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Martin, S.A. (1994). Wyly, James. (Chicago) Quadrant 23, 1, pp. 23-33. ‘Abstract Art and the Unconscious’. J. Anal. Psychol., 39(3):409-410.

(1994). Journal of Analytical Psychology, 39(3):409-410

Wyly, James. (Chicago) Quadrant 23, 1, pp. 23-33. ‘Abstract Art and the Unconscious’

Review by:
Stephen A. Martin

Edited by:
William Meredith-Owen and Susanne Short

Far too little has been written by Jungian authors about the visual arts. Jung's own contributions, though scant, have caused a minor furore among art historians since the 1930s. His questionable speculations about Picasso and other modernists have promulgated a long enduring suspiciousness from art writers and thinkers, to the point where the symbolic method, so eminently suited to understanding visual images, has taken a back seat to more reductive psychoanalytic fantasies.

Wyly's argument is elegant and clear, that non-objective art and depth psychology are siblings, both issuing forth from the same mysterious womb called the unconscious psyche. The early abstractionists, like Kandinsky, Mondrian and certainly Klee, found the ‘object world’ inadequate to express their deeper spiritual stirrings and concerns (pp. 23-4) such that a new visual language was necessary. Simply stated, both Jung and the first abstractionists turned inward to find their way in this new world.

What makes Wyly's thinking refreshingly original is that he asks the symbolic question: What transformation of consciousness did this shift from objective to nonobjective art represent? To answer it, he employs the help of Erich Neumann, perhaps the most original Jungian writer on art. Guided by Neumann's observation that the artist is among the first to express a shift in collective reality, Wyly notes that the transition from medieval to Renaissance sensibility indicated a shift away from western culture's projection of the numinous on the ‘heavenly’ (witness the Gothic concern for the transcendent as embodied in the great cathedrals) to an investiture of the ‘object’ or ‘material’ world with the magic of the great unknown.

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