Art Through a Freudian Lens

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Detail from Bacchus by Caravaggio

A century after he founded psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud exercises a great influence on thought in a wide range of disciplines. Looking at great works of art through a Freudian lens was at the heart of a recent lecture at the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Art by its curator, Dr. Barbara Lynes.

In Bacchus by Caravaggio (pictured above) Lynes says "the image can be seen as revealing the countenance of an alcoholic." Far from depicting a god, Lynes suggests the model "seems like a street urchin" and was certainly not "idealised in terms of his body."

Lynes set out to explore "how the aesthetic character of art changed over time." The "heightened degree of realism" we see in Bacchus, painted in 1595, is in vivid contrast to paintings from a century earlier. Her talk began with a look at Portrait of a Woman by Botticelli, done around 1485. Lynes discerns a "vague erotic quality, depicted as a mythological image of nature." She exemplifies both both "beauty and virtue, which were one and the same at this time."

Two paintings by Leonardo formed the centrepiece of this look at art history, which she noted began as a discipline in the 18th century.

The Ginerva di Benci (at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC) exhibits both linear and aerial perspective, showing us a very different relationship to nature compared with the Botticelli. Leonardo was able to not only transform a 2D surface into a 3D world, he infuses the painting with atmosphere.

"He is obscuring himself as an artist by his incredible ability to paint- you can't see the brushstrokes on her face." Done in the 1470s, it is the first painting showing a woman engaging the audience in a 3/4 pose.

Ginevra di Benci by LeonardoGinevra di Benci by LeonardoUsing her Freudian lens, Lynes believes the lady depicted "establishes a psychic relationship" with the viewer.

The second Leonardo she discussed, Lady With an Ermine from 1490, "was innovative in its relationship to how women were portrayed. She seems actively engaged in a conversation with someone."

Provocatively, she holds a live animal, the ermine. "She has a presence, and the ermine shows she exhibits control over her lover, the Duke of Milan, whose symbol was the ermine."

The lecture provided much to consider for anyone looking at art through a lens they may not have peered through before.


The second lecture in Dr. Lynes' series will be held on Feb. 4. Consult the museum website for details:

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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