ArtsATL > Art+Design > Review: Oglethorpe Museum makes history, displays mandalas by patients of Carl Jung

Review: Oglethorpe Museum makes history, displays mandalas by patients of Carl Jung

“The Sacred Round: Mandalas by the Patients of Carl Jung” is the first public exhibition of its kind. Given the historic nature of the show and the provocative questions it poses, we will run two commentaries. Today, Jerry Cullum brings his knowledge of world religions, Jung and art history to bear on the subject. On Tuesday, we will offer a different, equally fascinating perspective by Jack Wieland, a training candidate with the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association and an art historian. — Catherine Fox

In 2009, the world was finally permitted to see C.G. Jung’s legendary “Red Book,” the immense volume in which the psychoanalyst recorded the symbolic fantasies and inward visions that he produced beginning in 1914 through a technique of visualization he called “active imagination.” Soon after deploying the method in his own life, he began to encourage the production of similar stories and paintings by his patients — or “analysands,” to use analytical psychology’s preferred term. Deemed protected by doctor-patient confidentiality, all were kept private except for a few reproduced with Jung’s theoretical essays. Now, 40 of those images are making their public debut in “The Sacred Round: Mandalas by the Patients of Carl Jung,” at Oglethorpe University Museum through May 6.

Mandala © C.G. Jung Institute

Atlanta owes this unusual opportunity to the museum’s persevering director, Lloyd Nick, who began his quest to show the mandalas in 1994. Nick revived the idea three years ago, following conversations with the Jung Society of Atlanta. After considerable discussion, the Jung Institute in Zürich, Switzerland, which had declined his first request, agreed to send images from five of Jung’s female analysands dating from the 1920s and ’30s.

None were working artists, and one declared herself incapable of drawing and painting competently. But all were working from extremely high standards of education and visual literacy, so the skill and familiarity with artistic precursors exhibited in these paintings, while they come as a delightful surprise, are not a cause for complete astonishment. A very few are doing little more than rearranging existing symbols, but that is what many innovative artists do: reinterpret tradition in terms of the imperatives of the inner life.

Because they derive from psychological treatment, all of these sequences of images begin on some level of felt oppression, incapacity or dis-integration. This is symbolized in one painting, for example, by a woman of stone whose lower body is fused with the rocks beneath her. This analysand subsequently symbolized herself as a mandala-like sphere that is liberated from the rock by a lightning bolt — a sphere that is meant to be imagined as in active motion later in the series. Jungians may be pleased to note that these mandalas, like the Tibetan mandalas at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum, are meant not as flat schematic diagrams but as two-dimensional renderings of three-dimensional fields of psychic energy.

All these women were of an age to have been familiar with the Symbolist and Decadent art of Central Europe circa 1900, which had not been completely forgotten three decades later, and one analysand’s renderings of symbolic kings, queens and mythic creatures seem drawn from the same fin-de-siècle visual sources that influenced Pamela Colman Smith when she painted the cards of the so-called Rider-Waite tarot deck circa 1910. This does not alter the fact that each analysand was working with authentic inner revelations, not just woodenly reproducing a predictable body of symbols. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to interpret what the symbols are supposed to mean, because they are linked to personal circumstances through which the analysands reached the common inheritance of a potentially stable mental life.

Psychologist Carl Jung

Jung, in fact, ascribed the most powerful work in this exhibition, a stunningly embroidered image with distinct Asiatic parallels, to the fact that its creator was born of Dutch parents in Java and raised there, absorbing from her surroundings the imagery and mythology of Javanese culture along with her European cultural inheritance. Jung was quite aware of the phenomenon of cultural hybridity and of the diffusion of symbols. His point about the “objective psyche” (misleadingly also known as the “collective unconscious”) was that the same symbols and images recur in wildly varying cultural circumstances. Since different cultures regard so many aspects of other cultures as bizarre or downright repellent, how is it that so many symbols show up in almost identical form amid cultural practices that do not resemble one another in the slightest? Why are some symbols borrowed and others rejected?

The occurrence of nearly identical motifs in world art (“archetypes,” some call them) across vast physical distances now seems less mysterious than it once did. We now know how neurologically similar we all are as a species and which biological substrates differ across geographically dispersed populations (a discussion formerly rendered impossible by the persistence of the social phenomenon of racism). We know that cultural diffusion could be carried out across ancient trade networks that were almost transplanetary, as well as by migration and conquest; we know that visual symbols migrate independently of the mutually incomprehensible barriers of the world’s languages.

Actually, we don’t know any of that conclusively, but we’re getting much closer to putting the pieces together in a more productive (though still not necessarily correct) order. The rigid barriers among the disciplines of art history, anthropology, psychology, history, biology and so on are being broken down, and the interpretation of art is being transformed as a result, along with the interpretation of everything else.

Mandala © C.G. Jung Institute

So this is a particularly fruitful time to reconsider Jung as an early interdisciplinarian who searched for preliminary answers to the vexing questions of artistic and religious history, as well as to the question of how the individual self is structured. His faith that the relationship between cultural and neurological factors in the formation of archetypes would someday be clarified is, to some degree, being fulfilled. We no longer argue over “nature vs. nurture”; neither position is correct.

Mandala © C.G. Jung Institute

And that’s why it is so important to have Oglethorpe’s exhibition of Jungian mandalas just up the road from Emory’s exhibitions on Tibetan mandalas and its modern versions of the form. The Oglethorpe show fills in, chronologically speaking, some of the gap between the Emory exhibitions by giving us a glimpse of images from the first third of the 20th century. More importantly, it presents an artistic legacy that has been absent from the historical record — artistic, even though Jung emphasized that his patients should not be led astray by the temptation to regard these mandalas as art rather than as objects for contemplation. They were meant to be used, not enjoyed, even though they offer aesthetic pleasures. In like fashion, Tibetan mandalas were and are created as objects for inner transformation, linked to oral recitation and psychological visualization, rather than as independent works of art.

Because Jung asked patients to produce such paintings as a way of getting at otherwise inaccessible aspects of their interior development, the five stunning sets of examples selected for this exhibition can and should be read in that light, as documents of Jungian psychology. In like fashion, the mandalas at Emory can and should be read as documents of Tibetan religious history, in the case of the Carlos show, and of contemporary artistic practice in the case of the exhibition at the Emory Visual Arts Gallery.

But all three exhibitions should be read across academic disciplines. In the case of Oglethorpe’s, we ought to look at these visual-art outgrowths of psychological treatment not only as artworks in their own right, but as provocative problems in how an inherited artistic language shapes personal expression. Obviously, most of Jung’s mandala-painting patients had seen a fair amount of art before; the social class to which they belonged made that inevitable. Why they borrowed the artistic styles they did, and whether their borrowings sometimes ended up resembling forms of art that they quite likely had not encountered (because they weren’t yet available in their immediate environments, though they might have been in magazines), is a question for latter-day Jungians to discuss.

The Jungian analysts who have written in the Oglethorpe catalog point out that the works in this exhibition almost certainly reflect prior knowledge of Asian mandalas and possibly of work produced by Jung’s other patients. Each body of work is nevertheless distinct, but each also illustrates the point Jung was trying to make about mandalas: that whereas some of these works symbolize conflicts within the personality, the mandala itself represents the integration of previously unresolved aspects into a dynamically balancing whole. “Balancing,” not “balanced”: the achievement of perfect balance, rather than a process of attaining it, would require a degree of self-transcendence that few if any analysands ever achieve. They — we — approach and fall away.

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