his Red Book a mandala. To Jung, these represented his daily psychological manifestations, illustrations of his inner self. He wrote: ‘I knew that in finding the mandala as an expression of the Self I had attained what was for me the ultimate’ (Stevens, 1990:174).
In another dream, Jung found himself in Liverpool, UK. On an island obscured by rain, fog and smoke, he saw a magnolia tree. The tree, however, unlike its surroundings was bathed in sunlight. This dream exemplified the end of Jung’s mid-life crisis and he ceased painting and drawing forever more.
For me, however, the primitive forms of his work lived on. They epitomize the images that I saw developing after his death in 1961 by the work of artists who had taken hallucinatory drugs in the 1960s and ’70s. The swirling colours, circles of movement and unending patterns were re-created for record sleeves, cartoons and fabric prints to name but a few. At a time when the Vietnam War was at its worst, the collective unconscious influences seemed to be at their most powerful, at least visually. Jung became a person to be revered then, revered for his unconventional ways and practices, but also for his almost prophet-like artistic representations.
While more recently a renaissance of Jungian ideas has arisen among New Age followers, this was certainly not the case in Venice. The Biennale put Jung’s paintings in a central position in its exhibition of outsider artists making a statement about the value of his contributions to art as well as to his main profession. There is a contradiction. Like many of the other outsider contributions, in an exhibition of contemporary art, his work is not contemporary. However, judging by the crowds that gathered around his works, this slip-up seemed irrelevant.
Lynda Woodroffe works privately as a psychotherapist in N W London and is on the editorial board of Contemporary Psychotherapy. Full images from Jung’s Red Book can be found here:
Venice Biennale Website (http://www.labiennale.org/en/art/index.html)
Segaller, S., & Berger, M., (1989) The Wisdom of the Dream: The World of C G Jung. Boston, USA: Shambhala
Stevens, A., (1990) On Jung. London: Routledge