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Psychoanalysis – Exploring the Mind of the Art Works

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Duc Huynh

Art History 57

An Jamin, 1P

March 5th 2015

Psychoanalysis – exploring the mind of the art works

Psychoanalysis searches one’s true intentions, desires and motives through dreams and memories in one’s mind. In art history, the psychoanalytic approach discovers the “unconscious significance” of artworks into which an artist’s life and societal influences may factor (Adams 215). This paper studies the specific works of Caravaggio during Baroque period along with the readings Caravaggio and Violence by John Varriano and Caravaggio’s Secrets by Leo Bersani/ Ulysse Dutoit to evaluate this methodology. Varriano discusses seventeenth-century Rome and Caravaggio’s volatile past during which public executions became retributory and inhumane bloodshed rampaged his psyche. Bersani/Dutoit on the other hand deliberates Caravaggio’s peculiar visual techniques; his representational manners of the head, figural emotional expressions, and the body in David with the Head of Goliath (1609-10) and Bacchino Malato (1593) particularly demonstrate the aestheticizing of violence and homosexuality, the marriage between erotic content and ferocity without distorting the Baroque art’s characteristic traits. While psychoanalysis unravels an artist’s way of thinking and social commentary through artworks, it at best overlooks, or at worst misunderstands, some defining pictorial styles and conventions.

Psychoanalysis attributes the motif to an artist’s experiences in life. Caravaggio’s recurring firsthand encounters with horror may result in the motif of decapitation. His “dark” physiognomic features might, through his psyche, slowly infiltrate his “natural” imagination. This correlation, if true, associates the “evil desire ill repressed” with the notion of death (Varriano 317). “Evil” contextually implies the horrifying executions of criminals for public entertainment. Such impact however lasted too long to unconsciously structure his motives in art. A public painter who daily witnessed killings society dubbed as the “triumph of justice” and who was purportedly a murder, Caravaggio had no trouble visualizing brutal scenes. Fascination with violence over time clouded his mind (321). At first glance his paintings seem to display prominent religious subjects’ demises, a way of self-expression modern viewers often label as “paranoid” and “psychotic” (319). A closer look of his personal experience with public beheadings, the mental fuel for faithful reconstructions of death, indeed maps an artwork’s “mind” at the surface.

Psychoanalysis also recognizes the artist’s unconscious response to society. The head, once severed, makes a body incomplete and psychoanalytically suggests the castration anxiety (Bersani, Dutoit 87). Caravaggio, fantasizing decapitation, might in a way insinuate his fear of lost self-control when living in a judgmental community as a criminal. Notice the twofold meaning of David’s beheading of Goliath in David with the Head of Goliath. The sword, crossed, withdraws into David’s genital area from Goliath’s neck (85). The sword placed at David’s phallus and Goliath’s head positioned in David’s hands together compare the beheading to self-castration. An Oedipal reading of the painting further discloses Caravaggio’s existential mindset of a “living death” when Goliath’s head, bearing Caravaggio’s face, lies not in his hands but in David’s control (Adams 226-7). Comparatively speaking, David represents death and Goliath’s life, dangling from David’s grip, remains fleeting and ultimately dependent on death. Caravaggio likewise suffers the same fate. Aware of his criminal past and the retributive justice, he lives by death’s mercy (Varriano 322). Psychoanalysis therefore uncovers a troubled mind unconsciously communicating with the viewers through artworks.

On the downside, psychoanalysis little considers the artist’s visual representational strategy. Rather than recounting the history, Caravaggio delivers the aesthetics through “particulariz[ed]” facial expressions and aggressive realism (Varriano 318; Bernani, Dutoit 93). Caravaggio could have vividly painted punishment scenes, but decides to romanticize violence and homoerotism through selective emotions instead of generic physiological agony, as David with the Head of Goliath manifests. He intentionally misrepresents the bodily reaction after death by drawing Goliath’s head lack of blood (Varriano 324). David’s sensual gaze at decapitated Goliath also evokes intimacy. “Particularizing” each individual’s facial expressions creates the public executions on the concept of desire. Goliath, although terrified in the instant of horror, gazes down to a space unseen with poise. David, judging from his downward eyebrows, seems regretful as if killing a loved one. Both plausible interpretations relate little, if not barely, to Caravaggio’s past. Viewers, facing death from a romanticized perspective, sympathize with the executed whose expressions proved credible. Psychoanalysis traces the artist’s past struggles in the artworks, but oftentimes Caravaggio’s artistic hallmarks lie only on the surface, from his pure imagination.



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