The Shared Creative Realm of Psychoanalysis and the Arts

J. David Miller

J. David Miller, M.D., is a training and supervising analyst in Washington, D.C. He has written extensively about psychoanalysis and art.


J. David Miller

Applying psychoanalysis to the arts in the spirit of Freud’s classic essay on Leonardo risks a slide toward “wild analysis.” Freud’s interpretive powers were limited by having to rely on his own associations, without any of Leonardo’s. A more persuasive approach, when it is possible, augments the viewer’s associations with those of the artist. Ideally, these include a description of his or her creative process, providing a window on the psychological realm that the arts and analysis share, the process of sublimation.

Sublimation is the basis for all creative efforts, including clinical analysis, as Hans Loewald argues convincingly. Like Freud, he explains that instead of locking the drives into symptoms or defensive structures, sublimation lets them emerge fully in a new form with a “higher aim.” It is not compromise formation, but transformation. Rejecting Freud’s idea that only geniuses (and mostly men) can sublimate, Loewald considers it available to anyone. The higher aim may be for one’s work to hang in the Louvre, or to be affixed to grandma’s “fridge.” Since sublimation underlies both art and analysis, study of the creative process in either field can inform the other. I will illustrate this mutuality through two 20th century painters, Henri Matisse and the Italian master, Giorgio Morandi, and then through several brief clinical vignettes.

Matisse’s Shift

In his Notes of a Painter, Matisse describes the subjective experience that led to a drastic change in his art at the time of World War I. Museum of Modern Art curators call it Matisse’s “Radical Invention,” but they do not explain why he abandoned his earlier style, which he shared with other post-Impressionist and Fauve painters. This style detached brushwork and color from depiction, as a way to evoke not the ephemera of the visual world, but internal experience. Matisse writes of capturing his subjective states through vivid color, sinuous line and a sensuality that makes his pre-World War I art enormously popular. A famous example of this period, The Dance, at the Museum of Modern Art, is striking for its electric orange and blue, and its figures’ contagious vitality.

It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living.

D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, 1971

Still evoking his inner world, Matisse abruptly changed his style in late 1913 when France began its plunge into catastrophic war. The Great War was traumatic for him: Germans occupied his hometown, his mother’s whereabouts were unknown, and his brother and artist friends were in foxholes at the front. His attempts to enlist were rejected three times due to his age. In his guilt and shame, he declared, “A man not at the front is good for nothing.” Early in this period, he painted a nude woman with sensuous curves, but entirely in shades of gray. He also painted a window whose shutters frame a view of solid black. When he did use color, it was muted and pale. And he suppressed the sensuous curves in a stark, near abstract geometry.


Matisse, Dancers, 1908


Matisse, Bathers by a River, 1916

We can better understand this shift in Matisse’s art by reading his own account of it from an analytic perspective: He says that with his country suffering mass carnage, he needed to reconcile his pull toward sensual pleasure with what he considered his moral duty to deny himself such pleasure. In terms that suggest ego psychology, he describes how his art evoked this conflict symbolically and how he tried to forge its elements into what he calls a new “synthesis,” not unlike a compromise formation.

He produced his masterpiece of this period, Bathers by a River, only after laboring over it for several years. It is a parable of sin and retribution arrayed across a tableau of four female figures. The first disrobes, the second wades in, the third reaches toward a serpent, suggesting moral descent, and the last stands blank-faced and immobile, seemingly bound. With its black arcs and vertical bands starkly abstract and its paint handling of the figures tenderly sensual, this work fully embodies both sides of Matisse’s conflict. Going beyond mere compromise formation, it epitomizes the higher aim that defines sublimation.

Viewers regularly seat themselves on a bench in front of this work, taking the time to absorb its beauty. Matisse says he knew a painting was complete, that he had achieved his synthesis, when it gave him an elated sense of calm, what he calls sérénité. For the rest of his life, he found in his best works a source of serenity, and he often referred to making art as his “cure.”

Morandi the Monk

Like the sudden change in Matisse’s style, there is an aspect to Morandi’s career that his biographers do not fully explain: Despite his enjoyment of many friendships, he was so consistently alone in his studio that he came to be called “Morandi the monk.” One biographer claims his reclusive image was a sham meant to conceal his ties with the Fascists, but elsewhere subverts this argument, noting he felt miserable unless he was painting. Morandi’s creative process is more obscure than Matisse’s, since he was extremely guarded. His letters and other documents show nothing of his inner life. We do know he lived in a cramped apartment shared with his mother and three unmarried sisters, and he had no romantic relationships. He clearly had issues, but whatever they were, it appears that Morandi spent almost all his time painting because for him, as for Matisse, it was a source of solace. Perhaps it was his only one, considering he said, “I am afraid of words, that is why I paint.”

Unlike Matisse, who was not afraid of words, Morandi speaks of his inner life solely through his art. To understand his creative process, we need to rely on what his art says to us, on our associations to it, much as Freud did with Leonardo.


Morandi, Still Life

Fortunately, we also have the associations of art scholars who respond to Morandi’s work with a remarkable uniformity. They find that his still lifes of humble objects, bottles, vases and cans, variously arranged on a table top, suggest characters on stage in a play. One Italian art historian related to me that when she was a little girl, her father, a wealthy businessman who owned many Morandi paintings, often made up stories for her using the still life objects to stand for his human characters. This idea leads me to associate further. Morandi’s subtly changing arrangements recall Loewald’s idea of analysis as a play, enacted by the self and object representations of the patient and the analyst. his painted objects, through “whom” and with “whom,” he speaks, may enact a similar therapeutic play.

The parallels to analysis suggest Morandi may have preferred solitude because only by painting could he connect with himself, and through his art, with others. For him, like Matisse, it may well have been his cure.

To illustrate this idea, the tall, large-spouted pitcher that recurs in his art could represent Morandi’s father, an accountant who fought his becoming an artist. It looms impressively in early images, but later is pushed back and obscured by other objects; finally, it appears in many different “scenes” with the lip of its spout seeming to “kiss” the edge of a graceful urn. [See Still Life below] Morandi’s art also suggests analysis in its emotional resonance. It evokes tension, ambiguity, a sense of mystery and, amid much repetition, startling surprises. The parallels to analysis suggest Morandi may have preferred solitude because only by painting could he connect with himself, and through his art, with others. For him, as for Matisse, it may well have been his cure.


Detail from Morandi Still Life


Henri Matisse

While Matisse describes in words the interior life reflected in his art, for many artists, such data is neither available nor reliable. Nonetheless, as with Morandi, we can explore the artist’s creative process if, besides speculating about symbolism, we take a cue from our clinical work and focus on the emotional impact of the art on us and on other spectators. We can study all the arts this way, not just painting. In music, for example, a recent Beethoven study confirms he always worked on two symphonies simultaneously, one which arouses aggression, like the Fifth, and another which induces a sense of calm, like the Sixth or Pastoral. Like Matisse’s balance of his sensual urges with moral constraint, Beethoven’s paired projects may reflect a need to balance defiance with moderation, to reconcile the Dionysian and the Apollonian, with the listener’s response mirroring the composer’s.


Giorgio Morandi

Creativity in the Consulting Room

Just as studying the interface of the arts and analysis can inform art scholarship, it also can enhance our work in the consulting room. A first step is to recall that clinical analysis, like the arts, is a creative process based on sublimation; the pleasure we derive from our work is, in a sense, comparable to that of artists like Matisse and Morandi. This idea makes real the potential for our patients also to find joy through creative activity. As a result, any material that touches on creative interests will impact the clinician as especially meaningful, which the analysand will not fail to notice. In our patients’ efforts to be understood by us, no aspect of their inner lives is more important than their drive to create.

In my experience, there have been many examples of this phenomenon. Here are a few:

To think of analysis and art sharing the common ground of sublimation has additional value for clinical work, helping us to understand it as a creative process; it provides a model for the analytic pair’s co-creation of Loewald’s so-called good analytic hour, whose often uncanny effects we can understand as aesthetic pleasure.

And to consider analysis a form of creativity also gives us a framework to describe how the analytic couple, engaging with each other over time, transform their relationship and themselves. A further benefit of the parallel between analysis and artistic creativity is that it can help explain analysis to non-clinicians: Matisse’s synthesis of conflicting drives or Morandi’s symbolic reordering of his object relations illustrate ephemeral aspects of analysis fixed in time and its abstract concepts in tangible form.

Finally, the art/analysis parallel may help us do better as clinicians by giving us a basis for holding our work in mind not only as the application of well-learned principles and techniques but also as a process that calls for the unstudied spontaneity of the artist. From an analytic perspective, it is important not only to work and to love but also to play.

Winnicott’s transitional space in which the mother and baby co-create a new person is no less crucial for further development after infancy and throughout the course of life.