In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Art and Psychoanalysis

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Articles

Art History Art and Psychoanalysis
Laurie Schneider Adams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0030


Art history and psychoanalysis are interdisciplinary subjects that rely on imagery for their very existence. Works of art are, by definition, images, whether these are two- or three-dimensional. Psychoanalytic interpretation, both clinical and as applied to other fields, deals with the observation and analysis of imagery: in dreams, symptom formation, symbolism, and fantasy. These two fields officially came together in 1910, when Freud published the first psychobiography of an artist (namely, Leonardo da Vinci), and they met again four years later in Freud’s short essay on the Moses of Michelangelo. Both studies engendered controversy, with art historians and psychoanalysts offering heated critiques pro and con. Following these two publications, the field of art and psychoanalysis expanded into various approaches, depending on the particular psychoanalytic or art-historical bias of the author. Although there has been considerable overlap in these approaches, they can be divided into three major categories: (1) psychobiography, in which the artist’s life is directly related to his or her work; (2) psycho-iconography, in which the iconography of a work is determined by convention and theme and can be analyzed psychologically; psycho-iconography can also provide insights into works of art when the artist’s life is well known and can be related to the meaning of the imagery; and (3) the origin and nature of creativity and symbolization. These three methods of analyzing art and artists form the major sections of this article. Both psychobiography and psycho-iconography are of most value when they clarify the art, especially with regard to its meaning or technique. The origin and nature of creativity and symbolization are more relevant to the creative process and can be approached either from the point of view of a specific artist or via the conventions prevalent at a specific time and place. Brief bibliographical entries are also provided for tangential issues, as well as for general discussions of the methodology of psychoanalysis applied to art. There are general overviews of the application of psychoanalytic thinking to works of art, as well as publications that expand the boundaries of psychoanalysis. These overviews include more recent approaches to art, and compilations of essays or talks given at conferences that deal with different ways of reading art according to the school of psychoanalysis favored by the author. Additional approaches to the application of psychoanalysis to art include feminist studies, semiotics and structuralism, gender studies, colonialism and non-Western art, and neurobiology. The issue of aesthetics is covered only when included in works primarily concerned with psychobiography, psycho-iconography, or creativity and symbolization. The application of psychoanalysis to aesthetics has become a major field in its own right and deserves a separate set of bibliographical entries.

General Overviews

Since Freud’s introduction of clinical psychoanalysis and its application to the humanities and other fields, a number of books on art and psychoanalysis, starting in the 1950s (Kris 1952), have been published. Later books cover slightly different approaches to art and psychoanalysis. Some deal with the reception of works (Spitz 1989), others with specific psychoanalytic topics such as dreams, the Oedipus complex, etc. (Adams 1993), interdisciplinary approaches to culture (Davis 1996), the polymorphous perverse character of creativity (Howard 2001), and modern psychoanalytic approaches applied to modern and contemporary art (Walsh 2013). These tend to deal with different schools of psychoanalysis applied to the arts, with art historians generally focusing on particular works of art and individual artists, and psychoanalysts on the creative process: although in some cases the two overlap and reinforce each other.

  • Adams, Laurie Schneider. Art and Psychoanalysis. New York: Icon Editions, 1993.

    An overview of psychoanalytic readings of works of art. Topics such as dreams and delusions in art, expressions of the Oedipus complex in art, psychobiography and autobiography, conventional themes, the primal scene, and the transitional object and its implications for symbolization and creativity, are surveyed, along with explanations of theory and clinical vignettes.

  • Davis, Whitney. Replications: Archaeology, Art History, Psychoanalysis. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

    Twelve interdisciplinary essays explore what Davis calls “replications” in art history, archaeology, and psychoanalysis. Argues that art history, like archaeology and psychoanalysis, deals with the cultural meaning of objects and imagery. Thus, art history shares certain elements with those fields, as well as being able to form a bridge between them. Among the artists covered are Max Ernst, Bourgeois, Whiteread, Koons, Kruger, and Sherman.

  • Howard, Seymour. “Eros, Empathy, Expectation, Ascription, and Breasts of Michelangelo (A Prolegomenon on Polymorphism and Creativity).” Artibus et Historiae 22.44 (2001): 79–118.

    DOI: 10.2307/1483715

    Examples of the polymorphous perverse character of creativity and the metamorphosis of imagery reflecting unconscious processes.

  • Kris, Ernst. Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. Madison, CT: International Universities, 1952.

    An art historian and psychoanalyst introduces the notion of “regression in the service of the ego” as a necessary condition of creativity: that is, the artist, via ego control, accesses his or her unconscious and transforms its mechanisms into art. Kris considers several major artists as well as examples of the art of the insane.

  • Spitz, Ellen Handler. Art and Psyche. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

    Three main approaches to art and psychoanalysis are explored: the psychobiographical connections between artists and their work; the nature of a particular work; and the reception of works. In addition to the visual arts, taking a more aesthetic approach, Spitz cites examples of music, dance, and literature.

  • Walsh, Maria. Art and Psychoanalysis. London: I. B. Taurus, 2013.

    In addition to Freud, the author applies various modern psychoanalytic approaches of interpretation, e.g., Lacan and Kristeva, to modern and contemporary artists. The nature of the object is considered from surrealism through postmodernism with the intention of arriving at the reality of human experience rather than presenting traditional psychoanalytic interpretations.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.