THE SELF-PORTRAITS OF JOANNA BARNETT A Historical Approach
Leo Segedin   |   Jungian Institute, Evanston, IL - April 10, 1999 |   Print this essay

Jungian Institute, Evanston, IL - April 10, 1999

The arts have a development which comes not only from the individual, but also from the accumulated strength, the civilization, which precedes us. One cannot just do anything. A talented artist cannot just do as he likes. If he uses only his talents, he would not exist. We are not the masters of what we produce. It is imposed on us.

Henri Matisse

In order to understand the self-portraits of Joanna Barnett as art, we must study them not only as the products of her unconscious mind*; we must also see them as objects existing in the outside world. Everyone has dreams, fantasies, mental images which may be symbolic of the unconscious, perhaps of mental illness, but no matter how provocative or revealing these phenomena might be, they are inaccessible to an observer and useless to an artist unless she or he can give them a perceivable structure. Whatever primordial images or manic-depressive hallucinations the unconscious generates, they must be given a visual form - which must be recognized as an art form - before they can be interpreted as art. Art forms have style; dreams don’t. Only certain formative options are available to an artist at any particular time and, as a result, art objects have the look of the art of the time in which they were created. They are the products of artworld influences, of what artists learn in art schools and from other artists. They reflect what artists see in art galleries and museums, in art books and, especially, in art magazines.12 In this sense, art comes out of art as much as the unconscious. It is not the quality of dreams or other mental states, but the quality of art forms - in comparison with other art forms - which determines what is great art. For these reasons, it is important to understand Barnett’s artwork as the product , not only of unconscious processes, but also of a trained, professional artist working within the context of what was going on in the artworld of her times.

Concentration on symbolic processes3 to the exclusion of such other considerations can distort our understanding of Barnett’s self-portraits. By itself, such focus creates the danger that the making of her art will seem mystical, mythic or even magical, turning the artist into some sort of shaman or seer. Without in any way minimizing the importance of unconscious processes or the impact of bi-polar disease on the creative process, we must recognize that Barnett’s self-portraits are also products of an articulate, analyzing intellect, of exceptional perceptual sensibility, of talent, learning and intense labor applied to physical material. They are made of paint, pencil, chalk, ink applied by pen and brush to paper and pasted paper, the expressive manipulation of which require all kinds of specialized technical skill.. (In fact, in Barnett’s case, it may even be that the availability of materials, limited by poverty, had an effect on the forms of her work) Moreover, her self-portraits consist of organizations of lines, shapes, colors, dark and lights, and spaces which not only articulate their symbolic content, but also - self evidently - describe what she sees. Art forms are tangible objectifications of visual as well as subjective experiences and the characteristics of these aspects have their own kinds of significance.

Barnett’s self-portraits are basically a part of a formal Western art tradition which goes back to 15th century Renaissance Italy. In this tradition, art forms are intended to represent visual experiences from a single point of view. They describe the appearance of three-dimensional objects in three-dimensional space and, especially, they show human figures in rooms, landscapes and on city streets. In order to accomplish this, they employ gradations of light and dark, called chiaroscuro, to show the volume of such figures and geometric, vanishing point perspectives, diminishing size and overlapping shapes to represent them in space. Line is used primarily as contour, describing the appearance of the edges of the body, especially in foreshortened positions. Color is a secondary, surface aspect; it appears as the color of the object represented.

Historically speaking, portraiture became important in this tradition only when wealthy patrons wanted portraits of themselves and members of their family. Initially, a complimentary likeness would be valued, but not expressions of private or personal feelings, especially not those of the artist. Although a few artists were doing self portraits as far back as the 15th century, the word ‘expression’ then referred to the feelings represented by the subject in the picture, not those of the artist. That kind of expression did not become a significant possibility for an artist until the 17th century. (Compare, for example, the portraits of Raphael and Rembrandt.) Personal portrait caricature doesn’t appear until the end of the 16th century and it is not until the advent of Expressionism at the end of the 19th century that art as primarily self-expression becomes a real choice for an artist.

To a great extent, Barnett’s self-portraits are derived from the work of artists like Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas. Also, she most certainly knew the self-portraits of Van Gogh, probably those of Durer and Rembrandt, possibly those of Ensor and Munch. Her expressions of personal feelings indicate her knowledge of the imagery of the Symbolists and Surrealists which allowed for fantasy and of Expressionism which allowed for distortion of representational forms and ‘expressive’ use of line and color. She also understood how Cubism was a means of fracturing an image, combining several aspects of an object or figure in one image and which also acknowledged the two-dimensional patterns on the surface of the painting rather than the representation of three-dimensional space. All of these options were available and used by Barnett.

Barnett’s imagery is initially a product of the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida, a school with a traditional art curriculum which includes intensive drawing from a model. Throughout her short life, she continued to take classes in life drawing and portraiture, all still emphasizing observation and description of the human form. She worked hard to learn and became very skillful in the use of traditional representational drawing schemas, especially as they revealed her psychological states of mind as indicated in facial features and body posture.

The lines in Barnett’s images - in pen and ink, pencil, conte’- function primarily as descriptive contour. They show the edges of the forms she sees in a mirror - her face, her body, the objects in her environment.4 She describes her features, especially her eyes, with special intensity. Her line is almost tactile in the way it follows contours of her eyes. Every tiny nuance, every changing pressure on the drawing tool emphasizes the emotional intensity with which she focuses on significant detail (3, 6, 9, 11, 21, 26). It is almost as if her pencil was on the contours of her body she is representing rather than on the paper. (In fact, contour drawing is sometimes taught by telling the student not to look at the paper, but to focus on the contour, while she is drawing.)

In a typical Baroque manner, Barnett not only uses chiaroscuro to describe forms in space; she also uses it for a theatrical, dramatic, ‘tenebrist’ effect, as did Rembrandt, Caravaggio and De La Tour. In two of the works, she does this by crosshatching lines with increasing density which is a way of building up the solidity of a form gradually as if she is modeling the figure in clay. (7, 15) There is also a little bit of this ‘modeling’ around the eyes in 21.

More typical in her work is the use of tone as two-dimensional pattern, as flat, unmodulated shapes ala Toulouse-Lautrec and the Japanese (5, 8, 10, 13, 16, 25, 33 ). Here the shapes are created initially by outlines which are then filled in with solid color, usually in watercolor, chalk or pastel. Sometime the shapes are almost compulsively filled with drawn patterns (21). Sometimes, they are arbitrarily cut out of paper and used in collage (31, 32). Especially when the integrity of the figure breaks up, the resulting shapes are filled with solid color. (20, 24, 29, 31, 32). Such shapes have the direct, dramatic impact that Toulouse-Lautrec achieved in his posters.

In Barnett’s work, shapes can exaggerate emotionally significant parts of her body (17, 22, 30, 34, 35, 36, 37). They effectively reveal her states of mind by descriptions of her posture - the hanging head, the drooping shoulders and body (33, 35, 37, 38). The shapes representing her body can also be fractured cubistically to indicate psychological disintegration (1, 18, 20, 24).

Barnett’s color is descriptive as in some faces where she suggests all the subtle nuances of flesh color (4, 11, 12, 16, 23). Sometimes these nuances are exaggerated for emotional effect (12). Sometimes color is local and flat (8, 33) but it can also be arbitrarily symbolic or emotional (12, 20, 24, 29).

In her compositions, she can represent three-dimensional space with receding diagonal lines and diminishing size (7, 13), but, sometimes, the drawing area appears two-dimensional as when she divides the rectangle with overlapping, solid shapes drawn parallel to the picture plane (5, 25).

Barnett’s work generally stays within the 600-year old Renaissance art tradition modified by late 19th and early 20th century Modernism. It is important to remember that in the 1960's, when she was in school, that tradition was coming to an end as far as art history was concerned. Visual representation of appearances as a basic premise all but disappears from the art history books after 1957. By 1964, art as aesthetics was being replaced by art as idea. Although many artists, perhaps most, continued work in traditional art forms, national art exhibitions in major art centers such as New York and Chicago after 1965 exhibited very few paintings, let alone representational paintings. Major art schools such as the Art Institute in Chicago no longer required figure drawing a part of its major curricula. Photography would serve just as well. Barnett had choices as to what kind of artist she wanted to be. She chose to ignore all such Post-modern art ideas which she might have known through art magazines, especially Art News and Artforum, if not through fellow artists, art exhibitions, art courses, guest lectures or teachers. She could have become an abstract expressionist (which then was just about over as an art movement, but still continued to be taught in many art schools), a pop artist, a photo-realist, a performer of ‘happenings’, a conceptualist or a minimalist, but she chose not to. It also probably never occurred to her to use the forms of the 3000 year old Chinese art traditions with its share of fantastic dragons or to make African style masks, which, some believe, have close affinities with the powers of the unconscious. Instead, she chose to stay within the styles of traditional Western art movements. She lived a generally isolated life and maintained little contact with other artists who might have had other ideas. She seldom exhibited or sold her work because she did not want to compete within the commercial artworld. Although she identified with Van Gogh’s psychological problems, no matter how deep her depressions became, she never used his ‘impassioned’ lines, intense colors and heavy, directly applied impastos. And even though she fractured her images, she never described herself from several points of view as an artistic, formal problem. No matter how disjointed she felt, no matter how inward she turned, how bad she felt her drawing was, she always used Renaissance representational techniques. Even in the last piece of the 40th day, the ‘box’ and her eye are represented traditionally. Within the boundaries of such Western traditions, she developed a personal, recognizable style and did some marvelously expressive drawings and paintings. Unfortunately, as far as I know, her illness prevented her from completing any major works. Barnett was an extremely talented, skilled artist, knowledgeable, insightful and very self-aware. It is a pity that we will never know what she might have accomplished if she had been able to beat her devil.

OUT TAKES

* As William Phillips says in his preface to his anthology, Art and Psychoanalysis, after saying that almost all of the pieces included in the anthology are about literature, “ . . . the studies in the other arts are much inferior - perhaps because ideology is more easily assimilated than form into psychoanalysis.”

  1. Even artists who are famous for their psychological problems belong in that artworld. Leonardo and Michelangelo, regardless of their unconscious histories, exemplify the style of the Renaissance. Van Gogh studied the art of the Impressionists, Japanese prints, the reproductions of images he saw in popular magazines. Pollock was influenced by the art of Benton, Orozco, Indian painting and African sculpture, Breton and the Surrealists - and what he learned from Jungian psychoanalysts. Both sought a place within the art styles and the art markets of their time. The same goes for Paul Gauguin, Georgia O’Keefe, Mark Rothko and many others. Even those who were in revolt against established styles were functioning in that artworld. Success or failure in that artworld is determined by social forces, not only by genius and creativity.  
  2. The only possible exception to the assumption that culture is a major formative influence on the making of art objects might be the spontaneous images of untrained ‘artists’ - ‘Outsider art’ and the pictures of children. In such images, in so as far they represent subjective experiences, any shape - discolorations or bumps on a wall, accidental splotches on paper, scribbles, circles, lines, combinations of lines and shapes - can become meaningful. For example, circles can represent faces, bodies, the sun, fruit, vaginas or whatever. Simple geometric shapes can become symbolic of almost anything. Also, early child images primarily describe topological rather than visual experiences. They do not ordinarily represent appearances, but rather tactile, kinesthetic, conceptual or other kind of nonvisual awareness. Baselines represent the contact of one’s feet with the ground (objects on baselines are always perpendicular to the baseline), the skyline indicates ‘up’. Significant or characteristic contours (eyes are from the front, noses from the side, fish and swans from the side, turtles from top, etc.), combinations of such contours in ‘fractional’ images, hieratic proportion (important parts are made larger), more detail on important parts, etc. Repetition and pattern creation give pleasure. Such images use no perspective, light and shade, shadows or diminishing size, all of which would indicate visual experiences. Images of some adolescents are sometimes called ‘haptic’ (Victor Lowenfeld) because they exaggerate representations of emotionally charged parts of the body. “Such people interpret their world by touch, by their bodily feelings and by their muscular sensations, and their art is thus essentially ‘expressionistic’, in contrast to the visually motivated majority who tend to paint in a more realistic style.” (Some of this ‘haptic’ quality can occasionally be seen in Barnett’s work.). Some exceptions to these kinds of image-making might be pictures made by a few children who were born with a capacity for eidetic visual representation, but they apparently lose it before maturity for one reason or another. Even for untrained people, however, the images in their cultural environment often become dominant at an early age. We all live in a world of newspaper photos, magazine advertisements, cartoons, movie posters and religious pictures, even if we do not go to art museums. It is from these that we learn the public images which in our society represent our world. On a fundamental level, Barnett’s self-portraits make minimal use of these options.
  3. Culture is sometimes acknowledged, but never fully realized, as being a significant factor in artistic creation. In the psychoanalytical literature, terms such as catharsis, sublimation, symbolic transformation and projection may describe legitimate psychological processes, but they do not by themselves distinguish between the products of artists and others nor do they tell us how to tell good art from bad. In its examination of the art of great artists, works of art are sometimes said to be the product of ‘genius’ and ‘creativity’, but although such language confers high value to art objects, it never adequately describes their relevant forming processes.
  4. In the same way that dreams need form to be made visible, so does perception. An opthamologist with 20/20 vision might perceive his eye in a mirror with the same acuity as an artist with 20/20 vision, but will not be able to represent it because he will not be skilled in using the appropriate forms.

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