Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’
Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’

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Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’

2.3 Biography and psychobiography

A significant, inescapable identifying feature of the twentieth century was the birth and development of psychoanalysis. Combined with romantic notions of the artist-genius and the attractiveness of the artist's ‘Life’ as evidence for writing the history of Renaissance art, psychoanalysis further ensured the continued success of the monographic construction of art history. A good example of this overlap between the increasingly redundant/discredited ‘Life’ of an artist and the more recently adopted psychoanalytic theories, is the recourse to the individual's childhood. The inclusion of the artist's childhood in a biography is acceptable because, according to psychoanalysis, the earliest development of the personality, created by events experienced in early life, will explain what happens to the individual subsequently. ‘The individual's life history is the route to the understanding of his personality’ (Kris and Kurz, 1979, p. 14).

Sigmund Freud's (1856–1939) short but groundbreaking psychoanalytic study of Leonardo da Vinci was published in 1910 and revised in subsequent editions to 1923. It was Freud's only attempt at ‘psychobiography’ and it was criticised as soon as it appeared. He tried to pre-empt criticism in Chapter 6 of the study, and in doing so explained his thinking behind his method. Biographers on the whole, he wrote,

present us with what is in fact a cold, strange, ideal figure, instead of a human being to whom we might feel ourselves distantly related. That they should do this is regrettable, for they thereby sacrifice truth to an illusion, and for the sake of their infantile phantasies abandon the opportunity of penetrating the most fascinating secrets of human nature.

(Freud, 1963, p. 177–8)

He then goes on to ‘summarise what we have been able to discover about the course of his [Leonardo's] psychic development’ which reveals Freud's objectives in writing the book.

We should be most glad to give an account of the way in which artistic activity derives from the primal instincts of the mind if it were not just here that our capacities fail us. We must be content to emphasize the fact – which it is hardly any longer possible to doubt – that what an artist creates provides at the same time for an outlet of his sexual desire; and in Leonardo's case we can point to the information which comes from Vasari, that the heads of laughing women and beautiful boys – in other words, representations of his sexual objects – were notable among his first artistic endeavours …

If in making these statements I have provoked the criticism, even from friends of psycho-analysis and from those who are expert in it, that I have merely written a psycho-analytic novel, I shall reply that I am far from over-estimating the certainty of these results. Like others, I have succumbed to the attraction of this great and mysterious man, in whose nature one seems to detect powerful instinctual passions which can nevertheless only express themselves in so remarkably subdued a manner.

But whatever the truth about Leonardo's life may be, we cannot desist from our endeavour to find a psychoanalytic explanation for it until we have completed another task. We must stake out in a quite general way the limits which are set to what psycho-analysis can achieve in the field of biography: otherwise every explanation that is not forthcoming will be held up to us as a failure. The material at the disposal of a psychoanalytic inquiry consists of the data of a person's life history: on the one hand the chance circumstances of events and background influences, and on the other hand the subject's reported reactions. Supported by its knowledge of psychical mechanisms it then endeavours to establish a dynamic basis for his nature on the strength of his reactions, and to disclose the original motive forces of his mind, as well as their later transformations and developments. If this is successful the behaviour of a personality in the course of his life is explained in terms of the combined operation of constitution and fate, of internal forces and external powers. Where such an undertaking does not provide any certain results – and this is perhaps so in Leonardo's case – the blame rests not with the faulty or inadequate methods of psycho-analysis, but with the uncertainty and fragmentary nature of the material relating to him which tradition makes available. It is therefore only the author who is to be held responsible for the failure, by having forced psycho-analysis to pronounce an expert opinion on the basis of such insufficient material.

(Freud, 1963, pp. 180–5)

Freud's study is clearly not so much about Leonardo in particular as about the creative process in general and the limitations of conventional biography which exclude discussion of it. One important effect of Freud's psychoanalytic approach was to entwine more closely what he defined as cause and effect – the artist and his art – in the creation of artworks. But Freud uses artworks as evidence for the artist's personality; the psychobiography does not aim to interpret the works of art themselves. Significantly Freud's Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood relied explicitly on works from the artist's own hands – Leonardo's writings, paintings and drawings – and not on biography because, he argued, this was based on cumulative history which produces legend rather than fact. Through that primary evidence, Freud was looking for ‘truth’ about a historical individual by subjecting that individual, or rather, products from the hand of that individual, to a clinical session.

In the end Freud's book says more about psychoanalysis than it does about the artist or art history, but the method – connecting the development of the individual self to the products of that individual life – has proved irresistible to subsequent scholars and a defining feature of modern consciousness. Freud's psychobiography has been discredited in its details but its broader implications have proved more difficult to shake off. Ernst Gombrich criticised psychoanalytic interpretations of art in general terms in a lecture he gave to the British Psycho-Analytical Society in November 1953.

In most psycho-analytic discussions of art the analogy between the work of art and the dream stands in the foreground of interest. I think it cannot be denied that this approach has proved more rewarding in the field of literature than of painting. True, there are paintings such as some by Goya, Blake, or Fuseli which are dream-like; but if you follow me in your mind on a lightning excursion to the National Gallery, with its Madonnas and landscapes, still lifes and portraits, you will realize that the traditional conventional elements often outweigh the personal ones in many, even of the great masterpieces of the past. Now I would not be here, of course, if I were inclined to deny that a personal determinant must always exist and have always existed …

But does it matter all that much? This may seem at first a very heretical question to ask, yet on its answer depends the whole relationship between psycho-analysis and the history of art. For try as we may, we historians just cannot raise the dead and put them on your couch… Such attempts as have been made, therefore, to tiptoe across the chasm of centuries on a fragile rope made of stray information can never be more than a jeu d'esprit, even if the performance is as dazzling as Freud's Leonardo… And so I repeat the question whether it really matters all that much if we know what the work of art meant to the artist. It clearly matters on one assumption and on one assumption only: that this private, personal, psychological meaning of the picture is alone the real, the true meaning.

(Gombrich, 1971, p. 31)

Gombrich concludes that while ‘taste may be accessible to psychological analysis, art is possibly not’ (Gombrich, 1971, p. 43). Perhaps taste or fashion will determine whether an artist's work is studied in the first place but it will tell us little about the artist or the works. The context in which the artist lived and worked, beyond the images and texts specifically produced by that individual, are more significant aspects in rebuilding the artist's activities, as Langdon's biography illustrates. What psychobiography does is almost irretrievably to attach the artist to his art. ‘The “story” in psychoanalysis can be told from only one point of view, that of the analysand’ (Soussloff, 1997, p. 127). I would argue that the two need to be separated, for inextricably united they are as much a problem as a solution to their understanding.

Activity 7

On the basis of the extracts from Freud and Gombrich above, what advantages and disadvantages do they suggest for the psychoanalytic approach to art history? How does Helen Langdon's approach in Caravaggio fare in this context?


Freud sees psychobiography as a way of bringing the artist to life. Gombrich questions this approach because it assumes that understanding the artist will lead to the one ‘true’ interpretation of his or her artworks. With respect to this issue, Langdon's Caravaggio fares quite well. While she conflates the artist and his art, as the biographical structure dictates, she none the less has to look beyond the artist's inner life for explanations of his artworks. Unlike Leonardo, Caravaggio left no letters or drawings. Nevertheless, the more the historical documents seem to allow access to Caravaggio himself, the stronger – or closer to the ‘truth’ – the interpretation of the artworks seems. It is this that Gombrich challenges: ‘whether it really matters all that much if we know what the work of art meant to the artist’.


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