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A psychiatrist and mythologist walked into an art gallery together. They are the wise sherpas pointing out new ways of “seeing” the brushstrokes as soul stirring messages.

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Dr. Carl Jung

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Joseph Campbell on Mythology

Why do I turn to Dr. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, when I’m looking at art?

In addition to his lifelong clinical practice, Jung studied and wrote extensively about the human psyche. Joseph Campbell devoted his life to the study of mythology–and the importance of story-telling.

Here’s some examples of what I mean.

Edward Hopper

What would Jung and Campbell say about this artist Edward Hopper? Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, art, painting, art interpretation, Matisse, Hopper, fish symbol, subconscious,

As soon as I see a painting by Edward Hopper, I think of the lonely people, the desolate streets of America—and what must lie within or beneath them. Only recently did I learn that Edward Hopper was profoundly influenced by Carl Jung.

From the beginning, I sensed something lay beneath his portrayal of America.  Any artist undoubtedly will express his or her feelings about the subject matter of the work or strive to create a chosen impression. Just look at the paintings of American life by Norman Rockwell. By contrast, Rockwell presents a happy, idealized version of life in the United States. Both Jung and Campbell might well comment upon the power of myth in our lives. Rockwell is certainly presenting us with a view we would like to believe. Some would call it “our myth”.

Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, art, painting, art interpretation, Matisse, Hopper, fish symbol, subconscious,

Thanksgiving, Norman Rockwell.

But back to Hopper! I remember sitting in front of “Night Hawks” at MoMA some years ago. “What am I seeing?” I wondered.

Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, art, painting, art interpretation, Matisse, Hopper, fish symbol, subconscious,

Some quality drew me beneath the surface. It wasn’t just the colour, the line, technical skill or the subject matter of “Night Hawks” or “Automat”. Certainly all of that created the sense of intense loneliness. The ominous, dark night behind the woman with the hat in “Automat,” increases her isolation. She even seems cut off from objects surrounding her. Look at the little radiator to her right hunched in a corner as if trying to hide.

Looking at “Automat” through the eyes of Jung and Campbell, we might say that the radiator symbolizes the warmth of hearth and home. If so, has this woman run from the security of home to something else? What has happened and what lies ahead? Perhaps Jung might say she is looking deep inside and reflecting on the life within her psyche. Likely, Campbell would concentrate on the intrinsic humanity of the story-line. 

Jung viewed the great artist as a prophet–a person who had special access to the realms of the unconscious and was able to “see” what lay beneath the surface. In these two Hopper paintings, Jung might think that Hopper had delved down deeply past the subconscious and into the collective unconscious. A good thing? Of course.

Look at the people in Rockwell’s painting of the Thanksgiving dinner. They are so  individualized. You feel as if you know their names. Now look at the people in Hopper’s work. To me they are not just individual people but they are also expressions of humanity in a universal sense. Perhaps I’m overstating it, but to me that means Hopper has indeed reached down deep to touch upon the collective unconscious for his portrayal of humankind. 

In “Night Hawks” we see the people in the diner at a distance—almost in another world. The angles between them suggest an immediate tension and loneliness. But what would Jung or Campbell say?

Perhaps Campbell, master of story-telling, might say that both paintings tell a story at a crisis point. What has brought these people to this point and what will happen next? Expanding on Jung’s thought, Campbell might say that the artist as “hero” must then bring that insight back to his community in the form of his art work. What do you think? 

Henri Matisse

Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, art, painting, art interpretation, Matisse, Hopper, fish symbol, subconscious,

So often, this artist creates what I like to call “joyful beauty”. I think of pretty fish bowls in the gorgeous drawing rooms of the south of France. I can feel the sea breezes already wafting through white, sheer curtains at the windows.  

Matisse was, for many years, very ill with cancer and consequently knew what pain was. Yet he painted such colourful, happy scenes. But his work is far more than pretty scenes. Something lies beneath which is revealed in the painting in the lower right corner—the woman contemplating the fish bowl.

Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, art, painting, art interpretation, Matisse, Hopper, fish symbol, subconscious,

This painting gives me an entirely different perspective on what Matisse was doing with his fishbowls. Usually, in his art, the fish bowl is a symbol of joy and carefree pleasure. But this is much more. Both Jung and Campbell would undoubtedly comment on the many symbolic meanings of the fish—life, life force and the subconscious topping a very long list.   

But what else would Jung or Campbell say? I’d love to hear your thoughts. The comment box is right below. 

The work of Campbell and Jung gives us ways of thinking and talking about the mysteries of human life.

When I look at art, their writing acts as a many useful and inspirational guideposts. These writers act as wise sherpas pointing out ways of “seeing” the painter’s brushstrokes as soul stirring messages

Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing. Yes—there is a seventh novel, which is not part of either trilogy. Provisionally entitled The Wondrous Apothecary, it is scheduled for publication in early 2018.



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4 thoughts on “Looking at Art with Campbell and Jung

  1. Your comments at least confirm that “art” is as much the reaction to it as the creation of it. Our world would be dull indeed without the creative output of the architect, the painter, the writer. Hopper’s works prompt for me a reflective response: his subjects are almost always solitary figures many lost in thought, which engenders just the kind of pondering you demonstrate.

    • Hi David
      Your point that art is part the creative work itself and the reaction to it strikes home. That being so, the creative work must necessarily change [and hopefully grow] depending on time and place of the responses. Just think of the novels of say–Dostoevsky. Thousands of pages have been written in response to them, so that all thoughts and perceptions of the readers form an entirely new body of work. Many writers feel that their work is not complete until it is “received” [commented upon] by the outside world. Joseph Campbell maintained that the creative journey [described in his book “The Hero’s Journey] consists of the creative process followed by the artist returning to the “world” with his or her gift. Thanks so much for writing in and sharing your excellent thoughts.

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