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by Nicola Glover

| Introduction | Chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | Conclusion | Bibliography |

Chapter Five

Ehrenzweig and the Hidden Order of Art

To make someone love the unconscious, that is teaching art.1.

Ehrenzweig's enthusiasm for the study of psychology and art was present from the very start of his academic career. In addition, he studied law in his native Vienna and was appointed a magistrate there in 1936.2. However, two years later he moved to London where he lectured in Art Education at Goldsmiths' College until his death in 1966.

Ehrenzweig was well acquainted not only with recent developments in psychoanalysis, but also with cognitive psychology. Indeed, much of his work is aimed at a critique of what he called 'academic theories of perception', and it is the Gestalt account of perception that he finds particularly unsatisfactory, largely because it fails to acknowledge the important developmental role of libidinal experience in perceptual activity. He was also familiar with the anthropological studies of Jung, Frazer and Graves, relating their work to his study of the theme of the 'dying-god' - which Ehrenzweig regarded as the underlying motif involved in the intrapsychic experience of creativity. However, throughout his writings, he increasingly emphasised how the insights of psychoanalysis, particularly those of the British School, corroborated his own research into the visual arts. This interchange culminates in last book, The Hidden Order of Art (1967), which draws together strands of his thinking developed over thirty years of research. More explicitly than in any earlier writings, Ehrenzweig traces here the resonances and parallels between his ideas and those of a number of British School thinkers, such as Klein, Segal, Bion, Milner and Winnicott. However, before we look at Ehrenzweig and the British School, I will examine some similarities and divergences between the aesthetics of Ehrenzweig and the ego-psychologist Ernst Kris, in particular their respective development of Freud's account of the joke.

Ehrenzweig owes as much to ego-psychology as he does to instinct theory. For he shares some of the same preoccupations as Kris (an attention to the structural changes taking place in the ego during artistic experience, for instance). Yet he also focused on the way in which the primary process (id) worked with conscious perception (ego). In this sense, his work both parallels and draws upon a general revision of the Freudian account of the relationship between primary and secondary processes, that is characteristic of post-Kleinian thinking - a theme which shall be explored in the Conclusion.



1. Ehrenzweig, Kris and the debt to Freud

Both Ehrenzweig and Kris regarded Freud's theory of the joke as particularly productive with regard to aesthetics, certainly in relation to the understanding of the formal aspects of art. For, as we have seen earlier in chapter one, it is Freud's analysis of the relationship between aesthetic pleasure and the structure of the joke which encourages a deeper insight into possible structural changes within the ego during the creative process and the implications for creative work. To a certain extent, both thinkers were concerned with structural changes within the ego during the creative process and their consequences for aesthetic experience and thus hailed Freud's analysis of the joke as a model which could address the nature of artistic form without recourse to the psychobiography and content-analysis that is generally associated with classical Freudian aesthetics.

However, when we look at their respective views of perception and its relationship to unconscious processes, important differences begin to emerge. Although both thinkers are interested in the fate of the ego during the creative process, Ehrenzweig's theory focuses less upon the aesthetics of external object (the art work itself) and more on the intrapsychic nature of creativity, and phantasies associated with this. His work emphasises the constructive role of unconscious perception and its relationship to the body (instinctual experience).

Ehrenzweig acknowledges that there are some similarities between his own and Kris's account of art. For instance, Kris's view that during artistic activity, the artist can let his mind regress to primitive states and still remain in control, is very akin to Ehrenzweig's central hypothesis which emphasises that the 'diffuseness and vagueness and seeming emptiness of dream vision becomes in the artist's hands an exact instrument for controlling the complexity of art'.3. However, Ehrenzweig thought that the ego-psychologists were wrong in their relegation of the creative process to what amounts to a regressive, archaic activity - Kris's dictum of 'regression at the service of the ego'. He argues that what is missing in Kris's concept is the insight that creativity does not merely control the regression towards the primary process, but also the work of the primary process itself. What is central to Ehrenzweig's thesis is that the primary process turns its potentially disruptive effects into constructive ones; thus it is a highly efficient instrument for making new links and shaping more comprehensive concepts and images. Indeed, the unconscious and conscious matrices are not merely linked, surface thought is wholly immersed in the matrix of the primary process.

For the ego-psychologists, creativity necessarily involves a regressive element - the primary process is regarded as an important, but an essentially primitive form of functioning. Thus H. Hartmann, one of the founders of ego-psychology, whose work much influenced Kris, writes that


the process of artistic creation is the prototype of synthetic solution, and ... this is the most important difference between it and 'fantasying'. Such a tendency toward 'order' is inherent in every work of art, even when its content or intent represents 'disorder'. This is, then, another case of 'regressive adaptation': a mental achievement (whose roots are archaic) gains a new significance both for synthesis and in relation to the external world, precisely because of the detour through the archaic.4.

Although there are some superficial similarities in the terms used by Hartmann and Ehrenzweig (both make reference to creative 'order' and 'disorder', for example) their respective approaches to nature of the primary process have a different orientation. In The Hidden Order of Art, Ehrenzweig makes this difference very clear. He points out that Hartmann and Kris were right to assert that id and ego once evolved from a common undifferentiated matrix. However (possibly out of deference to the academic theory of perception put forward by the Gestalt psychologists) Hartmann and his followers did not fit perception into their model. Had they done so, Ehrenzweig thinks that they 'would have wholly anticipated [his] theory of undifferentiated image-making'.5.

To lend support to his claim that id and ego (ostensibly primary and secondary process functioning) work together, Ehrenzweig deploys the Kleinian concept of unconscious phantasy, with its dynamic and structural aspects. For as Susan Isaacs (1948) has pointed out, unconscious phantasy is 'the mental representation of instinct'. It is the bridge between the demands of the id and their representation in the conscious mind. Ehrenzweig argues that


Unconscious phantasy life during our whole lifetime is supplied with new imagery by the ego's cyclical rhythm of dedifferentiation, which feeds fresh material into the matrix of image-making. Far from being autonomous of the id, the ego's perception is constantly at the disposal of unconscious symbolic needs. The ego is certainly not at the id's mercy.6.

According to Ehrenzweig's theory of perception (and this inseparable from his general account of artistic creativity, which shall be explored in the next section), the ego dissolves of its own accord in order to provide 'new serial structures' in the external world as well as for symbolisation of id phantasy in the inner world. .However, he emphasises that to call this activity regressive does not capture its true nature; for it is 'part and parcel of the ego-rhythm which makes perception work'.

Until the work of post-Kleinian thinkers such as Bion, Winnicott, Rycroft and Milner, progress in psychoanalytic aesthetics had been halted through the relative neglect of the undifferentiated structure of primary process phantasy. The earlier work of Freud and his co-workers did not fully take into account the true nature of unconscious phantasy. What Freud had called primary process structures, says Ehrenzweig, are 'merely distortions of articulate surface imagery caused by the underlying undifferentiation of truly unconscious phantasy'. For example, the nature of primary process condensation bears witness to this, where incompatible images interpenetrate into a single, all-encompassing vision.

This kind of fusion, however, must be distinguished from the more familiar kind of condensation, one that Freud drew attention to in his theory of jokes. In this kind of structure, the object forms have become 'concrete and unyielding', and they will partially cancel each other out because of the incompatibility of their appearance. Ehrenzweig thinks that this is why Freud's analysis of the joke-mechanism did not lead to any major break-through in an equivalent analysis of artistic structure. For this 'partial obliteration' no longer wards off the focus of our waking attention, and our unconscious perception is not actively stimulated and much of the original substance of the image is lost. True undifferentiated primary process structures, on the other hand, are fluid and freely interpenetrating, and it is only this kind of structure which can include all the ambiguity of primary process phantasy.

What Freud's analysis of the joke did well to achieve, however, was to show how its primary process structure represents an objective property of a 'good' joke, apart from its subjective origin in the unconscious. Freud's great contribution illustrated how the primary process distorts, displaces and condenses the structure of language just as it does with the dream. In addition, Ehrenzweig points out that it was the British School analyst, Wilfred Bion, who was the first to address the pathological aspect of this process in the schizophrenic. The schizoid tendency is to splinter violently his language, thoughts and even his own perceptual functions into 'bizarre objects'. The violence of their fragmentation leads to the particles being perceived as equally violent and threatening, resulting in a vicious circle of increases splitting and violent projection.



2. The rhythm of creativity

Ehrenzweig (1961, 1962) first sets out his main thesis concerning the dynamics of art and creativity, calling for a revision in psychology and psychoanalytic aesthetic theory which, in his view, did not fit in with the facts of artistic experience. He argues that although Kris


prepared the way for recasting our concept of the primary process by suggesting that the creative mind can allow conscious functions to lapse in a

controlled regression towards the primary process ... this does not yet mean that the primary process itself is accessible to control and order.7.


He argues that Kris's account of the 'regression at the service of the ego' is weak because it de-emphasises the positive, constructive role played by the id in artistic experience. Kris believed creativity involved an essentially primitive and archaic striving towards earlier phantasies, which themselves had to fit in with the demands of the ego for the achievement of constructive work. As mentioned above, Kris's aesthetics is grounded in the assumption that perception is removed from the sphere of instinctual (id) conflict. This implies that perception is itself not under the sway of unconscious processes, but rather the creative individual is somehow able to 'regress' and make constructive use of id material yet still remaining in control of his faculties.

Here Ehrenzweig explicitly diverges from Kris in that he firmly believed that perception was implicated in both conscious and unconscious mental processes. He puts forward his main thesis that art has a hidden substructure, which can seem disruptive, disordered and chaotic only to conscious perception. However, working alongside the gestalt-preoccupied conscious mind is what he calls 'unconscious scanning', where our depth mind perceives the hidden substructure beneath. It is this tension between an ordered, conscious gestalt, and the deeper structure which appears chaotic to the conscious perception, which is the essence of creative and aesthetic perception. (Indeed, Ehrenzweig suggests that his work should also be read with the same kind of 'unconscious scanning'!)

Creativity is defined as the 'capacity for transforming the chaotic aspect of undifferentiation into a hidden order that can be encompassed by a comprehensive (syncretistic) vision, and he argues that 'conscious surface coherence has to be disrupted in order to bring unconscious form discipline into its own'.8. However, because this 'unconscious form' cannot be consciously analysed in rational terms, we must rely on our 'low level sensibility' to distinguish 'irresponsible arty-crafty gimmicks from truly creative art ruled by an inner necessity'. Thus, for Ehrenzweig creativity is inseparable from his account of aesthetics: creative or 'depth' perception is the source of authenticity, and it is the same kind of creative perception which characterises the spectator's aesthetic experience.

In previous papers Ehrenzweig had tackled issues he was to rework more fully and link together more comprehensively. For example, in the first half of a paper published in two parts ('Unconscious Form-Creation in Art', 1948-49) he critically examined the Gestalt theory of perception and attempted to show how it falls short of true experience. The first section attempts to develop a libidinal account of perception and aesthetic experience based on Freud's theory of sexual development. The second part of the paper looks more closely at concerns within the history of art and he examines the nature of stylistic change in the arts, which he believes is inextricably linked to large-scale changes in human perception over the centuries. According to his theory, unconscious perception gradually becomes 'revised' by succeeding generations, so that what was once regarded as chaotic, disturbing art - the shock of the new' - gradually becomes accepted and rendered harmonious and manageable by succeeding generations of perceivers. Thus a particular style or 'period' is delineated, with recognisable, stable characteristics. This, he argues, is purely a form of secondary revision, where our conscious minds wish to create a good gestalt which appeals to our sense of rationality and order. Unconscious chaos is replaced by surface harmony.

The following paper, 'The Origin of the Scientific and Heroic Urge' (1949) argues that scientific explanation, either by guilt or by a compelling causality, externalises an internal compulsion by guilt feelings from which the scientist tries to free himself. The paper referred to previously made the point that the artist's unconscious vision tends to dissolve all differentiation and order into the 'chaos of pan-genital vision'. To counter this, the artist projects conscious order and beauty into the external world. In this paper, Ehrenzweig argues that the scientist also projects order into the external world, but it is the order of causal necessity and compulsion.

He finds Klein's account of the primitive and sadistic nature of infantile phantasies very useful in the understanding the oral nature of guilt and its self-destructive tendencies. For do we not speaks of 'pangs' of guilt and 'gnawing' remorse? (The German word for remorse is gewissenbisse which also means 'bite'.) According to Klein's account, infantile aggressive wishes connected with sucking and devouring are turned inwards by the super-ego (under the sway of the death instinct) which then turns its oral aggression of gnawing remorse (guilt) against the ego. (This was, of course, an important revision of Freud, who thought that the super-ego and its ability of arousing guilt feelings originated during the Oedipal phase). However, as we will see in section four below, Ehrenzweig needed to supplement Klein's account with the post-Kleinian developments of Bion and also those of Milner in his account of creative perception, or 'poemagogic' phantasy, as he was to call in later work.

Although this (1949) paper is mainly with the relationship between the origin of guilt and the Western scientific tradition, his account of guilt and causality, combined with the insights from his later work (such as The Hidden Order of Art) have significant implications for Ehrenzweig's implied view of art history.9. For his work continually stresses that the order of time, as we conceive it, exists only in our surface experience, while the depth mind is able to perceive without regard to this temporal ordering; and it is this illusion of temporal sequence which is perhaps the most cogent of all externality illusions. As Freud also emphasised, time is the mode in which the ego works, and this mode is externalised into the outer world and perceived there as an objective order in time which all natural events have to follow. Thus, it follows from Ehrenzweig's account of guilt, that any historical explanation should abandon notions of continuity, of sequential linkage, of influences - not only between one culture, school or artist and another, but between artistic institutions and their social contexts.

A history which is 'freed from guilt' (although Ehrenzweig does not himself express it in these terms) would present a formulation like, for instance, Pater's conception of the 'House Beautiful' which 'the creative minds of all generations ... are always building together'. Here, says Pater, 'oppositions cease' - like the classic-romantic distinction, for example.10. In effect, this means that all forms would be co-present or even within one another, and where, consequently, at any 'period' as determined by secondary chronology there could be found a large number of completely different, 'anachronistic' and incompatible musical or pictorial objects, and transformational linkages criss-crossing throughout. The history of art would be (to use Ehrenzweig's terms) like an historical surface, itself scanned, undifferentiated, and syncretic at every point. A (non-hidden) order would be only become manifest through the operation of various blocking and channelling devices which would work to assert the predominance of one stylistic genre over another. With this account there would be available at any period a wide array of devices. Indeed, although not made explicit in his writings, it is strongly implied that there can be no suggestion of attempting through some kind of 'explanation', to reduce the arbitrariness of this pattern.

The 'secondary rationalisation' is irreversible and once imposed on art, the original experience is lost forever. We can, however, re-interpret art according to our own contemporary 'form feeling'. This may be an arbitrary ordering, but it is no more so than the rationalisations of previous generations. Ehrenzweig believes that great art is distinguished by its capacity to withstand such arbitrary manipulations of its conscious surface, and this is because its real substance belongs to deeper untouched levels. Because of this we do not mind that we are unable to reconstruct the conscious motives of, for example, the Stone Age cave artists or of the ancient Egyptians. This unconscious, a-temporal 'hidden order' allows us to give meaning to the work of generations long before our own, and thus the conscious intentions of the artist seem relatively unimportant. Ehrenzweig concludes that


What alone seems to matter to us is that complex diffuse substructure of all art. It has its source in the unconscious and our own unconscious still reacts readily to it, preparing the way for ever new reinterpretations. The immortality of great art seems bound up with the inevitable loss of its original surface meaning and its rebirth in the spirit of every new age.11.

The account of unconscious perception that the model described above largely rests upon, is developed in Ehrenzweig's Psycho-Analysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing (1953). As the title suggests, Ehrenzweig is concerned with giving an account of the part played by unconscious modes of perception of form in all creative work (both science and art), though he is primarily concerned with creation in the arts, including music. He introduces a number of ideas which will become more fully articulated and elaborated The Hidden Order of Art (1967).

For instance, in his first book, Ehrenzweig describes the 'articulating tendency' of the surface mind, and the fact that we tend, on the most part, to notice compact, simple, precise forms, at the same time eliminating vague, incoherent, inarticulate forms from our perception. He points out how both William James and Freud, independently of each other, drew attention to this articulating tendency of our surface perception. So, he says, did the Gestalt psychologists. They used the term Gestalt tendency' to describe how we tend to perceive in terms of compactness and coherence - how we like to find a pattern, even in chaos. Ehrenzweig goes on to tell of how the Gestalt psychologists take art as a supreme manifestation of the human mind's striving towards articulate Gestalt; but he believes this theory has led to a failure to appreciate some of the most fundamental aspects of art - the 'creative accident'.

He also reminds us that Freud not only noticed the articulating tendency of our observing mind, but also found that ideas coming from the lower layers of the mind, like our dream visions, tend to be inarticulate. They appear to our observing mind as chaotic and difficult to grasp - our day dreams also have this elusive quality. We need only to look at examples of our own reveries, dreams, and moments of absent-mindedness to appreciate that our minds do work on different levels, in an oscillating rhythm, and that when we return from an absent-minded phase it is not always easy to say what we have been thinking.

Ehrenzweig points out that Otto Rank (1932) maintained that artistic creativeness involves a cyclical displacement between two different levels; yet he considered the inarticulate phase preceding the emergence of ideas as a mere interruption of consciousness, emptiness of vision. Here Ehrenzweig again refers to William James, and how he said that the creative state wrongly appears as an emptiness of consciousness only because we cannot grasp its fluid content in the precise perceptions of the conscious mind.

According to Ehrenzweig's view, the creative individual is one whose ego is flexible enough to undergo the temporary dissolution of its surface, rational faculties, to reach deeper levels of unconscious sensing, which cannot be apprehended on a conscious level, only through a kind of secondary elaboration (this could involve the external work of art itself). Far from being mad, the artist must have sufficient ego-strength (adaptability rather than rigidity) to allow a temporary dissolution of reality.

Both Ehrenzweig and British analyst Milner stress the fear accompanying this surrendering to (what seems to the surface, conscious ego, at least) the chaos of undifferentiation. According to Ehrenzweig's view, the psychotic lacks a sufficiently flexible ego to reach down to deeper undifferentiated levels, constructing rigid (schizoid) defences to protect his fragile ego from the perceived threat of disintegration and chaos - 'psychosis is creativity gone wrong'. The creative person, on the other hand, has a sufficiently strong ego-capacity to let go of surface ordering, this suggests an implicit 'trust' (or 'faith' in the sense that Bion and Winnicott's approach emphasises) in the unconscious and its processes.12.

Ehrenzweig concludes that any act of creativeness requires a temporary, cyclical paralysis of the surface attention. He gives an example of such temporary paralysis from an artist sketching in his background forms in a state of diffused attention, a state by which he looks at the figure and background forms in one glance. However, according to Gestalt theory, this is an impossible task. He also talks of the particular technique needed to get hold of the visions filling the creative mind (during the alleged lapse of consciousness), as a kind of absent-minded watchfulness. (This brings to mind Freud's description of the analyst's 'free-floating attention', and also to Bion's advice to analysts to free themselves from the 'bondage of memory and desire' in order to 'wait for a pattern to emerge'.)

There is a considerable link between this kind of perception and that of mystical states, which Freud referred to (borrowing the term from his friend, the writer Romain Rolland) as the 'oceanic' feeling, a state of oneness with the universe that Freud admits to not having experienced himself. Freud viewed it as a regression to the early infantile state of consciousness when the child's ego is not yet differentiated from the external world. Hence, says Ehrenzweig, Freud claimed that the feeling of union is no mere illusion, but the correct description of memory of an infantile state otherwise inaccessible to direct introspection.

Ehrenzweig explains this further by drawing on Freud's analysis of dream-thinking. He believes that the mystic feeling is explained by the surface mind's incapacity to visualise the inarticulate images of the depth mind, and his central point is that the creative process takes place in these gaps in our surface mind's activity. He goes on to point out how these rhythms of the mind can be seen as a series; it ranges from the rapid oscillations of everyday thinking and perception to the slower cycle of waking and sleeping and to the even slower rhythm of creative activity in which the submerged phase may be sometimes very protracted. (This also links with Bion's account of the oscillations between paranoid-schizoid fragmentation and depressive wholeness, as a necessary rhythm in creative thinking, which he expressed by the little formula, 'PS« D' - see Chapter four below.) We will also explore in the next chapter just how relevant this 'mystical' experiencing of illusion is to artistic experience. Milner's insights are especially interesting in that she links both the mystical state and the 'aesthetic moment' state to physical experience (especially the psycho-physical orgasm), and also emphasises the perceptual changes brought about by a special kind of focusing on internal body awareness.

Ehrenzweig believed that during artistic activity conscious perception actively works simultaneously with the id in a process he called de-differentiation or 'unconscious scanning'. During this creative rhythm, both ego and id sort from an undifferentiated matrix which forms art's hidden substructure: ego boundaries dissolve as a 'manic-oceanic' limit is reached. Further to this, he thinks that there is no need to explain this 'oceanic fusion of imagery as a 'regression' to a prenatal state when the child was actually at one with its mother. It may well be that a creative suspension of frontiers has already been set up and so may belong to a much later stage of development (op. cit., p. 315).

According to his account, the vertical levels of the psyche - the boundaries between ego, super-ego and id - become less clearly differentiated during creativity. He believes that our unconscious is dynamically involved in the creative process, turning 'disruptive' effects into 'constructive' ones. The productive id can alter our perception positively; creativity is the result of the dynamic interplay between conscious ordering and unconscious scanning, which can repeatedly reorganise old images. The 'true' order is not at the level of the conscious ego per se - hence the 'hidden order of art'. Thus Ehrenzweig is arguing for the existence in all art of a tension between surface, conscious gestalt (secondary revision) and a hidden substructure, associated with the activities of the primary process. Indeed, there has to be a minimum of surface fragmentation needed to bring into action our 'usually starved low-level sensibilities'. To relieve his anxiety, the viewer, like the artist, has to take part in the scanning process to detect new substructures.

However, this tension reaches an almost pathological degree in modern art (for example, cubism, action painting, and optical art) where a strong conflict operates between the 'depth' and 'surface' elements, so that 'the surface crust of mannerisms does not allow the spontaneous depth functions to breathe and so has to be disrupted totally' (p. 66). According to Ehrenzweig, the modern artist attacks his own rational sensibilities in order to make room for new discoveries in artistic form. A vicious circle ensues where the attacked surface faculties fight back, as it were, so that the spontaneous, innovative breakthrough quickly becomes 'rationalised' eventually appearing as a mannered, stylised device. This, in turn, stimulates further spontaneity and overthrowing of conscious ordering.

Pollock's action painting is a good example of this extreme dissociation of surface and depth function; the almost total disruption of conscious composition, and its eventual 'rationalisation'. When Ehrenzweig first encountered Pollock's work, with its 'enormous loops and droplets which dazzled the eye' it seemed to him to represent a 'sudden eruption of art's unconscious substructure ... a very direct manifestation of unconscious form principles' [fig. 1 below]. But this was only true whilst action painting was new and raw. After a few years the 'inevitable defensive reaction of the secondary processes set in', and such painting now seems to be more of a deliberate exercise in the creation of decorative and pleasing patterns (p. 67).

From what Ehrenzweig is saying, it is only in very new art that we can fully appreciate the attack on our conscious sensibilities, and experience the kind of unconscious anxiety that Ehrenzweig believes all artistic innovation entails. This is the case when we first encounter Pollock's work. To avoid discomfort and to make contact with depth perception (unconscious scanning), we have to give up any attempt to integrate the patches and droplets into coherent patterns; we should let our eyes drift with no sense of temporal or spatial direction, just living in the present moment. If we then succeed in evoking this dream-like state, not only does our anxiety disappear, but the picture may suddenly transform itself and lose its random appearance, and we may grasp at a previously unseen all-over 'presence' rippling like a pulse across the picture plane.

The vital role of this depth perception cannot be underestimated. For it alone (so Ehrenzweig's thesis contends) can 'distinguish irresponsible art-crafty gimmicks from truly creative art ruled by an inner necessity' (p. 75). This implies that the aesthetic value of an artwork is grounded in the relativity of perceptual response. Authenticity is a function of the artist's 'inner necessity', and the aesthetic value of an artwork arises from the complex interplay between the unconscious perception of the artist, and the spectator's 'low-level sensibility' which, by relaxing consciousness of time and space, is able to tap this hidden substructure.

However, the painting which truly seems to have made this fragmentation of surface cohesion into an artistic form par excellence is optical art, for it is here that 'the dissociation of intellectual and spontaneous sensibilities ... could not be more complete'. Ehrenzweig writes that


Like serialisation in music, optical painting is a case of the intellect destroying its own modes of functioning. The single elements of an optical composition are serialised in so smooth a gradation that the eye fails to pick out any stable gestalt pattern ... Our vision is conditioned to give up focusing and to take in the entire picture plane as a totality. It is at once directed to highly mobile and unstable patterns of pictorial space and its fluttering pulse. In this manner the initial total intellectual control of optical serialisation leads without transition directly to the experience of uncontrollable pictorial space.13.

Ehrenzweig was particularly excited by the work of the optical artist, Bridget Riley, whose methods seemed to corroborate many of his theories concerning the interplay between different levels of perception during the creative process.

He first encountered Riley's work in early 1963, at the time he would have been working on his The Hidden Order of Art. According to the art teacher and theorist, M. de Sausmarez, Ehrenzweig was so impressed with Riley's efforts, that he offered not only to join David Sylvester in contributing a foreword to the catalogue of an important exhibition of Riley's work at London's Gallery One, but he also prepared a critical essay, 'The Pictorial Space of Bridget Riley', which eventually appeared in Art International in 1965.14. In the catalogue introduction he wrote:


One can distinguish two contrasting phases on the experience of Bridget Riley's paintings - the first phase can be called cold, hard, aggressive, 'devouring', the second warm, expansive and reassuring. We sometimes speak of 'devouring' something with our eyes. In these paintings the reverse thing happens, the eye is attacked and 'devoured' by the paintings. There is a constant tug-of-war between shifting and crumbling patterns but at a certain point this relentless attack on our lazy viewing habits will peel our eyes into a new crystal-clear sensibility. We have to submit to the attack in the way we have to learn to enjoy a cold shower bath. There comes a voluptuous moment when the senses and the whole skin tingle a sharpened awareness of the body and the world around.15.

It is clear why Ehrenzweig was so enthused by this kind of painting, for (like his own theories), it effectively questioned the established principles of Gestalt psychology. In Riley's work there is a constant battle between surface cohesion and fragmentation of gestalt patterns which denies simple, balanced pictorial organisation. In addition, the accompanying dazzle effects confound any attempt at focusing and resist efforts to find an easy accommodating stability. This process is strikingly at work in Blaze [fig. 2 below]. The relation of the circles to each other is variable while the linear attachments on the edge of each remain constant, thus the opposition of expansion-contraction informs is the structuring principle, while linear inversion produces a two-track visual split. The resulting optical 'crackle' gives it its title. While we focus on one set of linear movements, the other set is perceptibly reduced in energy and tone. Surrendering to the total impact, the white centre glows with a fiery intensity.

Indeed, when the moment of transformation is reached, when an equilibrium is achieved between the opposing forces in the picture, this may be accompanied by a sense of sensuous clarity and physical aliveness. It could be argued that this heightened sense of vitality is bound-up with a correspondence between the delicate balance of tensions in the picture and those that inform the biological mechanisms (such as negative feedback), the subtle checks and balances that maintain the homeostatic equilibrium of our own bodies - delicate rhythms that can so easily become disrupted.

It is interesting that Riley was herself acutely aware of this tension between stability and crisis in her work.16. In discussing her way of working with Ehrenzweig, she outlines five phases (although not all of these may participate in any particular work). First, she discovers a unit that lends itself to serial transformation. Then the unit is submitted to a variety of transformations, according to the principles of serialisation, that display its dynamic potentialities (such as expansion/contraction, acceleration/deceleration, directional tilting, inversion, etc.). Third, there is the arrival at the maximum 'energy' involvement, and this is followed by the phase of split or dislocation, the threatened destruction of the picture plane. Lastly, there is a return, a process of de-escalation through a form of recapitulation in order that the cycle of serialisation be brought to an end.

The question of scale is also crucial - both that of the unit and the total field over which it will operate. The unit must neither be so big as to become a separate entity nor so small that in a cluster it disintegrates or fuses; the total field needs to retain, when fully developed, a scale that enforce complete visual involvement. When the picture plane holds without breaking under the opposing strains, there emerges a 'presence', an almost hallucinatory experience. This is the final transformation which alone makes the processes described above meaningful but it is an experience which can only come about through the process of trial and error.

Straight Curve [fig. 3 below] illustrates these points particularly well. We notice that there are areas of 'stability' where the dazzle effects minimal and which (almost but not completely) allow some stability for the eye. It is here that the elements appear least distorted and seem to detach themselves from the dazzle. But as we continue looking, we may also notice that in nearby areas the elements gradually become absorbed into a series of imperceptible variations. An area of 'crisis' is reached where the element is fully submerged with the maximum dazzle effect. It is this area which is in danger of being separated from, and thus disrupting the continuity of, the rest of the picture. But when these opposing elements of cohesion and fragmentation are balanced, there emerges a powerful sense of a 'presence' which seems to have no relation to the objective structure of the composition. Indeed, as we shall see in section three below, it is this rhythmic interplay and creative tension between, cohesion and disruption, that Ehrenzweig was to find corroborated in the Kleinian account of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. In particular, it was Wilfred Bion who emphasised this as the oscillation between integration and fragmentation (PS « D) that underlies not only creative thinking, but grounds all our psychic life.

Ehrenzweig predicted that by the time the manuscript for his The Hidden Order of Art would have gone into print, optical painting such as Riley's, will have 'lost its dazzling effect'. This puts the us in the interesting position of being able to personally confirm his thesis that, over time, the secondary process of rationalisation will eventually transform such art into decorative textures like all other fragmentation techniques of modern art. However, as far as Riley's work goes, I would argue that it has withstood the test of time. For the dazzling effect of her work, its energy and 'presence' is still sufficiently strong to suggest that its 'hidden substructure' is still potentially accessible, and has (for the while at least) defied the workings of our secondary rationalisations.



3. Ehrenzweig and the British School

It was the psychoanalyst, John Rickman, who first to drew Ehrenzweig's attention to the resonances between his theories (1949) and those of Melanie Klein, particularly the insights concerning the role of primitive, oral and anal-sadistic unconscious phantasies in psychic experience.17. Through Klein, Ehrenzweig became familiar with the work of other British School analysts, such as Segal, Bion, Winnicott and Milner. His close collaboration with the latter is an index of the fruitful interchange that was flourishing between the British psychoanalytic world and the artistic domain.

Ehrenzweig became actively involved in the psychoanalytic world, contributing a number of papers to the Imago Society, writing for the International Journal of Psychoanalysis and the American Imago. He regularly attended Psycho-Analytical Congresses and Meetings which put him in close contact with analysts from the British School. Indeed, it was at the`1953 International Psycho-Analytical Congress that he first met the analyst Marion Milner, who was to remain a close friend and colleague until his early death in 1966. Milner stresses the impact that their friendship had on her own creativity, finding that teachings stimulated in her 'some kind of fresh seeing'. Although not an analyst himself, Milner views Ehrenzweig as a 'writer who knows about the process of analysis from [the] direct experience' of his work with art students - specifically in textile design (1987, p. 244). Although Ehrenzweig would have hesitated to have described himself thus (not wanting to be accused of 'wild analysis' perhaps) he seemed to work very much as a teacher-therapist, attending both to his student's practical needs as well as trying to foster an awareness of the relationship between deeper levels of their own psychic functioning and their creativity. This is further evidenced by his belief that it was the art teacher's task 'to make the student's personality more flexible and so to develop his latent creativity' (1957, p. 193).

In his analysis of artistic creativity (1967) Ehrenzweig deploys a number of key Kleinian concepts, particularly the notion of unconscious phantasy, the death instinct and the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. However, we must realise that although Klein's work was useful in explaining the first and last phases of creativity - based on her account of paranoid-schizoid and depressive anxiety respectively, Ehrenzweig (like Milner and Winnicott, but in the terms of their own particular ways of thinking) felt that Klein's theory did not take into account the experience of 'manic-oceanic' fusion, which he believed to be at the heart of the creative rhythm. Thus Ehrenzweig turned to the insights of the post-Kleinians, with their emphasis on the mother's containing role and her reverie (Bion) and the primary experience fusion with the mother as a pre-requisite for all creative experience and symbolic activity (Winnicott, Milner).

Ehrenzweig postulates creativity as a cyclical process consisting of three inter-linked phases. Although this rhythm is described as a series of steps or temporal 'stages', it is better to think of these as particular aspects of perceptual experience which dynamically interact and superimpose upon each other. A similar distinction could be made between the libidinal 'stages' described by Freud and the two 'positions' formulated by Klein in her revision of the classical Freudian metapsychological framework. As we have seen in Part Two, these 'positions' refer not so much to a linear, historical development but to on-going emotional experiences that constitute our relationship to both inner and outer objects. Indeed, as we have pointed out above, Bion noted there is always constant oscillation between them ('PS« D'), and he regarding this movement as one of the essential features of creativity.

Following Klein's theory of the paranoid-schizoid position, Ehrenzweig postulates an initial schizoid fragmentation, where the ego undergoes a splitting; this is an experience of turbulence and disruption which is often felt to be extremely painful, even akin to a kind of death.

This is followed by a the second phase of the cycle, one of manic-oceanic fusion where the unconscious prepares a 'containing womb' to contain the split-off ego fragments, holding them in suspension. It is here that Ehrenzweig's account departs from Klein's schema and emphasises more (in keeping with the Independents, such as Milner, Winnicott, Rycroft) the return to the illusory, manic state of oneness with the mother, where the infant feels that he is responsible for creating the world.

This may be followed by a third phase, which Ehrenzweig links with the depressive position. In this final stage, there is a re-introjection of the fragmented parts of the psyche on a higher level of consciousness, and is often accompanied by acute depressive anxiety. As Stokes, with his emphatic Kleinian perspective has so often stated, the engagement with a medium resulting in the production of the work must necessarily involve a depressive recognition of the limitations of the real world - that the feelings experienced in the second, manic phase can never match-up to expectations. For the Kleinians, the importance of acknowledging depression sets in motion the ensuing drive towards reparation. This is stressed as being essential to all (non-omnipotent) creativity and also established the value, the essential 'goodness' of the art work produced.

However, Ehrenzweig does not regard this last, depressive phase as central to the creative process and offers (following Milner, as we shall see below) an important revision of traditional Kleinian accounts of creativity. For him, it is the second, manic phase which is the most central, involving what he calls an internal 'creative surrender' which is paradoxically felt to be both like a dying and a rebirth.

In 'The Creative Surrender' (1957), a paper which was written primarily as a commentary on Milner's An Experiment in Leisure (1937), Ehrenzweig attempts to clarify this second phase of the creative process. He explicitly aligns himself with the ideas put forward in Milner's work and points-out some of his reservations concerning Kleinian theory, particularly their stress on the depressive aspects of the experience.

What interests Ehrenzweig in this paper is the imagery associated with creative activity, in particular the motif of the 'dying-god', which the anthropologist Frazer regarded as a common unconscious denominator in religion, art and social growth. Although Freud had apparently read much of Frazer's work, it seemed that he preferred to view the universal theme of Western religion and social life in the Oedipus Complex. Yet he also believed that a specific 'oceanic' ego lay at the root of all religious experience. This is what Ehrenzweig believes to be at the heart of all creative activity, and he draws attention to Milner's (1952) insight that successful symbol-formation depends on an oceanic fusion between the inner and outer worlds, and the lack of differentiation in the oceanic state leads to new 'symbolic equivalences' (this is not the same as Segal's term 'symbolic-equation', which refers to symbols characteristic of primitive, paranoid-schizoid thinking) and hence to new creativeness.

Freud would have described the source of creativeness as the id (specifically, the Oedipus Complex) and the ego-condition necessary for creativity as the oceanic state, but what Ehrenzweig stresses is that Freud was wrong to see a genetic correspondence between these two aspects of creativity. Ehrenzweig argues that the Oedipus Complex necessarily involves a clear differentiation between the roles of mother, father and child, which is far from the undifferentiation of oceanic fusion.

The content of the imagery of the dying-god is highly undifferentiated - birth, death and love become a single theme. Robert Graves drew attention to a similar theme in his study of the White Goddess, who kills her son-lover. According to his theory, the poet must submit himself (suffer death through love) to her and in return she will be his Muse and give him of this theme centres around the creativeness (rebirth). The sado-masochistic element of the voluntary acceptance of self-destruction Ehrenzweig connects with the 'structural disintegration of imagery on the oceanic level' and it is this imagery which Milner had encountered this imagery in her own creative explorations (Milner, 1934;1937;1950).

Both Milner and Ehrenzweig regard this imagery as primarily representative of crucial changes within the ego; it is not so much its conscious meaning but the imagery's role as a catalyst in the creative process (where they lose much of their associated anxiety and guilt) which is significant. Ehrenzweig believes that 'what is felt emotionally as a surrender to self-destruction is really a surrendering to the disintegrating action of low-level imagery' (1957, p. 197).

During the creative surrender a process occurs which is almost the exact reverse of what happens secondary elaboration. Where the low-level imagery overwhelms the articulate surface imagery with the former, with secondary elaboration of the dream, the conflict between divergent structural principles ends in the victory of the conscious and rational principles. Although Ehrenzweig concedes that this is connected with the censorship of the id by the super-ego, he wants to emphasise that it is structural changes in the ego which results in the transformation of psychic material in either direction. He argues that the ego could be regarded as 'autonomous' in the sense that both ego-tension and conflict can be described without reference to id-superego conflict. One could argue that here, at least, Ehrenzweig is closer to the ego-psychologists than he is to Klein, who focused a great deal on the relationship between instinctual conflict and the persecutions of an early superego.

This account of the role of structure has important consequences for Ehrenzweig's understanding of 'repression'. Rather than this being a factor of super-ego suppression of unacceptable id-phantasy, it is more to do with a change in the structure of this imagery which renders it more inaccessible to conscious awareness. He terms this as 'structural repression' and believes that it explains why we know so little about low-level perceptions, whatever their content. If they do surface into consciousness, they may appear empty as does the 'dream screen'.

The concept of the 'dream screen' has been helpful in illuminating aspects of aesthetic experience in the visual arts. It was first introduced by the analyst B.D. Lewin and has been developed more fully by Rycroft.18. Lewin regards it as a symbol of both sleep itself and of the breast, with which sleep is unconsciously equated. For Rycroft, however, the screen is not a component of all dreams, but a phenomenon which only occurs in dreams of those who are in a manic phase and it symbolises the manic sense of ecstatic fusion with the breast (mother). Milner (who was Rycroft's analyst) regards this experience of manic fusion with the breast as being related to feelings of blankness, oceanic feeling and emptiness. In On Not Being Able to Paint, she has stressed that these feelings are not merely an hallucinatory return to an idealised state, but are perhaps the 'beginnings of something, as the recognition of depression can be' and 'the blankness is a necessary prelude to a new re-integration'. This primary blankness is also very close to what Bion called the 'absence of memory or desire', an experience which corresponds to the Keatsian 'negative capability' which Bion and Rycroft have both emphasised as being essential for imaginative and creative activity.

As we shall see in chapter seven below, Fuller, in his Art and Psychoanalysis, has found the concept of the 'dream screen' and the 'blank dream' useful in his study of abstraction in the work of Natkin and Rothko. He regards the blank dream as being analogous to states of mystical union with the universe, and argues that post-Kleinian psychoanalysis enables us to give a material explanation of religious mystical states and also the experience of 'aesthetic blankness'. This is one of the reasons why Fuller thinks that psychoanalysis is so useful in helping us to illuminate the work of a painter such as Rothko, whose paintings evoke an overwhelming sense of mystical fusion, blankness and emptiness.19.

Ehrenzweig draws attention to the importance of ego-flexibility, so that it can reach down from higher surface perception into lower-level imagery without fear of structureless chaos. The schizophrenic is one whose ego is less able to surrender his ego to low-level functioning. Ego-rigidity therefore results in creative sterility - the schizophrenic is unable to tolerate undifferentiation, which is felt as an annihilation. This marks a new understanding of the relationship between psychosis and creativity. The classical view tended to regard the schizophrenic as being more at the mercy of his id-phantasies than the healthy individual. The work of Ehrenzweig (illuminated by Bion) suggests that this not the case. What is now thought to happen with the mentally ill person is that conscious level functioning is split-off from the matrix of unconscious phantasy, which is a constant source of imaginative nourishment in the healthy individual. Indeed, the presence of rigid, highly structured and over-concrete imagery, the lack of a sense of animation creating a sense of deadness in the perception of the world, are all well-known manifestations of the schizoid state. Such symptoms could certainly be accounted for by the split between deeper levels of emotional awareness and their conscious thinking.

Although a certain amount of dissociation between the 'horizontal' (the surface and depth) levels of ego-functioning in most people is inevitable (due to secondary process rationalisation, Ehrenzweig believes that 'creativity is improved to the extent that the dissociation can be overcome'. This happens when the 'horizontal split' in the ego structure is remedied by its 'vertical integration' allowed by the interplay between dissociated levels of ego-functioning (p. 205).

Ehrenzweig points to two seemingly contradictory features of the creative surrender which are of special importance. First, the surrender brings a sense of deepening reality, but at the same time it has a manic feeling, one of oceanic bliss which strangely contrasts with the imagery of death and suffering. Ehrenzweig's link between the sense of dying and the ego's de-differentiation to lower levels of functioning would make sense of this seeming contradiction. Also, to the extent that perception is grounded in the unconscious, the more vivid it will appear to the conscious mind. When perception is cut-off from unconscious levels, the result will be depersonalised vision - another characteristic of mental disturbance where the world appears flat and unreal.

The emotional significance of the emotional acceptance of death is a vital element in creativity and is also recognised by analysts as part of normal functioning. Milner regards it as essential to healthy acceptance of reality, recalling that in Spanish bullfighting the killing of the bull is known as the 'moment of truth'. Segal also considers the emotional acceptance of the reality of death to be a condition of creativeness. Following Jacques's influential paper, 'Death and the mid-life crisis', she has elaborated this further, distinguishing between a pre-mid-life and post-mid-life type of creativity (Segal, 1984: see chapter three, section 2 below for a discussion of this paper). To this Ehrenzweig would add that the element of self-destruction is only felt consciously, however, when the ego is rigid and the descent into lower levels feels like death itself.

Ehrenzweig, contra Segal, stresses the absence of depressive feeling connected with the acceptance of death. Indeed, once accepted, it is regarded as a liberation from bondage. He argues that the feeling of depression, of otherness, has to be balanced by the manic oneness and undifferentiation which unites all differences and melts the inner-outer world boundary. As we shall see in the next chapter, the analysts Milner and Winnicott also emphasise the importance of manic-oceanic fusion for successful symbol-formation - a factor in creative and aesthetic experience. This marks a shift in emphasis away from the traditional Kleinian focus on the depressive position. It is a move which Ehrenzweig also makes, drawing as he does on the insights of post-Kleinian thinking (Bion, Milner, Winnicott), as the following comments make quite clear:


I have always felt that an exclusive stress on the Depressive Position, as the source of creative activity, did not take account of the almost biological rhythm between mania and depression, where mania appears on the same level as depression, as a fundamental human attitude.20.

Thus one major characteristic of post-Kleinian aesthetics is the re-appraisal of the developmental and creative role of manic fusion and omnipotence (which traditional Kleinians tend to see as a feature of primitive, 'part-object' relationships). Indeed, although Stokes's earlier writings focused (like Segal) on the achievement of the depressive position as the sine qua non of artistic authenticity, his later contributions, such as The Invitation in Art (1965) and 'The Image in Form' (1967), viewed this state as a necessary complement to the sense of 'otherness' in art, associated with the depressive position.

Unlike Stokes, who concerns himself concerned with the psychic dynamics of artist's engagement with his medium and the consequences for the structure of the art work itself and our experience of this, Ehrenzweig concerns himself more with the artist's inner experience and phantasies and especially the importance of manic fusion in creative experience. The emphasis on the importance of the sense of 'oneness' and undifferentiation and its relationship to intrapsychic illusion is also the keynote of Milner and Winnicott's account of creativity and infantile development. The next chapter will explore this theme in greater detail.



1. A. Ehrenzweig, quoted in M. Milner (1988), p. 244.

2. It is interesting that in an early paper (1949) he should address the nature of guilt, a feeling which be believed was implicated in all scientific endeavour, and also in our constant need to establish causal links and reasons. This also has implications for his view of art history, explored below.

3. 'The Hidden Order of Art' ([1961] 1971), p. 123.

4. H. Hartmann, Ego psychology and the Problem of Adaptation (New York, International Universities Press, 1958), p. 76, my italics.

5. Ehrenzweig (1971), p. 262.

6. Ibid., p. 263.

7. Ehrenzweig (1962), p. 301, p. 317.

8. Ehrenzweig (1971), p. 127, p. 75.

9. In the following analysis, J.F. Lyotard's preface to the French edition of Ehrenzweig's The Hidden Order of Art has been useful in highlighting some of the implications of Ehrenzweig's work for the philosophy of art history. (The essay appears in A. Benjamin, 1989).

10. Walter Pater, 'Postscript' to Appreciations (1895), p. 253.

11. Ehrenzweig (1971), p. 77.

12. For a discussion of this topic, see M. Eigen's interesting paper , 'The Area of Faith in Winnicott, Lacan and Bion', International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 62 (1981) 413-33

13. Ehrenzweig (1971), p. 84 -5.

14. M. de Sausmarez Bridget Riley (1970), p. 30.

15. Ibid., p. 30, my italics.

16. An account of this can be found in Ehrenzweig (1965) and ([1967], 1971), pp. 85-6.

17. Rickman was a member of the British School who worked closely with Melanie Klein's theories. Interestingly, Rickman introduced the psychiatrist Wilfred Bion to Mrs Klein at about the same time, suggesting that he should be analysed by her.

18. See Lewin (1946, 1948); Rycroft (1968).

19. Fuller (1988), p. 219.

20. (1957) p. 209.



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