The Surrealists created their pictorial worlds from dreams and myths. Well-known psychoanalysts would certainly have had something to say about this.

The Surrealists expressed the workings of their unconscious through their art. Often they drew inspiration for their many of ideas from dreams, myths and alchemy. As influential contemporaries of the “Fantastic Women”, famous psychoanalyst and theorist Sigmund Freud and psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung would doubtless have found one or the other explanation for the surreal imagery. In works such as “The Interpretation of Dreams” or “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, Freud, who is regarded as the founder of psychoanalysis, explored the manifestations of the unconscious such as dreams or compulsive behavior with regard to their often-suppressed origins which he believed were linked to the sex drive. In his own studies of the unconscious Jung was strongly influenced by Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams” and engaged in a lively exchange of ideas with him. However, from 1912 he distanced himself from Freud, criticized the latter’s concept of libido as placing too great an emphasis on the infantile sex drive and instead developed analytical psychology which focuses on identifying personality types.

We examined their writings and theories on dream interpretation and then looked at selected works by the “Fantastic Women”. In the process we came across several metaphors and symbols for which there is certainly more than one level of interpretation.

Meret Oppenheim: Some of the Innumerable Face of Beauty, 1941
Meret Oppenheim, Einige der ungezählten Gesichter der Schönheit (Some of the Innumerable Faces of Beauty), 1941 © MASI, Lugano / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020

Thanks to her father Meret Oppenheim became acquainted with the theories of C.G. Jung at an early age and regularly recorded her dreams in a diary. Moreover, her exploration of Jung’s theory of the “bisexuality” of the human psyche is reflected in her artistic work, which is often dominated by androgynous creatures. As Jung sees it, every individual demonstrates characteristics of the other gender, which for an individual to “become whole” have to enter into the unconscious and be reconciled. Oppenheim’s work “Some of the Innumerable Faces of Beauty” seems to reveal this gradual awareness of psychological “bisexuality” through symbolism. In the middle of the night, which is generally considered to symbolize the unconscious in dream interpretation, a female figure whose top half is bare, sits on a tree trunk. There is a house in place of her head, a house inhabited by mythical creatures and surrounded by a dark forest, which threatens to encroach on the house.

While stroking a white rabbit in a dream can be read as expressing the desire for a child, the house is understood as the female symbol of security, which according to Jung can reveal something about the physical and emotional state of the dreamer. The monsters inside the house can refer to a fear of one’s own animal drives, while the dark forest is often seen as indicating an encounter with the secrets of the unconscious. But what might be hidden in the depths of the unconscious? According to Freud, tree trunk and pipe function as phallus symbols, while Jung would argue that the furry leggings symbolize the woman’s often unconscious male characteristic – her “female animus” – which has to enter the consciousness for the individual to “become whole”.

Claude Cahun und Marcel Moore, Aveux non avenus, 1930
Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Panel VII in Aveux non avenus (Disavowals), 1930 © Städel Museum – ARTOTHEK

“Aveux non avenus” is a collaborative work by Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, which on a linguistic and pictorial level availed itself of the avant-garde practice of editing to create photomontages. Elements were taken apart and inserted elsewhere to create new, unexpected contexts. The artists’ intensive study of esotericism and Eastern religions is also reflected in “Aveux non avenus” by not only examining the relationship between “I” and “Third Eye” but also questions relating to an objective and subjective view. Even though Cahun and Moore were less committed to psychoanalysis than some of their contemporaries, Freud and Jung would have enjoyed the rich symbolism of their works.

The shadow of a smoking male head can be seen on a chessboard, while opposite a left hand rests on a glove. If the game of chess is interpreted as the battle between the white (affirming) and black (negating) forces of the dreamer, then the shadow figure is the negating and the hand the affirming force in a game between embittered opponents. On the one hand, the shadow represents the dark side of the unconscious and according to Jung could be interpreted as the “inferior function”. In Jung’s “Psychological Types” he describes a total of eight personality types using a system that defined four functions of consciousness, which are then further modified by attitude type to describe the structure of an individual’s personality’. Accordingly, the “inferior” function represents the most underdeveloped of all functions and is most closely related to the unconscious.

However, the shadow can also be read as a male stereotype, because the cigarette not only symbolizes intellectual activity and a willingness to make plans but also once again, according to Freud, the phallus. In contrast, in general dream interpretations the left hand is read as a symbol for the female. The black forces seem to win, but the left hand is ready to act: it rests in a soothing or conciliatory manner on the glove, which is typically interpreted as a symbol of restraint and a strong need for security. Who is likely to win? The cards in the foreground might provide a clue. In dream interpretation they not only refer to life as a big game. As both the queen of spades and the jack of hearts are seen as having positive connotations they could be seen as being harbingers of a rosy future. 

Emila Medková, Vodopád vlasů (Cascade of Hair), 1949/50
Emila Medková, Vodopád vlasů (Cascade of Hair), 1949/50 © Eva Kosáková Medková

Looking at Emila Medková’s “Vodopád vlasů” (Cascade of Hair) and the theories of Freud and Jung could offer an attempt to explain a recurring motif in Surrealism. After all, the egg is a key motif in Medkovás’s photography just as is it in various works by Claude Cahun, Marcel Moore, or Leonor Fini. While with the Czech artist this results from an exploration of the linguistic and formal similarity between the French œil (eye) and œuf (egg), which Georges Bataille had already considered in 1928 in “Story of the Eye”, if we follow Freud and Jung then both the egg (and also the dung beetle) could be interpreted as symbols of reincarnation and luck, while for Freud there are also sexual and maternal implications. If there is an eye on the egg, the eye can be understood as mirroring vitality and can in a new life be seen as a call for greater openness towards the (un)conscious and cultivating what are often self-reflecting insights. 

Medková seems to have followed this demand in her photography. If you look at the different shadow figures through the eyes of Freud and Jung, they stand for the examination of the self and its unconscious sides. If the silhouette of the woman does not find a real counterpart in the photography, then according to Jung, it would be possible to see a special expression of the suppressed “inferior” function in her, whose property may be related to the tap. For Freud, this represents the penis, but can also be understood as an access to feelings or other resources, such as knowledge. If the tap is blocked, this can indicate a blockage. In Medková’s case, that blockage is caused by hair which, according to Freud, represents the phallic and impulsive. In a dream, they can caution the dreamer to check their attitudes towards their own instincts and to encourage a greater balance between instinct and ratio.

Interpretation of art with tongue-in-cheek

When we stop looking at the works through the psychoanalytical lens it becomes clear that Jung and Freud would likely have undertaken such an interpretation of art with tongue-in-cheek. C.G. Jung might assume that on an objective level dream symbols can be related to one another and their symbolic content interpreted but subsequently he combines this formal dream analysis with the biography and emotions of the dreamer and then places them in an overall social “archetypal” context. Since for obvious reasons it is not feasible to conduct a subjective examination of the emotions of the “Fantastic Women,” we are limiting the Freudian and Jungian observation to the formal analysis of dream symbols. Anything else would, above all else, be much too private and fall under medical confidentiality. 



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