- The story is on display in Inner Worlds: Portraits and Psychology, an exhibition (and book) that traces how theories of the mind, notably those deriving from Freud, shaped Australian art and culture. Having already aired at Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery and the Queensland Art Museum, the exhibition will run at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne from 18 April to 22 July 2012.
The notion of an inner life—just like the idea of an inland—has long been equated with emptiness in Australia. Terms such as ‘dead heart’ to denote the red centre and ‘outback’ to describe regions outside coastal cities suggest that, in Australia, the inner is on the outer. Even in the metropolis there is, as D.H. Lawrence noted when he visited Sydney, a terrifying vacancy. Australians, he wrote in his novel Kangaroo, were ‘awfully nice but they have got nothing inside them’. For Patrick White, this was the Great Australian Emptiness, an environment in which ‘the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is …’
It is no surprise, then, that psychoanalysis, which arrived about the same time as Lawrence in 1922 and took root when White was writing his well-known 1958 essay ‘Prodigal Son’, has long been an outsider in Australia. Freud’s creation is concerned with the inner life. It points to how memory is full of holes and how, faced with infinitesimal small wounds, we lie to ourselves. Such revelations are unwelcome, evoking, like poetry, the ambiguity of reality and Australian suspicion of what Peter Carey calls ‘European-style bullshit’. To emphasise his point, Carey has a character in his 2003 novel My Life as a Fake instruct: ‘Remember this is the country of the duck-billed platypus. When you are cut-off from the rest of the world, things are bound to develop in interesting ways.’
For psychoanalysis, which began with Freud in Vienna in the final days of the nineteenth century, this has meant that support, and often understanding, came most readily from those who looked to Europe, notably Australian artists who were inspired by the arrival of modernism. In 1939 works by Matisse, Utrillo, Modigliani, Cézanne, Gauguin, Picasso, Braque and Dali landed for the first time in Melbourne. Months later, so did the country’s first training psychoanalyst, Dr Clara Lazar-Geroe. The two events were linked through Melbourne psychiatrist Dr Reg Ellery, who helped Geroe to emigrate from Hungary. Ellery had visited Vienna, met Anna Freud, and conveyed his enthusiasm to his friends among the Heidi artists, figures such as Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester and Albert Tucker. They, like Heide founders John and Sunday Reed, saw in psychoanalysis a way to remake the cultural terrain.
Freud’s invention had already achieved as much abroad, influencing painters such as Dali, and writers from W.H. Auden to Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Despite Freud’s reservations when he met Dali in 1938—‘what a fanatic’—modernism’s links with psychoanalysis were powerful and included the wish to render subjectivity more authentically than realism had done. This would become evident in how Nolan, Tucker, John Perceval, James Gleeson and other postwar artists reimagined the Australian landscape in a way that shouldered aside the pastoral idyll of Roberts, Streeton and von Guérard. The interface between these two—modernism and psychoanalysis—is an intriguing story, one that confirms Australia’s antipathy to (non-sporting) elites and discourses of the self.1
It is also a story of the different trajectories of two of the twentieth century’s most influential movements. While psychoanalysis and modernism took off at the same moment in Australia, they did so in different ways and with very different outcomes. Modernism, as it emerged in the art of Nolan and Tucker, was a rebellious, transforming whirlwind. Even though any artist who then dared to step outside the tradition of the Heidelberg School risked rejection and poverty, there was no conformity. Rather than accommodate the director of the National Gallery of Victoria, for whom modernism was ‘putrid meat’, modernists saw an inevitable contradiction between old and new; not in the familiar romantic-liberal tradition of D.H. Lawrence, but in the language of anarchism, surrealism and analytic psychology. As a result they inscribed into Australian life the unconscious that Freud (and indigenous people) had identified and white society had largely ignored. Nolan, particularly, explored the Australian landscape as a site of a new form of mythology, notably in his Ned Kelly series, which drew upon surrealist modes to forge a haunting symbol of dispossession.
Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, as it gained ground in Melbourne and Sydney between 1940 and 1960, was more concerned with medical—establishment—endorsement and as a result lost some of its subversive power. This was perhaps inevitable, given the difficulties early analysts in Australia faced. But the fact remains that unlike the artists, most analysts sought acceptance, and were unduly influenced by the culture of pragmatic psychiatry that Australia had inherited from Britain. This was a mindset derived from physical medicine in which the unconscious was an unwelcome invention and theory was subsumed under technique. Even though Freud had warned against the medicalisation of psychoanalysis, arguing that literature, language and mythology were superior analytic instruments to medicine, in Australia these disciplines—and with them much of the inventiveness and curiosity Freud advocated—were sidelined.
Such was not the case with Australia’s modernists. In order to paint, they read widely and wrote conceptually, notably in Angry Penguins, Australia’s most important cultural publication in the 1940s. Nolan and Tucker both contributed to it and one of Gleeson’s surrealist works adorned its cover. As with the modernist exhibition that the artists had devoured in 1939, the intention was to transform the existing order using, among other tools, the ideas of psychoanalysis. It was Freud and his onetime heir Carl Jung who allowed them to link the unconscious and the social to produce a new Australian vernacular that combined myth and the modern subject. Nolan, Tucker and Hester believed that outsider and ‘raw’ art, including that of the ‘primitive’, children and the insane, displayed a closer connection to the creative spirit found at the level of the unconscious mind.
This was not exactly what Freud felt. He famously wrote that ‘before the problem of the creative artist, analysis must, alas, lay down its arms’, which, as the British analyst Adam Phillips has pointed out, suggests some kind of war between art and psychoanalysis. ‘If psychoanalysts could think of themselves as the makers of sentences rather than of truths they would feel less at odds with—feel less need to privilege and covertly disparage—what Freud called “creative writers”,’ Phillips argues. Immediately after the Second World War, however, the two were conflated, especially by Ellery, who was influenced by Civilisation and Its Discontents, in which Freud points to the tension between individual freedom of expression and society’s need for conformity and repression. Ellery was concerned that the modern world had ‘introduced an element of haste and feverish unrest into human life which amounts to a disease’. For him, the focused listening of clinical psychoanalysis offered an antidote to the fraying of Western civilisation.
Ellery was not the only one. In his depiction of wounded and psychically damaged soldiers, Tucker linked social dislocation with mental illness. His interest in the purely visual had given way to a fascination with literature, modernism and psychoanalysis. Nolan, too, was displacing the visual with the representational, explaining that, ‘Technically there is no such thing as continuous vision, we are not constituted that way, one flash succeeds another, it is our job to preserve that one organic and spontaneous moment of vision and at the same time make the necessary artifices of language that constitute vision.’ And from the end of the Second World War, Hester’s work had developed a psychological power that showed a new maturity.
The same cannot, I contend, be said of the sort of psychoanalysis that arrived with Geroe in 1940. While she forged links with courts, teachers and hospitals, there was little of the risk-taking that marked modernism. The two things—art and psychoanalysis—are, of course, not the same, and unlike analysts, artists have no responsibility to treat suffering. Still, psychoanalysis had retained a rebellious quality when it took root in some other countries, notably France, where it was equated with the Revolution of 1789. And when Freud’s creation—especially the interpretation of it that came with his French interpreter, Jacques Lacan—appeared in South America, it was with an intellectual vivacity that was missing in Australia. There, analysts had rejected the normative claims of psychiatry, and any attempt to reduce psychoanalysis to a psychology of adaptation. That this deficit was not remarked upon in Australia was perhaps due to modernists seeing Ellery, a psychiatrist and writer, rather than a trained analyst, as (in John Reed’s phrase) our ‘pioneer analyst’. Ellery encouraged this view by equating, in the December 1944 issue of Angry Penguins, art with self-analysis. As was typical of the time, he confused clinical analysis with the ideas that came from reading and writing about it, a conceit that may have led to him ‘analysing’ Sydney Nolan’s first wife, Cynthia Reed-Nolan.
While dilettante analysis was common before the war, and even after it, the practice added to the confusion about psychoanalysis in Australia. If you could begin analysing by reading a few books, then psychoanalysis was like art: you could hang out a shingle as easily as setting up an easel. And this more or less happened, and not just, it seems, with Ellery. Amateur ‘analysing’ was also part of life at Sydney University and at the Montsalvat artists’ community outside Melbourne. More significantly, Dr Roy Winn, who became Australia’s first analyst in 1931, and Dr Paul Dane, who set up shortly after him in Melbourne, had some training in London. But as unpublished documents reveal, both were granted membership of the then credentialling body, the British Psychoanalytical Society, even though they failed to meet the training standards. This watering down of the rules—while not unknown in analytic circles—established opaque lines around psychoanalysis in Australia. With the credentials of the founders so uncertain, qualification became a more than usually sensitive issue, especially for anyone deemed to challenge the status quo, as was the case with the Lacanian analysts who arrived from Argentina in the 1970s.
What was missing, it seems to me, was a rigorous examination of the implications of psychoanalysis. Rather than being interrogated, as Freud had advised in ‘On Psychoanalysis’, the paper he sent to a Sydney conference in 1911, psychoanalysis in Australia was largely taken as a given. This lent it an empty coherence suggestive of a lie. The problem was that Freud had been turned from an explorer of the mind into a scientific authority who had yielded ‘findings’ at the level of fact, when what psychoanalysis generates are results (case studies) that are closer to novellas than science. For this, Freud is himself partly to blame for comparing his creation with ‘hard’ sciences such as biology. Like all attempts to explain human subjectivity, psychoanalysis concerns itself with the particularity of individuals not, as biology does, with universals that can be replicated in laboratory conditions. This is why a broken heart cannot be mended in the way that a broken arm can. However, not being a science in the way biology is thought to be does not make psychoanalysis unreliable or ineffective. It merely means that its results have a subjective dimension. Science, in any case, is not the gold standard it pretends. Having strayed from its original meaning of knowledge (compare the German for science: Wissenschaft) to measurement, science now portrays itself as legitimised knowledge when I would argue it is a discourse that transforms the nature of knowledge and how other discourses are viewed.
This is something that artists, not being responsible for treating patients, could more easily unravel in paint and print. Nolan, for instance, introduced primitivism to Australian art, thus forging a wider interest in the art of those suffering schizophrenia, without having to wrestle with, or be accountable for, pathology. His was a cultural expression, but even so, Freud was an inspiration and his texts were seen as curative in themselves. As Angry Penguins editor Max Harris explained, the hope was that, ‘By plumbing the life of the mind that Freud had revealed as both a source of a new innocence and a new guilt, modern man might recover the imaginative dimensions of experience which would lead to new social relationships and a new art.’ Harris advocated being at one with the surrealists, which had occurred in France but not, outside the modernist clique, in Australia. His call was radically subversive, railing against a society that embraced the corruption of desire and a masturbatory sidetracking of sexual life. It was, in many ways, echoing Freud and anticipating Lacan.
Nolan and Tucker, too, sought to depict what they saw as evil in society. This was not so much the external evil of Hitler, but the internal malaise, the middle-class complacency well captured in George Johnston’s postwar novel My Brother Jack when the hero, David Meredith, pinpoints the ‘respectability that would rather look the other way than cause a fuss … that did not want to know because to know might somehow force them into a situation which might take the polish off the duco and blight the herbaceous borders’. Again, this was art rather than clinical psychoanalysis, but it nevertheless evoked the way Lacan depicted the neurotic’s love of—and addiction to—ignorance. It was the inner world.
Precisely what an inner world might be is the stuff of psychoanalysis (and art). But as with all investigations of subjectivity, nothing is transparent. The term ‘Inner Worlds’, the name of the exhibition subtitled ‘Portraits and Psychology’, evokes space without occupying a physical dimension. As with both modernism and psychoanalysis, the language is a way to infer a model of the mind, one that began with the seeing mechanisms of the eye (camera obscura), rather than the thinking capacities of the mind. Australia, too, was a place that was inferred by its white settlers from a model in their mind’s eye, a model that was defective when it came to the indigenous population. This was a failing that Freud—who famously described Aborigines as the ‘most backward and miserable of savages’—shared. In his case Eurocentrism was to blame: Freud’s love of Homeric literature prevented him from seeing the poetry in Aboriginal song and dance. But his grasp of human nature generally was penetrating, and not just for artists. The anthropologist Ted Strehlow had a German edition of Totem and Taboo in his saddlebags when he witnessed his first corroboree in 1932. And after modernism had faded, Australian writers such as Brian Castro and Murray Bail drew on Freud for their fiction.
Clinically, however, psychoanalysis has faded, at least within medicine, and that may be no bad thing, as the appropriate language to wrestle with human subjectivity lies in discursive discourses, not medicine. This is not widely accepted among Australian analysts, but then Australia never welcomed analytic ideas, or notions of the self or inner worlds. It is not just that the home the human subject claims, the ego, is a home in which psychoanalysis tells him he is ‘not master’, it is also that the uncanny or unhomely side of what psychoanalysis revealed—notably about sexuality and identity—meant that Freud’s invention was never at home in Australia. If home is, however, a place to which one returns, then the repetition that Freud saw as the death drive is a pathological home—one that disguises rather than reveals truth. In this sense home is a place to leave, as Freud made clear with his interpretation of the Oedipus myth. Without leaving, embracing the place of the outsider, we remain stuck—unconsciously—to the past. Better, perhaps, to turn away from what is known, to mourn what is lost so that it truly dies, creating space to reflect on inner worlds as a metaphor for something that we do not understand.
© Peter Ellingsen