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Sublimation in Art

Is it wrong to focus on the psychological aspects of artwork?

Roberta Satow
Source: Roberta Satow

As a psychoanalyst, my attention is always turned toward the psychological aspects of art works. I understand art, whether it’s literature or painting, through the lens of sublimation—always wondering what socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are unconsciously transformed into the work. Of course, sometimes a beautiful picture of a sunset is just that. There's no unconscious meaning to it. But often, there is something more to it.

This is unfortunate because I am less attuned to the purely aesthetic dimensions of the work, but it is not a choice for me. That’s where my mind goes. For example, in an earlier blog post about humor as a disguised expression of hostility, I talked about the main character in Richard Russo’s novel, Straight Man.

Hank is a constant stream of dry humor, dripping with contempt and usually filled with sexual innuendo. His humor has three characteristics: It is compulsive, filled with the themes that are most anxiety-provoking to him, and it releases a great deal of repressed hostility. His humor creates distance from everyone in his life, but it protects him from his yearning for his father's attention; his fear of being an adulterer like his father; his wish to be more successful than his father; his fear of wanting to kill his father; his anger at his mother; and his wish to kill himself.

Recently, I went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C to see Cézanne’s portraits. The New Yorker’s art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, titled his review (April 9, 2018): “The Lurchingly Uneven Portraits of Paul Cézanne.” He said: “They lack the knitted density of his landscapes and figure groups and the stunning integrity of his greatest works, the still-lifes with apples like succulent cannonballs.”

Unlike Schjeldahl, I cannot discern or describe the differences between the portraits and his landscapes and still-lifes. But I was fascinated by the hostility expressed in Cézanne’s portraits. He wasn’t angry at the apples, it seems, but he was angry at most of the people whose portraits he painted. Schjeldahl describes the artist as “an awkward man of turbulent, half-strangled emotions.” It seems that anger was the primal emotion that Cézanne was trying to strangle—unsuccessfully. The portraits were not created for the enjoyment of the person painted. They were not commissioned by or sold to the people he painted.

Firdaus Roslan/Unsplash
Source: Firdaus Roslan/Unsplash

The portrait of Cézanne’s father is the best example of the portraits as sublimated rage. Louis-Auguste Cézanne, a banker, wanted his son to be a lawyer and never approved of his art, although he financially supported it. Cézanne’s father is portrayed sitting in an oversized armchair against a dark background. He is reading a newspaper he hated and there is a painting by the son on the wall behind his father’s chair. The painting combines the son’s wish for the father he never had and his anger at his actual father.

Cézanne positioned the figure precariously close to the edge of the seat, almost about to tip over. And the floor too looks tilted forward as if the shifted and broken equilibrium was Cezanne’s way of communicating the tension in the relationship with his father.

Cézanne’s portraits bring up an interesting question about the concept of sublimation, which is defined by psychoanalysts as the transformation of sexual or aggressive impulses into something that is socially acceptable. Cézanne was being defiant when he painted them. They were not “socially acceptable”—they were criticized for not looking like the people he was painting. But from a psychoanalytic point of view, painting someone as a defense against wishing to kill them is transforming an unacceptable impulse into something socially acceptable.