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The mind's eye

by Dr Christopher Chapman, 6 March 2017

Geoffrey Graham, 1941 by Max Dupain
Geoffrey Graham, 1941 by Max Dupain

Amid the twentieth century socio-political turmoil that fomented war across the theatres of Europe, and then Asia and the Pacific, the drive to understand the psychological impulses of humankind crystallised through experiments in medical treatment and psychiatry.

Theories of the unconscious, proposed by the Austrian medical scientist Sigmund Freud, had been explored by doctors working with soldiers traumatised by their experiences of combat during the First World War. Freud hypothesised that deep thought processes are responsible for our reactions and emotional responses to people and events, and that they drive our psychological needs. The behaviour and private thoughts of numerous individuals studied by Freud confirmed for him the presence of an unconscious mind that acts of its own volition, continually interacting with the conscious mind of everyday thought. Freud theorised that the unconscious mind throws up unwanted thoughts and urges that we might want to repress, and, through psychoanalysis, repressed thoughts and emotions could be analysed and treated.

In Australia, John William Springthorpe was fascinated by the potential that Freud’s psychoanalytic models held for the recuperation of soldiers shaken and debilitated by the mental and physical impacts of war. Springthorpe lamented that medical personnel were ‘unacquainted with psychopathic manifestations or their proper treatment’. In 1930, Roy Winn, who had served at Gallipoli and in France, wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia that physicians required as sound a knowledge of psychology as of physiology to effectively treat shell-shocked soldiers. Psychoanalysis, he wrote a decade later, could relieve ‘deeply buried emotions, such as guilt concerning the impulse to kill’.

The idea of subconscious impulses appealed strongly to artists inspired by the aims of Surrealism. In France, writer André Breton had gathered a group of like-minded poets known as the Mouvement Flou. Two years later, in 1924, he set out a manifesto for the aims of the group who were now self-proclaimed ‘Surrealists’. Inspired by Freud’s ideas about unconscious thought processes, Breton stated that Surrealism seeks to express ‘the real functioning of thought’ using the arts as its medium. His Bureau of Surrealist Research sought to ‘gather together all possible communications relating to the forms which the unconscious activity of the mind is liable to assume’. In 1925, Galerie Pierre in Paris hosted the midnight opening of the first surrealist exhibition; it included artworks by Hans Arp, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray and Giorgio de Chirico. The selection of artists reflected Surrealism’s male-focused origins. Later, in 1936, several women were included in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London: it included artworks by Briton Eileen Agar, Argentine Leonor Fini, Frenchwoman Dora Maar, German-Swiss Meret Oppenheim, and the mysterious ‘Jacqueline B.’ David Gascoyne was a member of the English organising committee for the exhibition; he translated André Breton’s preface for the catalogue, and his book A Short Survey of Surrealism became available in Australia that same year.

Australians Geoffrey Graham and James Cant were in Britain in the 1930s and they showed their work in surrealist exhibitions in London in 1937 and 1938, alongside their European contemporaries. The enigmatic, fantastical and absurd imagery of surrealist art had gained stylistic cachet even in Australia by the late 1930s. In 1940, Australian painter and writer James Gleeson (then aged twenty-four) described the movement for his local audience: ‘Surrealism is the word that is applied to those forms of creative art which are evolved not from the conscious mind, but from the deeper recesses of the sub-conscious. The theory of surrealism is based upon a belief that the logical mind, with its prescribed formulas of thought, is incapable of expressing the entire range of human experience and aspiration. To express such a range, the complete mechanism of the human mind must be used.’

Study for "Portrait of the artist as an evolving landscape", 1991 by James Gleeson

Portrait photographs of Gleeson always show him as impeccably dressed and sporting a neatly trimmed moustache. His reviews of modern art in the 1940s and his scholarship on Australian artists was always erudite and serious, his insights aided by his own dedication to painting and drawing. Gleeson was equally inspired by Spaniards Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, translating their disjointed and convoluted sense of space and drippy dream-landscapes into his own Australian version of Surrealism. As a young boy Gleeson was fascinated by the beach rock pools that would later inspire the deliquescent landscapes of his mature surrealist art. He tackled the big theme of war in imagery that tore the landscape apart.
Gleeson’s text in Art in Australia magazine made direct reference to recently exhibited paintings by Surrealism-inspired Australian artists. The Contemporary Art Society exhibitions of 1939 and 1940 premiered Australian surrealist art, with the exhibition’s organising council, and exhibitors, including several women. Gleeson’s words echoed those of Sydney philosophy scholar Henry Tasman Lovell, written in the same journal almost twenty years earlier. According to Lovell, the artist ‘works from within outward’, and, ‘the neurotic symptom, the dream, the poem or artistic creation all make their appearance in overt consciousness’. Psychoanalysis was a means of reaching the ‘suppressed, unacknowledged, forgotten things of the unconscious level’.

James Gleeson, 1995 by Greg Weight

Psychoanalysis appealed to clinicians and philosophers alike as a mechanism that could be used to bypass conscious levels of awareness. Australian Reg Ellery’s 1945 book Psychiatric Aspects of Modern Warfare called for more trained psychiatrists and better psychiatric treatments for soldiers as a responsibility of government. His book received generally sympathetic reviews, its cover made striking by the use of Sidney Nolan’s harrowing painting of a traumatised soldier. Beyond the treatment of soldiers, psychoanalysis, with its careful dynamic of listening to the patient to uncover repressed feelings, was seen by Ellery as an antidote to the mania of modern society; even in 1931 he lamented its ‘haste and feverish unrest’. By the early 1950s the independent practice of psychoanalysis was established, as Hungarians Clara Lazar Geroe and Andrew Peto and Australian Roy Winn established the Australian Society of Psychoanalysis.

Head of soldier, 1942 by Sidney Nolan

Fascinated as they were by Freud’s ideas, surrealist artists in Europe and Australia did not subject themselves to psychoanalytic scrutiny. Instead, they relied on artistic methodologies that conjured the operation of chance as a creative strategy, or drew upon enigmatic imagery. Australian artists Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan were inspired by the art of untrained artists and patients who had experienced psychosis. Tucker was open to the fleeting imagery of the unconscious:

‘I always listen to that silence, that inner voice, wait for what image comes up.’

Looking back, experiments with the psychoactive drug mescaline (which occurs naturally in the peyote cactus) seem to fit right in with surrealist artists’ fascination with the unconscious mind. Native to Mexico and Texas, the sacred properties of peyote were synthetised by 1920, and by 1928 the plant’s mind-altering properties were the subject of scientific study. German-American Heinrich Klüver analysed children’s visual perception, then that of German soldiers who had suffered neurological damage during the First World War. Klüver’s interest in visual perception incorporated an investigation of mescaline published in 1928 as the book, Mescal and Mechanisms of Hallucinations. Under the effects of mescaline himself, Klüver identified certain recurring visual forms, including honeycomb, spider-web and spiral shapes, and some comparable to the art of surrealist painter Juan Miró. Other studies also emphasised the impactful visual character of mescaline-induced hallucinations. In the 1930s, Walter Maclay and Eric Guttman, clinicians at Mill Hill Emergency Hospital in London, invited visual artists to make drawings under the influence of the substance. ‘They were given enough mescaline to cause hallucinations’, wrote the pair in their report published in the Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry in 1941. The artists ‘were asked to sketch what they saw and then after the intoxication was over to make another drawing of their experience in retrospect’.

Military hospital, 1942 by Albert Tucker

Maclay and Guttman do not name the artists who participated in their experiment, but Australians Geoffrey Graham and James Cant responded to advertisements in the press calling for artists to take part in mescaline studies. Cant reported the experience as illuminating – it was ‘marvellous’ – but the visions soon mesmerised him and he gave up on making drawings. In the exhibition catalogue for the 1938 surrealist exhibition in London, Cant’s entry noted that he was ‘recently engaged in medical research as to the influence of mescaline on vision’. Maclay and Guttman wanted to test the application of the visual shapes that Heinrich Klüver had described in his mescaline-induced visions, saying ‘it is surprising to find so few illustrations of mescaline hallucination in the numerous publications on the subject’. Their study, with artists reproducing examples of various types of visual patterns, included ‘tapestry pattern’, ‘zigzag lines’, and images that suggested to the clinicians the biological structure of the retina. They thought that their samples showed the known physiological effects of sensory stimulation, although the detail of the artworks contained imagery of a ‘psychological’ nature that Maclay and Guttman decided ‘precluded any attempt to analyse’.

The clinicians describe one example of mescaline-enhanced perception where ‘everything [the artist] hallucinated seemed to elongate itself in whatever direction he turned his attention. When he tried to draw the man’s arm, it grew longer and longer [and] the cathedral continued into the spire, the spire into the cross and its ends into airplanes’. Reproduced in their scientific paper is a drawing showing a figure whose limbs stretch on like the branches of a tree. Geoffrey Graham’s own drawings, paintings and etchings of ‘bone figures’ are likewise characterised by long, multi-jointed limbs – elongated figures reaching to the sky for airplanes or birds.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, writers Antonin Artaud and Aldous Huxley famously sought creative illumination in mescaline, and artist Henri Michaux delved into the mescaline dimension following the death of his wife. Existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre asked his school friend, physician Daniel Lagache, to procure some mescaline for him. Unfortunately for Sartre, the substance invoked nightmarish creatures and lingering hallucinations. In Native American rituals some groups include women in peyote ceremonies. For Europeans, creative experimentation with mescaline seems to be a short-lived, masculine pursuit.
In the current era of neuroscience, Freud’s idea of the unconscious mind remains a viable concept, with potentially vast untapped therapeutic applications. In their 2011 paper on ‘neuropsychoanalysis’, psychologist Mark Solms and neuroscientist Oliver H Turnbull are optimistic about interdisciplinary medical exploration by invoking Freud’s remarks to Albert Einstein: ‘There is no greater, richer, more mysterious subject, worthy of every effort of the human intellect, than the life of the mind.’