Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Steins at SFMOMA - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reflects on the Need for Interpretation

While on vacation, we stumbled on the exhibition of the Stein’s collection of artworks currently on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  Leo Stein was the oldest of a family of children from the Bay area whose parent’s died when Leo was about 25.  The family owned a business that afforded them a comfortable living, but not tremendous wealth.  They moved to Paris, and Leo lived with his sister Gertrude, while their brother Michael and his wife Sarah lived in a house near by.  They began collecting art, and bought canvasses, primarily by Matisse and Picasso when their art was new, innovative, shocking, and therefore relatively cheap.

The Stein’s did not just buy the art, they befriended the artists, and, perhaps most importantly, they opened their two homes to show the art, presenting the art at salons.  And the art was not simply on display; the Steins, but especially Leo, held forth about the art, interpreting it to an audience that was curious, but not yet enthusiastic about art that was moving further and further away from representing reality as directly perceived and more and more into depicting psychological reality.

Painters have always depicted psychological elements in their work.  The narrative elements of religious painting and the family details that embellish aristocratic portraits have long been central to the artist’s task.  Indeed, early western art was frequently explicitly intended to depict particular historical events, usually as a means of aggrandizing a person in power.

This art was different, and Modern, in that it depicted the psychological experience – not the sensory, but the perceptual and conceptual experience – of the artist.  The subjective and representing the subjective was now the aim of the painters.  This paralleled Freud’s discovery of the subjective experience of his patients, and his depiction of his own subjective experience in his dreams.

So, what was fascinating to me was that the artists had (and I think needed, but I’m not sure that can be proven) interpreters who could articulate what it was that they were doing to the world, because it wasn’t apparent from their work (Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris vividly interprets the nightlife of this period, and I review it here).  The work was brash, even garish – for instance, Matisse’s 1905 Femme au chapeau is a portrait of his wife and her face has a mask-like, clown white appearance with green and blue highlights – and cried out for interpretation.  What is he doing in this painting?  Why is he doing that?

The Stein’s provided that explanation, while, a few hundred miles away, Freud was doing the same thing for the bizarre symptoms of his patients – explaining how those symptoms were an expression of their internal, subjective experience, an experience that became bizarre when it was represented in a world that was used to conventions honed over hundreds, even thousands of years to hide those parts of the human experience –things like sex and aggression – that were not acceptable, even if necessarily part of who we are.

I was left curious after viewing the exhibition how the Steins explained the art.  I was curious about the language they developed and how it might parallel and differ from Freud’s descriptions.  I know that later twentieth century artists – Salvador Dali comes to mind – explicitly used Freudian ideas both in terms of the process of the painting (Dali painted dream images as part of a self analysis intended to help cure him of his unhappiness - the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg clearly describes this process) and sometimes incorporating content based on Freudian ideas.  But when the Steins started collecting, I don’t know that Freud’s ideas would have been available to them.  Later they would have been available to the artists and to the Steins, but by then the art had grown too expensive for the Steins to continue to collect.  Furthermore, Gertrude Stein had taken up with Alice B. Toklas, creating a rift in Gertrude’s relationship with Leo. 

I also found the interaction between Gertrude Stein and Picasso around his portrait of her interesting.  She is reported to have said to him something like, “But it doesn’t look anything like me.”  To which he responded, “Oh, but it will.”  Meaning, I think, that the artist’s vision would supersede the subject’s experience of herself – something that analysis at its worst does.  More charitably, perhaps Picasso imagined that Stein would come to see herself as he did.  Certainly our patients are able to use our interpretations to achieve new self views and sometimes this is a very violent process, but hopefully that ends up being a self authored, or co-authored view, rather than one that is imposed.

Finally, I think it interesting that the images of Picasso and Matisse have, like Freud’s ideas, become part and parcel of our world view – no longer a vantage point that is so alien.  Yet they do also, when we stop to look at them, retain the ability to shock, just as our unconscious does, when it asserts itself, whether in a dream or in a symptom.

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