College Quarterly
Summer 2008 - Volume 11 Number 3

Freudian Psychology and Art: An Agreeable Partnership?

by Frank Marchese
"Oh, East is East, and West is West,
and never the twain shall meet".

So said Rudyard Kipling in his poem of 1889, entitled: The Ballad of East and West. (in Ricketts, 2004, p.34)

Having lived for several years in India, Kipling put in poetic form the irreconcilable differences he perceived to exist between the cultures of Great Britain and colonial India. His commentary may serve as an apt metaphor for the many differences and schisms that appear, at first glance, between, science and religion, or art and science, vocational versus liberal arts education, creationism versus Darwinism.

As it pertains to the substance of this essay, might psychology and art also represent a divide of irreconcilable differences by virtue of the former striving to be a rigorous, empirically objective science. Or, as the foremost behavioral psychologist, J.B.Watson, so aptly put it: “Psychology…is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior.” (1913, p.158). As for art, on the other hand, it is a personally creative endeavor, relying on the impressions and subjective judgments of its creator. And, as the Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary says: “Art implies a personal, unanalyzable creative power” (1985, p.105), and by implication is a mysterious force not readily comprehensible through the traditional empirical analyses of science and, therefore, not readily subject to the laws of the natural world.

It is my contention that whatever degrees of separateness may exist between a specialized scientific psychology, such as psychoanalytic psychology of the Freudian variety, with its emphasis on the exploration of the unconscious mind (Liebert & Liebert, 1998), and art with its potential to suggestively and seductively fathom the recesses of that ‘terra incognita’, the unconscious, can after all be made to work in the service of each other.

I have chosen the specialized field of psychoanalytic psychology expressly because of its frequent use of artistic metaphor in illuminating elusive aspects of mental/emotional functioning. Freud made this abundantly clear, as follows: “I may say at once that I am not a connoisseur in art, but simply a layman...Nevertheless, works of art do exercise a powerful effect on me.” (1914, Standard Edition (S.E.), vol.13, p.211).  However modest the foregoing pronouncement, Freud was an avid collector of ancient artifacts, mostly Egyptian, Grecian, Roman, and Chinese sculptures; his collection numbering upwards to two thousand catalogued items (Gamwell & Wells, 1989). As for ‘modern art’, Freud found it to be repellent and ugly (Burke, 2006).  Rather, he surrounded himself with ancient artifacts and also kept close at hand in his study the two-volume edition of Jacob Burckhardt’s, The Cicerone: Or, Art Guide to Painting in Italy, 1917 (see Burke, 2006, pp.369-370). As Burke, (2006) noted: “the Swiss art historian (Burckhardt) who championed the Renaissance...was eagerly read by Freud...” (p.143). His fascination with the Renaissance’s prodigal son, Leonardo da Vinci, who was a hero of Freud’s (Burke, 2006, p.243) and “among the greatest of the human race” (Freud 1910, p.63), was a person with whom he identified. Freud’s considerable admiration for this Renaissance genius led him to publish an essay in 1910 on this great artist. Freud recognized that this essay constituted a bold gambit designed to subject art and biography to psychoanalysis and to place his new science firmly in the realm of cultural discourse.  Freud said to Carl Jung (1887-1961), the Swiss psychiatrist and colleague of the former at the time; “We must take hold of biography”, for “[t]he riddle of Leonardo da Vinci’s character has suddenly become clear to me.” (McGuire, 1974, p.255; 260). And just what was this “riddle” that had become clear to Freud?  Freud linked Leonardo’s aversion to completing projects with the artist’s cool repudiation of sexuality (Burke, 2006, p.244).  Leonardo, he said, “converted his passion into a thirst for knowledge...He has investigated instead of loving.” (in Burke, 2006, p.244)

Speculative and provocative as this may sound, Freud did utilize his arsenal of psychoanalytic hypotheses and clinical insights to construct a psycho-biography of da Vinci. Just as he subjected his patients’ dreams to intelligible interpretations as to their meaning, he applied the same vigorous approach, a psychoanalysis of an important historical figure, to the same regimen. He never considered his paper on Leonardo da Vinci a case history, but rather thought of it as a “scouting expedition for the massive invasion of cultural subjects he planned to undertake, weapons of psychoanalysis” (Peter Gay, 1989, p.268). Freud liked to traffic with the great and in undertaking this psycho-biography of da Vinci (and although its reception was mixed and controversial) he confessed; “like others I have succumbed to the attraction that proceeds from this great and mysterious man”, and he quoted Jacob Burkhardt’s admiring appraisal of this “universal genius, whose outlines one can only surmise, never fathom” (in Gay, 1989, p.268). Freud’s enthusiasm was tempered, however, for he maintained that the da Vinci project was “half-fictional production” and, as he said, “I would not want (others) to judge the certainty of our other investigations in accord with this pattern” (in Gay, 1989, p. p.269).

Yet, Freud borrowed what I contend to be other metaphors that hearken back to classical Renaissance art and, in this essay, I put forward the following conjecture: Freud used a priceless phrase in describing the narcissistic nature of the human infant; one might say the omnipotent disposition of the infant.  He said, in his paper On Narcissism, as follows:

Illness, death, renunciation of enjoyment, restrictions on his own will, shall not touch him; the laws of nature and of society shall not be abrogated in his favour; he shall once more really be the centre and core of creation---‘His Majesty the Baby’, as we once fancied ourselves. (1914, p.91; italics mine) Freud’s concept of infant-child sexuality is quite vividly expressed in his use of the aforementioned phrase.  It captures the infant’s magisterial and privileged position and, as Cybulska (2008) observed, “Freud interpreted Renaissance Italian paintings portraying the baby Jesus...looking ‘desirously’ at the alluding to the hidden sexual impulses of the infant. He would not accept that this was merely an artistic convention of the time.” (p.14; italics mine)  It is my contention that Freud applied this phrase in describing the narcissistic nature of the infant for it serves as a metaphor for infant attachment in general and, as well, the feeling of omnipotence that the infant experiences in the arms of  its mother; the infant as ruler over all he surveys. The infant is ‘once more the centre and core creation’.

In Freud’s use of artistic metaphor to clarify the elusive nature of the psyche, he demonstrated how the best of any discipline, humanities, literature, art, can be useful tools bringing about a fuller comprehension of his particular enterprise, psychoanalysis.  His use of archaeological metaphors and comparisons with architecture were also employed to explain the processes of psychoanalysis (Burke, 2006).  Freud was truly daring in not respecting the artificial boundaries established by various disciplines. He was truly innovative and students of behavioral and social sciences should take heart that broadening the scope of their studies means that the integration of  material from other disciplines sheds light on obscure matters within their own fields of study, and therefore should not be shy in using metaphors and analogies that would illuminate.

In conclusion, I would agree with Freud that through his own admission he is “by temperament a conquistador—an adventurer...with the curiosity, the boldness, and the tenacity that belong to that type of being.” (in Edmunson, 2008, p.26)


Burke, J. The Sphinx on the Table: Sigmund Freud’s Art Collection and the Development of Psycho-analysis. Walker & Co., New York, 2006.

Cybulska, E. Freud’s Unconscious Debt to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. In Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas. Issue 68, Anja Publications Ltd., UK. July/August, 2008, pp.13-16.

Edmundson, M. The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days. Bloomsbury, New York, 2008.

Freud, S. Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1910), vol.11, p.63. In The Standard Edition (S.E.) of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. by James Strachey in collaboration with Anna Freud, 24 vols., (Hogarth Press, London, 1953-1974), Vintage London, 2001.

Freud, S. The Moses of Michelangelo (1914), S.E., vol.13, p.211.

Freud, S. On Narcissism (1914), S.E., vol.14, p.91.

Gamwell, l. & Wells, R. (eds.). Sigmund Freud and Art: His Personal Collection of Antiquities, State University of New York, Binghampton & Freud Museum, London, 1989.

Gay, P. Freud: A Life for Our Time. W.W. Norton & Co., New York & Toronto, 1989.

Liebert, R.M. & Liebert, L.L. Liebert & Spiegler’s Personality: Strategies and Issues. 8th ed., 1998.

McGuire, W. (ed.). The Freud-Jung Letters: The Correspondence between Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung, trans. Ralph Mannheim and R.F.C. Hull, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1974)

Ricketts, H. (ed.). Rudyard Kipling: The Long Trail: Selected Poems. Fyfield Books, Manchester, UK, 2004.

Watson, J.B. Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. Psychological Review, 20, 158-171, 1913.

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. A Merriam-Webster Inc. Springfield, Mass., 1985.

Frank Marchese is a Professor in School of General Education and Applied Arts at Seneca College. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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