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Pollock, G. (1994). The Ambivalence of the Maternal Body: Psychoanalytic Readings of the Legend of Van Gogh. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 75:801-813.

(1994). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 75:801-813

The Ambivalence of the Maternal Body: Psychoanalytic Readings of the Legend of Van Gogh

Griselda Pollock


This article aims to identify the collective social investment in 'Van Gogh' as a cultural icon, and to ask what function his life story, colourfully illustrated by his art work, has performed in the West since the 1890s. It argues that the life and work of a Dutch artist have become the raw materials for a series of secular 'mystery' plays and christological psychodramas that reflect the ills of twentieth-century experience. The key moments when Van Gogh was made into a figure in a popular imagination were psychologically significant: the Depression and the immediate aftermath of World War II. 'Van Gogh', a fantasy figure of modern man, has been over-'psychologised', his work becoming only the testament to the myth of modern man. Using social-art-historical techniques, the author tries to distance this kind of reading in the case of one drawing of a peasant woman, bending over. Situating the fantasy that the drawing services in precise social and historical terms of bourgeois men formed in childhood in relation to a split feminine/maternal figure of the lady-mother and the working-class nursemaid, the article examines how to use psychoanalysis to read the formal oddities of the work—distortion and monumentality, attention to a fragmented, eroticised but also punished body—for the oscillation between pre-oedipal fantasies of maternal plenitude and awe and oedipal anxieties which sadistically inflict humiliation on the maternal body. Finally, instead of producing Van Gogh as the extreme case of an 'other', the author recognises the drawing as a space where present fantasies of the reader encounter those of the producer. Psychoanalysis informing historically-precise interpretation becomes a demythologising hermeneutic.

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