The Return of the Repressed: Freud Sneaks Back into Neuroscience

by Joan Harvey

Our expectations sculpt neural activity, causing our brains to represent the outcomes of our actions as we expect them to unfold. This is consistent with a growing psychological literature suggesting that our experience of our actions is biased towards what we expect. —Daniel Yon

Because consciousness is something common to all of us, it is also interesting to many of us, though we may lack both philosophical and scientific backgrounds. And while many regular people are interested to some degree in the workings of their mind, those who have experimented with drugs and meditation may be even more curious about the latest research. From a fairly young age I’ve had a fair amount of experience with both psychedelics and meditation, though certainly not consistently through my life. And, for a while, I had separate conversations with two different persons—one heavily into psychedelics and one a longtime Zen practitioner—about some of the general books on consciousness.

Among the three of us, our biases sometimes came to the fore. Andy Clark’s book on predictive processing has a very sexy title—Surfing Uncertainty–and some very difficult, academic text—my Zen friend found it unreadable, and attributed this to the fact that Clark is not a meditator. My friend, in turn, had me read some recent books on consciousness with a Buddhist bias, which I disliked for their slanted view (though I have had a regular meditation practice at times). Of course the psychedelic expert liked Michael Pollen’s book How to Change your Mind, as did we all. And we all particularly liked Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel. Though not much discussed in the book, perhaps Metzinger’s background in both meditation and psychedelics unconsciously played into our appreciation. We could relate to his ideas of conscious experience as a process and a tunnel through reality, as well as his discussion of transparency, the name he gives for the way we are unaware of the medium through which information reaches us. All of us were (the Zen practitioner has since died) atheist materialists (though also all familiar with plenty of ecstatic, mystical, and irrational states which we felt had a purely physical basis), and intuitively Metzinger’s position made sense to us. The “ego tunnel,” as Metzinger says, is a complex property of the neural correlates of consciousness, the “neurofunctional properties in your brain sufficient to bring about a conscious experience.” He also locates out-of-body experiences and other related phenomena squarely in the physical, as opposed to metaphysical, world.

But my beloved grandmother was a Freudian psychoanalyst, and due to her (and alone in my family, and among most of my friends) I became interested in Freud. Read more »

James Ensor curated by Luc Tuymans at the Royal Academy of Art, London

by Sue Hubbard

ScreenHunter_2386 Nov. 21 12.27In 1933 the Belgium artist, James Ensor, met up with Einstein, when the latter was on his way to the States, for lunch on the coast near Ostend. Walking along the beach Einstein tried to explain the theory of relativity to the bemused artist. “What do you paint?” Einstein asked. To which the painter of masks replied “Nothing”. Whether this response was existential, bombastic or simply bloody minded it's hard to say but it does illustrate something of the enigmatic complexity of one of Belgium's most celebrated artists who, despite a British father, is barely known in the UK.

That father was a bit of a wastrel and a drunkard who married beneath him and, with his Belgium wife, ran a souvenir and curiosity shop in Ostend filled with an array of parrots, exotic masks, and even a monkey. These curios were to have a profound influence on his son's later imagery, imagery that has continued to intrigue as well as baffle. Opposed to ideas of classical beauty, James Ensor was equally infuriated by any notion that an artwork might need to have a social function. An outspoken exponent of ‘the prestige of the new', he considered the greatest artistic sin to be banality. Although he'd go on to have a profound effect on Expressionism and Surrealism, the orthodoxies of Modernism held little interest for him and, when he spoke of them, it was with limited understanding. Yet he produced many stunningly original works. Now the Belgium artist, Luc Tuymans, has curated a show at the Royal Academy that brings this enigmatic artist to a wider international public.

Read more »

Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain until 13th March 2016

by Sue Hubbard

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”

― T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land and Other Poems

ScreenHunter_1456 Oct. 26 10.13From the young painter who, in July 1948, sold his canvases from the pavement in the LCC ‘Open-Air Exhibition' on the Embankment Gardens, Frank Auerbach has become one of the most important and challenging painters on the British landscape. Despite his great friendship with the priapic and party loving Freud, Auerbach has, by comparison, lead the life of an aesthete; a monk to his chosen calling. He hardly socialises, preferring the company of those he knows well. He drinks moderately, wears his clothes till they fall apart and paints 365 days a year.

Though he rarely gives interviews and does not like to talk about his work, he has said of painting: “The whole thing is about struggle”. As Alberto Giacometti contended it is “analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness”…”the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it”.

It is out of this creative darkness, this complexity and unknowability of the world and the self that Auerbach has conjured his series of extraordinary heads, nudes and landscapes. Whilst the past for him may be a foreign country where they do things differently, one that he doesn't choose to revisit – “I think I [do] this thing which psychiatrists frown on: I am in total denial” – it's hard to walk around this current exhibition at Tate Britain and not feel that his dramatic early years had a profound influence on his work.

Read more »

The Donald Is Coming! The Donald Is Coming!

by Akim Reinhardt

Donald Trump, image from Salon dot comI've lost track already. During the past month, too many people to keep count of, each with a look of bemused panic in their eye, has asked me if I think Donald Trump has a chance. Knocked back on their heels by the frenzy surrounding Trump's recent surge, they implore me to tell them what I think.

Is it possible that this crude, bombastic display of runaway hair known as The Donald will actually succeed Barack Obama in the White House?

Alas, it's hard to blame these worry warts. Of late, the press marvels at Trump's soaring poll numbers, and ruminates endlessly on his success in spite of his obvious shortcomings and endless string of outrages, and what it says about American society and its broken political system.

From NPR to Ezra Klein, there's no shortage of media mavens trumpeting Trump and theorizing what his success means. Everyone seems to have an opinion. Or if they don't, they're desperate to find one. Confused by it all, The Atlantic went so far as to simply ask people why, oh why, do you support this man? Then, sans analysis, the magazine simply threw up its hands and published the responses.

Why, oh why indeed. Why is this barbarian at the gate? Why is this roaring, fatuous pig of a man on the verge of undressing our republic and claiming its highest office?

In looking for an answer, I believe we should not dig too deep. After all, Donald Trump doesn't seem to over think much, so we probably shouldn't over think him.

Read more »

Hannah Höch. Whitechapel Gallery London, 15th Jan-23rd March 14

by Sue Hubbard

Image-4In the 21st century we have largely lost touch with the avant-garde. In an age of rapid technological change, where the new is invariably seen as good, the shocks and surprises, the eclecticism and flattening out of postmodernism have become the new orthodoxy. No one is upset by a pickled shark or, for that matter, a pickled anything else being art. In-your-face and gritty is what we expect from contemporary culture. There is nothing much to dare anymore, nothing much to lose, in a society where what is ‘shocking' is mostly an ersatz construct quickly appropriated by the economic mainstream.

But at the beginning of the 20th century things were different. Establishment ideas held sway and there was plenty to be radical about. Epic socio-political changes were afoot. The growth of industrialism, photography, cinema and mass media, as well as the gradual emancipation of women, along with the decimation that was raging throughout Europe resulting in two World Wars, formed a potent mix.

In 1912 Anna Therese Johanne Höch, who had been born in 1889 in Gotha, Germany, left her comfortable upper-middle class home for the cultural melting pot of Berlin. There she attended the craft-orientated School of Applied Arts, an education not uncommon for young women at the time. Here her cultural interests and an astute eye saw her turn traditional craft into something quite new. During the turbulent years of the First World War she met poets and painters, publishers and musicians, including that guru of junk art, Kurt Schwitters, just as Dadaism was hitting town. In August 1920, her radical interests led her to take part in the First International Dada Fair.

Read more »

GENISIS: Sabastião Salgado, National History Museum, London

by Sue Hubbard

What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another. —Mahatma Gandhi

Fo_salgado_genesis_tradeThe Wild contains answers to more questions than we've yet learned to ask. There was a time when the wilderness never seemed far away. Life was a battle against its encroachment. It existed on the edge of our consciousness and our safe physical world: a place of danger and a space for the imagination to roam. It was in the 18th century, with the rise of industrialism that artists and poets began to see the wilderness as an alternative space, a place of wonder and awe, where man was but a tiny element, dwarfed by nature's sublime mountains and waterfalls, its forests and snow-capped peaks. In 1798, at the age of 28, Wordsworth wrote in his great pantheistic autobiographical poem, The Prelude:

Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
A visitant that while it fans my cheek
Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings
From the green fields, and from yon azure sky.
Whate'er its mission, the soft breeze can come
To none more grateful than to me; escaped
From the vast city, where I long had pined
A discontented sojourner: now free…

“Not until we are lost”, wrote Thoreau, “do we begin to understand ourselves”. For Freud the forest was a metaphor for the unconscious where the self could easily become lost in a welter of elemental fears. In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness the jungle represented what was atavistic within the human psyche: the Id to the Ego, Caliban to Arial. For Marlow the Congo was chthonic, savage and elemental and stood in counterpoint to civilisation and his vision of the whited sepulchre of Brussels. For us post-moderns the wilderness represents a prelapsarian world, for so few of us, living in our suburbs and crowded cities have any real experience of the wild, which for many is as alien and remote as the moon.

The photographer Sabastião Salgado has a deep love and respect for the natural world and is concerned with how modernity is impacting on it with, often, devastating socio-economic and ecological implications. Born in Brazil in 1944, one of eight children, he studied economics before becoming an economist in the Finance Department of the São Paula city government. Moving to France in 1969 to study for a doctorate, he opted, instead, for a career in photography, joining the press agency Gamma. Research into the living conditions of peasants and the cultural resistance of the indigenous Indians in Latin America resulted in the book Other Americans. While Workers (1993) documented the vanishing way of life of manual laborers across the world and Migrations (2000) was a tribute to mass migration driven by hunger, natural disasters, and environmental degradation. Mythic, poignant and, seemingly timeless, his images of toiling mine workers could be Egyptians workers erecting the pyramids. An investigation into the lives of the inhabitations of the “4000 Habitations” – a large housing project in La Courneuvue, just outside Paris – continued his concern with humanitarian subjects. This was followed by Sahel, L'Homme en detresse, photographs taken in the drought ridden Sahel region of Africa whilst working with the humanitarian aid group, Médecine Sans Frontières.

Read more »

A Terrible Beauty: Mat Collishaw

by Sue Hubbard

He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Extract from ‘Easter’, 1916, W B Yeats

Duty-Free-SpiritsSmallWhen we meet to discuss his work we have to decamp from the pub in Camberwell, which is both Mat Collishaw’s studio and stylish home, to a local café, as his apartment has been let out to a well known London store for a shoot and is full of rampaging children. But before we leave he shows me his new paintings. At first glance they appear to be abstract, constructed on a modernist grid, though the lines, in fact, are folds, creases left in the small square wraps of paper used to sell cocaine. These wraps have been torn from glossy magazines; there’s a woman’s foot in a high-heeled shoe resting on a glass table, and adverts for Fendi and Gucci. The subtext seems to be that these aspirational trappings are the spectral presence of an endless illusion that functions much like an addiction to drugs. You’re always left wanting more. The work is about debasement; the debasement of modernist painting as a form and as a result of the recent financial excesses that have led to the current economic crisis. This tension between the beautiful and the abject, between the promise of a possible paradise and the profane is central to all Mat Collishaw’s work. As the Marquis de Sade once said: “There is no better way to know death than to link it with some licentious image”.

Read more »

Gauguin: Maker of Myth

Tate Modern, London: 30th September 2010-16th January 2011
National Gallery of Art, Washington: 27th February – 5th June 2011

Sue Hubbard

Gauguin_Tehamana_has_many_E34711 There can be few artists who have been as lionised and lambasted as Gauguin. Condemned by many as a colonial pederast who bought the syphilitic worm into a South Seas heaven, an arrogant self-promoter who abandoned his wife and children for the life of a lotus eater, he represents for others the archetypal painter who gave up everything for his art, breaking away from the bourgeois strictures of a career as a stockbroker and the dab-dab of Impressionism to create paintings full of flat vibrant colour that pre-figured German Expressionists such as Nolde and Kirchner. For his champions he has long been held up as the hero of modernism, a painter who released art from the confines of the naturalistic world and liberated colour to create works of universal symbolism and mystery.

[Photo: Paul Gauguin
Merahi metua no Tehamana (Les Aїeux de Tehamana / The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana has many Parents) 1893
Oil on canvas 76.3 x 54.3 cm
The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Mr and Mrs Charles Deering McCormick.]

So much of the narrative that surrounds Gauguin is myth, often of his own making. He has been the subject of countless representations from Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence to Mario Vargas Llosa’s historical novel The Way to Paradise. One of the first artists to have the media savvy to exploit the narrative of his own life, the Faustian pact he made with posterity finally came back to taunt him when, in 1902, isolated and ill, he dreamt of settling in the Pyrenees. “You are,” his friend Daniel de Monfreid wrote, “ at the moment that extraordinary, legendary artist who sends from the depths of Oceania his disconcerting, inimitable works, the definitive works of a great man who has disappeared, as it were, off the face of the earth…. In short, you enjoy the immunity of the great dead; you belong now to the history of art.”

That he had an extraordinary life is not in question. His father was a political journalist and his mother Aline the daughter of the writer and political activist, Flora Tristan, a pioneer of modern feminism. After the 1848 revolution his family left France for Peru and political exile, where his father died of a heart attack leaving Aline to bring up her two young sons in Lima at the residence of an elderly uncle. It was here that Gauguin spent the first five years of his life, which would later allow him to claim Peruvian heritage and caste himself in the role of a ‘savage’. “The Inca according to legend,” he wrote in a letter to his friend Emile Schuffenecker in 1888, “came straight from the sun and that’s where I will return.” Yet his mythic, archetypal images of Polynesian women and his ‘essentialist’ stereotypes of Breton peasants have often proved problematic for contemporary audiences in these more politically correct times.

Read more »

On being in Rome: visiting de Chirico’s home and Richard Serra at Gagosian

Inv. 138 Sue Hubbard

It was the week after Easter in Rome and the sun was out. The Spanish steps were heaving with tourists and ice cream sellers. Algerian immigrants hawked cheap leather goods. For most the steps simply provided a place to rest; as one ample lady from Texas put it: “ok, so I’ve seen them now, is that it?” Clearly she wasn’t impressed. Relaxing with their maps and bottles of water wondering what to do next few seemed to realise that just yards away from where they were sitting the 26 year old Keats had died a horrible death from tuberculosis (the wonderful museum was practically empty when we visited) let alone that one of the 20th century’s most puzzling artists, Giorgio de Chirico had lived over the road.

The Giorgio and Isa de Chirico Foundation was founded in 1986 by Isabella Far de Chirico, the painter’s widow, who in 1987 donated 24 of her husband’s works to the Italian state.Upon her death, in November 1990, the Foundation inherited the painter's apartment in the Piazza di Spagna – the 17thcentury Palazzetto dei Borgognoni – where he had lived and worked until his death in 1978. In November 1998 it opened as a museum filled with his late paintings, drawings, sculpture and lithographs, along with manuscripts and photographs.

It is a strange place,a haven of quiet above the crowded street below. I had expected something rather more bohemian from this ‘metaphysical’ painter, but found, instead, an airy bourgeois apartment full of antique furniture, comfortable sofas and rugs. Not what I had predicted from this one time friend of Apollinaire, Picasso, and that arch surrealist André Breton, who had hailed de Chirico’s early dream-like cityscapes as pivotal within the development of Surrealism. Most odd was the tiny monk-like bedroom, Spartan in its decor except for a few books, with its narrow childlike bed under a white cover, where the ‘maestro’ slept across the hall from his Polish second wife, the intellectually and emotionally powerful, Isabella Pakszxwer, whose rather large double bed sported a flamboyant red counterpane.

The enthusiastically hailed period – the pittura metafisica – on which de Chirico’s reputation is based, lasted until around 1918. Then his work changed. Why? The official version is that he was paying homage to the Old Masters of the Renaissance, pitting himself against the greats of art history by going to Florence and studying techniques of tempera and panel painting. As Robert Hughes wrote rather pithily, “he imaged himself to be the heir of Titian”.[1] Denounced by the French avant-garde de Chirico counter-attacked with diatribes on modernist degeneracy signing his work Pictor Optimus (the best painter.) But why should an artist who had written: “It is necessary to discover the demon in all things….to discover the eye in all things – We are explorers ready for new departures,” turn his back on contemporary aesthetic discourses in favour of producing second rate paintings that would not, if it weren’t for the significance of his early work, get a look in within the annals of art history?

Read more »

Henry Moore: Tate Britain, London

ID_091 Sue Hubbard

ID_080 When Henry Moore's sculptures were first displayed, they were considered so shocking, says the art historian Hilary Spurling that opponents not only daubed them with paint but decapitated them. Yet during the 20th century Moore’s work became so ubiquitous within the public domain that familiarity bred a benign contempt. From Harlow New Town to Hampstead Heath, from the UNESCO building to the Lincoln Centre every new ‘modern’ public building had to have its signature Moore. Nowadays there is a tendency to see him as an avuncular Yorkshire man, with an ee-by-gum accent, who made sculptures with holes in the middle that became the easy and acceptable face of modern art, much lampooned in the cartoons of the late lamented satirical magazine Punch. How did this shift from earthy radical to the country’s artistic maiden aunt come about? A revaluation of Moore’s work at Tate Britain attempts to redress this balance.

It is hard for those born in the last 30 years, who have lived through the technological change and economic prosperity of the Thatcher and Blair years, to imagine a post war Britain; grey and ground down by bombing and rationing, a mono-cultural society where white skins predominated, the class system prevailed and poverty was, for many, a daily reality. Divorce was rare, sex outside marriage kept secret and homosexuality a criminal offence. After all, according to Philip Larkin, who was then a young poet:

''Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) —
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.'' (1)

This was a country where the food was bad, central heating unknown and, as the wonderful painter the late Prunella Clough once told me, no one was much interested in ‘modern art’, so that a black and white photograph of a Korean pot on the front of The Studio magazine was considered rather bold. Moore’s gently rounded female forms; his family groups, mothers and children abstracted from natural shapes – rocks, pebbles and bones – can all too easily seem to us, now, as they sit in their city centres and sculpture parks, as easy, undemanding and quintessentially English. Pastiche examples of his work abound in every little St. Ives craft shop and gallery. And yet this exhibition reveals a Moore who is darker, edgier and altogether more radical than these seemingly familiar images would suggest.

Read more »