Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Art


Dr Gregor Kowal
Specialist in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy,
German Board Certified,
Medical Director,
Clinic for Health and Medical Care
Phone: 00971-4-4574240

The connections between psychiatry/psychology and art are manifold. In this brief survey only few aspects of their mutual interactions will be described.

Sigmund Freud who developed the cornerstone of analytical psychology and the first psychotherapeutic technique, psychoanalysis, was fascinated by art. In his papers related to art, he tried to understand the hidden (unconscious) reason behind the actions of the artist.

Sigmund Freud

In his essay about the sculpture “Moses” by Michelangelo (the great renaissance artist) Freud paid attention to every detail developing a genius interpretation of the psychological status of Moses, his thoughts and contradictory feelings.


Moses  by Michelangelo


Fig.1: At first the figure of Moses, while it was still sitting quietly, carried the Tables perpendicularly under its right arm. Its right hand grasped their lower edge and found a hold in the projection on their front part. (The fact that this made them easier to carry sufficiently accounts for the upside-down position in which the Tables were held.)

Fig.2: Then came the moment when Moses` calm was broken by the disturbance. He turned his head in its direction, and when he saw the spectacle he lifted his foot preparatory to starting up, let go the Tables with his hand and plunged it to the left and upwards into his beard, as though to turn his violence against his own body. The Tables were now consigned to the pressure of his arm, which had to squeeze them against his side.


Fig.3 and 4: But this support was not sufficient and the Tables began to slip in a forward and downward direction. The upper edge, which had been held horizontally, now began to face forwards and downwards; and the lower edge, deprived of its stay, was nearing the stone seat with its front corner. 

What we see before us is not the inception of a violent action but the remains of a movement that has already taken place. In his first transport of fury, Moses desired to act, to spring up and take vengeance and forget the Tables; but he has overcome the temptation, and he will now remain seated and still, in his frozen wrath and in his pain mingled with contempt. Nor will he throw away the Tables so that they will break on the stones, for it is on their especial account that he has controlled his anger; it was to preserve them that he kept his passion in check. In giving way to his rage and indignation, he had to neglect the Tables, and the hand which upheld them was withdrawn. They began to slide down and were in danger of being broken. This brought him to himself. He remembered his mission and for its sake renounced an indulgence of his feelings. His hand returned and saved the unsupported Tables before they had actually fallen to the ground. In this attitude he remained immobilized, and in this attitude Michelangelo has portrayed him.

In his other paper Freud analysed brilliantly the painting “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” by Leonardo da Vinci. Analysing the painting he analysed at the same time the personality of the artist.


The Virgin and Child with St. Anne

The Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung, during his personal crisis, developed a psychosis seeing hallucinatory pictures and hearing voices. He recognised those spontaneously appearing images as autonomous products of his psyche. In his autobiography “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” he wrote:

“…Now my task was clear. I had to try to understand what had happened and to what extent my own experience coincided with that of mankind in general. Therefore my first obligation was to probe the depths of my own psyche. I made a beginning by writing down the fantasies. This work took precedence over everything else.  …  An incessant stream of fantasies had been released, and I did my best not to lose my head but to find some way to understand these strange things. I stood helpless before an alien world; everything in it seemed difficult and incomprehensible.  …

I managed to translate the emotions into images – that is to say, to find the images which were concealed in the emotions – I was inwardly calmed and reassured. Had I left those images hidden in the emotions, I might have been torn to pieces by them. There is a chance that I might have succeeded in splitting them off; hut in that case I would inexorably have fallen into a neurosis and so been ultimately destroyed by them anyhow. As a result of my experiment I learned how helpful it can be, from the therapeutic point of view, to find the particular images which lie behind emotions.”

Jung was one of the most brilliant psychiatrist of the last century. He understood his ilness as an oportunity to study the phenomena of the psychy being an object of his illness but at the same time – still possessing a proof of reality – his own therapist. This was indeed a heroic task. At the end he succeded to overcome the psychosis and went trough a deep personal chelange which transformed him to one of the most charismatic personalities and profund thinker of his time.

He described this experience in following words:

“From the beginning I had conceived my voluntary confrontation with the unconscious as a scientific experiment which I myself was conducting and in whose outcome I was vitally interested. Today I might equally well say that it was an experiment which was being conducted on me. One of the greatest difficulties for me lay in dealing with my negative feelings. I was voluntarily submitting myself to emotions of which I could not really approve, and I was writing down fantasies which, often struck me as nonsense, and toward which I had strong resistances. For as long as we do not understand their meaning, such fantasies are a diabolical mixture of, the sublime and the ridiculous. It cost me a great deal to undergo them, but I had been challenged by fate. Only by extreme effort was I finally able to escape from the labyrinth. …

A cogent motive for my making the attempt was the conviction that I could not expect of my patients something I did not dare to do myself. The excuse that a helper stood at their side would not pass muster, for I was well aware that the so-callecl helper – that is, myself – could not help them unless he knew their fantasy material from his own direct experience, and that at present all he possessed were a few theoretical prejudices of dubious value. This idea – that I was committing myself to a dangerous enterprise not for myself alone, but also for the sake of my patients – helped me over several critical phases”.

Jung wrote down the phantasies and painted his halucinations in a book called: “The Red Book”. In “The Red Book” Jung was weaving his own myth, mining his own experiences and imaginations. The book is an example of a fascinating interaction between art and science.

Carl Gustav Jung was the first psychiatrist who recognized the importance of artistic activities in the therapeutic process helping patients overcome their illnesses. He implemented painting and other artistic activities into psychiatry which are now an indispensable component of treatment all over the world with well-established therapeutic procedures.


Carl Gustav Jung, Psychiatrist


Picture from “The Red Book”


Picture from “The Red Book”


Picture from “The Red Book”

The interaction between psychiatry, psychology and art works in both directions. The influence psychoanalysis exerted on modern art, especially surrealism, was acknowledged by Andre Breton and Salvador Dali. The latter visited Freud in Vienna to pay him tribute for his work. Freud’s impression after this encounter was: “I have been inclined to regard the Surrealists as complete fools, but that young Spaniard Salvador Dali with his candid, fanatical eyes and his undeniable technical mastery has changed my estimate”. (S. Freud, “The Future of an Illusion”).

Dali characterised himself: “The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not at all mad.” In his book “La conquête de l`irrationnel” (The Conquest of the Irrational), he described his “paranoiac-critical method” as a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the interpretative-critical association of delirious phenomena.”The artistic work is an irrational expression of feelings and inner needs of the person creating it. The artistic process exercises a protective effect on the artist compensating his inner conflicts. Salvatore Dali used to say “I would have become mad if I wouldn`t be an artist.”


Andre Breton (left)  |  Salvatore Dali (right)

The German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn collected 4500 paintings and other artistic objects from mentally ill patients from psychiatric hospitals across Germany in the years 1919-1921. In1922 he published a book “Die Bildnerei der Geisteskranken” (”Artistry of the mentally ill”). In the year 1929, Prinzhorn exhibited the works of his collection in the gallery “Max Bine” in Paris. The exhibition was visited by all important surrealists; some of whom purchased artistic objects created by the mentally ill patients. This book and the mentioned exhibition in Paris became the point of reference for young artists surrounding the co-founder of the surrealism movement, Andre Breton.


Prinzhorn Collection:

“Bildnerei der Geisteskranken” (”Artistry of the mentally ill”) by Hans Prinzhorn:


Hans Prinzhorn German Psychiatrist (left)  |  “Die Bildnerei der Geisteskranken” (“Artistry of the mentally ill”) by Hand Prinzhorn (right)


Lufterscheinung” (“Air appearance”), pencil drawing, hallucination of a mentally ill patient, Prinzhorn Collection


August Natterer (1868 – 1933), a schizophrenic German outsider artist, Prinzhorn Collection, Heidelberg


Max Ernst, German surrealist

Surrealism shouldn`t be seen as a copy of the art of the mentally ill. All artistic activities are related to a deeper source of the human psyche called “unconscious.” The unconscious is the “invisible” part of our psychic activities. It contains all the processes taking place underneath the level of our awareness. The thinking processes in mentally ill patients, especially those suffering from schizophrenia, arise to a great extent from this unconscious source. That source is also present in “healthy people.” Under normal circumstances we have access to the unconscious layer of the psyche only in our dreams. The “dream architecture” is “surrealistic” neglecting the continuity in time and space, as well as spatial proportions.


Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1936-1937

The human spirit, our consciousness, the knowledge that “I am” and “who I am” aroused from the depth of the unconscious. The emergence of civilization is a developmental process of consciousness. The history of art is at the same time the history of mankind. Art reflects the balancing act between the conscious and unconscious streams.
Looking at the artistic activities in primitive societies or at those of our ancestors from the paeolithic era, we realize that the main effort of those artists was the creation of a precise image of the surrounding world. This effort reached the level of perfection in the antic Greece and later during the renaissance in Europe.


Roman copy of a Greek sculpture “Laocoön Group” (original dated 200 BC)

The growing level of consciousness and the technological revolution pressed our life into “operational schedules” at the costs of our instincts and connection with the nature. This situation created a psychological need to balance this onesidedness by going back to our roots. This is not a coincidence that modern art often uses archaic forms of expression. Surrealism abandoned the continuity in time and space creating “distorted” images. The other art movements, like cubism and dada, further destroyed form reducing it to the simplified geometrical figures and fragments of a context.


Wassily Kandinsky “Zusammensetzung VIII”

Going back to the archaic roots of our ancestry, using simplified forms and distorting the real “perfect” objects, modern art is creating an emotional counterweight to our extremely rational and technologically possessed, conscious perception.


Pablo Picasso, “Nude with Drapery” (1907)


Salvador Dali