Exploring Pollock Through Freud

Sigmund Freud was a psychoanalyst who specialized in analyzing human behavior–especially related to sexuality.
In the late 1930’s, Pollock began experimenting with totemic symbols and ritual, ideographic, and mythical events. Experts now believe these to be buried memories and experiences of the psyche. In 1942, he created The Moon Woman. Like many of the New York School painters, an influence of Picasso and Surrealism is present in the work. From the abstracted figures and exaggeration of deconstructed perspective and biomorphic shapes, you’re able to decipher that this is a feminine form. Like a love child between Picasso and Miró, one’s attention is captured by the flowing, almost hallucinatory essence of the woman’s misplaced face and curvaceous contours in the work. The color palette and subject matter have been compared to one of Picasso’s 1932 works, Girl Before a Mirror. (Guggenheim, 2019)

Jackson Pollock (b. 1912, Cody, Wyoming; d. 1956, East Hampton, New York), The Moon Woman, 1942
Oil on canvas, 69” x 43 1/16”

Pablo Picasso, Girl before a Mirror, Paris, March 14, 1932
Oil on Canvas
64 x 51 1/4″
Museum of Modern Art
Gift of Mrs. Simon Guggenheim

Using Freudian-based psychoanalytical perspective to analyze the piece, one is made aware of the unconscious desires and conflicts of the artist, Jackson Pollock. By painting this work, Pollock has brought emotions and feelings that exist only at an unconscious and subconscious level up to the conscious level—for everyone to view. This work is a successful representation of a regression in the facility of the Ego as is required for creativity. Pollock, through control of the Ego, accessed his unconscious and transformed the mechanisms into art. (Ahmed, 2012)

Pollock’s addiction to alcohol and his interest in sex with other women while in a marriage with Lee Krasner make it quite lucid that he was unable to deal with emotions in what most would call an appropriate way, thus his artwork was the gateway through which he shared emotions.
Pollock began treatment for his alcoholism and suffered a nervous breakdown in 1937 and ’38, respectively. After he was institutionalized following the nervous breakdown, his work was strongly influenced with Jungian symbolism and exploration of the unconscious as the Surrealists did. This unconscious, dream-like state of creating is evident in The Moon Woman, and the symbols on the left side of the work are very symbolic. (O’Connor, 2019)

“…when you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge… painting is a state of being… Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.”
-Pollock, 1951 (Tate, 2019)

Moving to a strictly compositional assessment of the work, the female form is chaotic-looking, as one would expect from Pollock, knowing his history with women. It almost seems as if she could be wearing a mask. An element of confusion and simultaneous seduction is present within the work. The face and body are distorted and misshapen, but they still possess female characteristics that emphasize Pollock’s love for the female form. If you view the black line through the center of the work as a leg, and yet another leg propped up on the right side, with the foot extending to the edge of the work, a hyper-sexual pose is assumed by the form within the work. This positioning of the women is a nod to Pollock’s obsession with sexuality; however, the woman also looks like she could have two heads. This ambiguity of the woman but emphasis of female form through curvaceous lines and feminine palette lead one to believe this work was Pollock exemplifying Freud’s concept of cathexis. Cathexis is the investment of libidinous energy on a particular sexual fantasy, or sexual energy on a specific idea or goal. (Merriam-Webster, n.d.)
The Moon Woman combines all artistic elements and several Freudian concepts highlighting how Pollock was expressing a subconscious feeling about women through the creation of the work. His own confusion, but interest in using women for sexual gratification is present in this work. A dream-like state is present, but more importantly, the work is littered with symbols, subtle nods to Pollock’s subconscious.

Freud would argue that Pollock was implementing a defense mechanism called displacement if he had known Pollock during the time the work was created; however, creating artwork is a socially acceptable form of satisfying an impulse. Unfortunately, Pollock wasn’t just using art as his release for real-world stress.

Ahmed, Sofe. “Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory Oedipus Complex: A Critical Study with Reference to D. H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers”.” International Journal of English and Literature 3, no. 3 (2012). doi:10.5897/ijel11.137.
“Cathexis.” Merriam-Webster. Accessed July 04, 2019. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cathexis.
O’Connor, Francis Valentine. “Jackson Pollock.” Encyclopædia Britannica. June 14, 2019. Accessed July 04, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jackson-Pollock.
Tate. “Jackson Pollock: Separating Man from Myth – Look Closer.” Tate. Accessed July 04, 2019. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/jackson-pollock-1785/jackson-pollock-separating-man-myth.

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