Depth Psychology, True or False

Theories like Ehrenzweig’s posit deep patterns permanent below the fluctuations of history. A critical perspective balks at this, and finds it suspect, at worst a fantastic escape from politics—fantastic hence no escape. The evidence for such theories is found in culture, which can always be interpreted differently, and their only “proof” is introspection, meaning we are likely to agree if we like the idea. But with those reservations I have to say that Ehrenzweig’s thoughts ring true to me, they correspond well with my experience, and match the art I’m attracted to. He has definitely affected both my work and my perception—abstraction just got a lot more interesting. Even someone like Kandinsky, one of my less favorite artists, looks fresh to me now. In the last few years there’s been more than one attempt to investigate the origins of abstraction, most recently a much noticed show at MoMA. An earlier effort in Australia got less attention, even though my friend Richard Shiff was involved. Sydney has a great print collection, and the catalog makes clear how woodcuts especially played a role in the breakup of form.

boat trip1913

Wassily Kandinsky, woodcut from Klänge 1913

Virtually at random I pick out the following quote from Ehrenzweig:
“In modern art the ego rhythm is somewhat one-sided. The surface gestalt lies in ruins, splintered and unfocusable, the undifferentiated matrix of all art lies exposed, and forces the spectator to remain in the oceanic state of the empty stare when all differentiation is suspended. The pictorial space advances and engulfs him in a multi-dimensional unity where inside and outside merge. We see now why it would be misleading to call this near-mystic experience of modern art in any way pathological; what is anomalous is the disruption of the ego rhythm on it’s way back to a more differentiated state. The elusive pictorial space is a conscious signal of an unconscious coherence and integration which redeems the fragmentation of the surface gestalt. Seen in this way, the oceanic experience of fusion, of a ‘return to the womb,’ represents the minimum content of all art….As the ego sinks toward oceanic undifferentiation a new realm of the mind envelops us; we are not engulfed by death, but are released from our separate individual existence. We enter the manic womb of rebirth, an oceanic existence outside time and space.”

The “empty stare” is the low-level scanning that picks up connections between dispersed elements, connections not apparent in normal perception, which is fixated on the “good gestalt,” or clear figure-ground relations. Important to note is that “womb” and “ocean” are metaphors. Granted, some of this seems hackneyed, specifically the idea of an ecstatic release from individuality or the solitary ego. I often think that such claims are wishes merely. But Ehrenzweig does have a political/historical consciousness, because the question always arises why certain kinds of art happen at certain times. Why Kandinsky? He goes on to explain that the “womb” of art is where the broken fragments of the world—in another metaphor the scattered pieces of the sacrificial victim—are tenderly gathered together, as a step toward the re-emergence of coherent form.


Nicolas Poussin, The ashes of Phocion gathered by his widow 1648

A different moment, a different kind of modern art. These thoughts could lead to Poussin as a successor of Cézanne, particularly the Cézanne of the previous post. Yet Cézanne still has the wind of history in his sails.

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