The Search for Self

Exploring depersonalization disorder

Lucian Freud and Depersonalization: Dis-clothing Self

Lucian Freud: portrayal of the naked self

For the last century and a half, the sciences of psychiatry and psychology have moved forward toward a conceptualization of the syndrome of depersonalization. But has this science moved forward toward understanding of all the feelings, sensations, thoughts, and other presentations that comprise what is defined as depersonalization? Technical, scientific language cannot portray depersonalization as it is actually experienced by a person. The clinical reality of depersonalization cannot be reduced to models of neurochemical dynamics or brain imaging correlations.

Understanding that is not attainable for science may be more accessible to art, in particular, the art of Lucian Freud, a great artist who died this past July. It is tempting to exclaim that the art of Lucian Freud gives more to comprehending persona than the science of Sigmund Freud, Lucien's grandfather and father of psychoanalysis. It is tempting to trace a parallel. The senior Freud identifies the unconsciousness, the "underground" part of man, the invisible foundation for our noticeable conscious life. Lucian's paintings illuminate Freudian unconsciousness via visual art. The junior Freud makes the invisible unconscious visible. The grandfather discloses the power of unconsciousness covered by consciousness. The grandson "dis-clothes" the characters in his pictures, revealing the power of the naked body.

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The English word "person" originates from Latin "persona." Rooted in the ancient theater, persona denotes a mask which an actor puts on to become a particular person.Just as some people did not accept Sigmund Freud's unconsciousness, finding its drives and dreams too dark, dirty and disturbing, some people do not accept Lucien Freud's focus on the naked body, finding its untreated exposure too raw, scandalous and revealing. Lucien Freud's art opens up the palette of persona-mask dialectics, the complex dramatic interplay between personalization and depersonalization, masked and un-masked "I," true and false self.

Lucian Freud grasps the elusive soul by examining ugly flesh. His art discloses invisible internal ground of evident apparent being. He takes off the masks of covering clothes, social appearance, or relational illusions to depict nakedly true un-masked "I." To make visible the invisible soul he paints lots and lots of flesh. His vulnerable, ugly naked bodies show the trembling delicacy of the soul. Dis-clothing his models' inner "I's," Freud dis-closes the unbearable truth about what it means to be a person.He paints, quoting Lucian Freud himself, "a distinction between fact and truth," that forms a kernel of depersonalization: ceasing distinction between the factuality of my knowledge that "I am myself and I am real" and the truth of the actuality of my feeling "as if I am not real and not myself." L. Freud's art alludes to the self-searching introspection of people with depersonalization and comes dangerously close to the line of ultimate truth about ourselves. This truth - how he points himself - bears the connotation of revelation. Lucian Freud does not paint depersonalization. But his pictures strike us with the power of introspective analysis of inner self that shapes the ground for self-consciousness that, in turns, we recognize through its disordered form of depersonalization.

Below are some pictures.


This is the famous portrait of Lucien's mother mourning the death of her husband, Lucian's father.
L. Freud considers art autobiographical, and therefore, every portrait becomes a kind of auto-portrait. Here Lucian paints Lucia, his mother, who gave him life and a name. Son paints mother in the dramatic moment when she is stunned by the death of his father. The picture reveals so much more than opportunities for psychoanalytic musing on Oedipal complexes, and prospects to grasp the polyphony of personalization in its proximity to depersonalization.

And - another acclaimed masterpiece - "Ill in Paris."


A beautiful girl and a beautiful rose. Fascinating eyes and fascinating petals. An illness as ceased life: a girl pinned to a bed as a cut rose. Fragile delicacy of vulnerability. Pain and anxiety is in the air. Suffocating beauty. The girls eyes gaze at the rose, or she gazes at herself in the process of intense introspection. The intensity of anxiety, introspection and dissolution of self brings association with Munk's Scream. It feels like a stroke of depersonalization - I feel as if I am loosing myself, not knowing anymore who I am and who I am not. I am the rose? Or is the rose me?" This experience is remarkably cached in Jeffrey Abugel's book Stranger to Myself, a great companion on depersonalization, both as research and a diary. Next month this author and I will talk more about this experience and about depersonalization and art.

Elena Bezzubova, M.D., Ph.D., maintains a private practice as a psychoanalyst in Newport Beach, and teaches at UC-Irvine and the New Center for Psychoanalysis.

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