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Art and psychoanalysis: emotion, intimacy and the unconscious

Collage of postage stamps in illustrative style
  • Written byTeleri Lloyd-Jones
  • Published date08 June 2022
Collage of postage stamps in illustrative style
Mel Calman, 1996

Exploring work from the Central Saint Martins Museum & Study Collection, alumni and assistant curator Siyan Zhang looks at emotion, intimacy, trauma, relationships, desire and unconscious.

Siyan Zhang is an artist, curator and alumni from MA Culture, Criticism and Curation at Central Saint Martins. She developed her interest in Sigmund Freud’s work while she was working at the Freud Museum London. Currently, she is working as an assistant curator at CSM Museum & Study Collection. She explores the archive collection across six themes in this exhibition: emotion, intimacy, trauma, relationships, desire and unconscious.

This exhibition includes work from the 1920s to the present day, it explores the dualities between the physical body and the mind, the conscious and the unconscious, and the potential for both expression and repression.

I am always fascinated by the bond between art and psychoanalysis, if psychoanalysis is a way to investigate the soul, then art is a map to unravel the maze of artist's inner thoughts.

— Siyan Zhang
Collage of postage stamps in illustrative style
Mel Calman, 1996
Mel Calman, 1996

An example of the unconscious manifesting in the art.

This exhibition displays a series of Mel Calman’s humorous works, including a mug titled I must get up!' 'Why?. Mel Calman’s artworks reveal the inner consciousness through symbolism of hidden desires and phantasies. His psychoanalytic cartoons express our sentiments and explore the inner thoughts of our private lives, a frustrated early morning, failed communications, complicated nature of relationships, incapability to cope with life’s problems. The artist, who suffered from melancholy and depression, turns the darkness into the bright, witty and funny side of the human psyche.

Drawing of women
Noel Rooke and Francis Carr, c1930s
Noel Rooke and Francis Carr, c1930s

Each artwork speaks to your own intimacy.

‘When I first saw Noel Rooke’s drawing and Francis Carr’s sketch of his room in Cornwall, these two drawings are explicitly personal,' says Siyan, 'it also felt that you have been invited to explore their world as a voyeur, the world holds all the unspeakable secrets, unrevealed phantasies, unfulfilled desires. I was immediately drawn by the sewing lady in Noel Rooke’s artwork, the silent image speaks loudly of the undisguised adoration and extends the feeling beyond the paper’.

This exhibition is an exploration of our unsaid desires and phantasies behind the scenes, it is a self-discovery journey of unconscious mind. Freud’s ‘free association’ allows psychoanalysts to access the unconscious material. In a way, the psychoanalysis process evokes the unspoken intimacy of our unconscious psyche. The selection of artworks reflects on the relationship between art and mental health, allowing the viewer to peek through a kaleidoscope of intimate moments of everyday life.

Envelope with letter typed onto it
Norah Waugh, c1960s
Norah Waugh, c1960s

Sometimes a letter can tell you more than words.

‘I am very glad to know that you liked the colored photographs of Japanese Maiko, dancing girls. Every spring we can see their beautiful dance. The festival lasts for a month’. Hidekata Iijima (飯島偉孝) wrote to Norah Waugh on 12 Feb, 1966.

Maiko is an apprentice geisha in Kyoto, the spring dance also referred to as Cherry Blossom Dance, it is a traditional dance performed by Maiko in spring coinciding with Kyoto’s cherry blossom season. In the correspondence letters between these two fashion designers reflect upon their relationships across east and west.

‘Personally, I am always drawn to letters,' says Siyan, 'I love the words produced by a typewriter, each tap soaked with ink written on the paper, making an impression with your unfolded thoughts. The amount of time waiting is also another fascinating element, it took months for these letters to ship across the ocean, delivering the feelings and exchanging knowledge with someone who has common interest with you’.

We have also created a reading list to accompany this exhibition.

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