Psychoanalysis & aesthetics

Basic concepts of psychoanalysis Click here
Hanns Sachs: a psychoanalyst’s view of landscape
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Psychoanalytic approaches to aesthetics Click here
Relevance of psycho-analytic approach to landscape Click here
Conclusions Click here
References Click here
Appendix: Glossary of psychoanalytic terms
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Although psychoanalysis may seem an unusual subject to include in a website on landscape quality assessment, it actually offers significant insights into how people regard aesthetic objects, landscapes included. It penetrates the inner motivations which are often hidden, and identifies drives and influences of which we are unlikely to be even conscious.

Following a brief description of psychoanalytic concepts, this chapter reviews the various approaches of psycho-analysts towards aesthetics and their relevance to landscape quality.  Finally, the author’s own psychoanalytic model of landscape aesthetic response is presented. A glossary of psychoanalytic terms is found at the conclusion.


Sigmund Freud      Sigmund Freud

Psychoanalysis developed from the work of Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) as a method of treating psycho-neurotic abnormalities by focusing upon the influence of the unconscious on the mind and behavior.

Freud’s psychoanalysis involves two fundamental systems: first, the id, ego and super-ego and secondly, the unconscious, pre-conscious and conscious. These provide, as it were, the skeleton upon which hang all Freud’s other concepts (e.g. sublimation, repression, introjection).

Id, Ego and Super-Ego

Fig 1a
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Figure 1 Ego, Id and Superego

Freud differentiated between the id, ego and super-ego (Figure 1):

  • Id A person’s unconscious instincts, the most primitive and elemental drives or urges, which are uncompromising and dictatorial, and which are partly inherited and partly acquired.
  • Ego Relates the individual to the real world and seeks to protect it and enable it to cope.
  • Superego The conscience or part of a person concerned with moral ideals, both conscious and unconscious, containing the person’s earliest and most intense emotional links with his/her parents.

While the ego seeks compromise, the superego is satisfied with nothing less than perfection. Freud found that in many of his patients, the demands of the id conflicted with the absolute prohibitions of the superego, resulting in weakened egos to the point of mental collapse. The defence mechanisms employed to cope with this include repression, negation, sublimation and, most commonly, displacement. Freud emphasized the influence of the conflicts and experiences of the early years on later life. While Freud examined infants from two years onwards, Melanie Klein and others have researched the first two years of life.

The relationship of the id, ego and superego has been summarized thus:

“…human behavior is a product of unconscious needs and drives (id) and of superego restraints and norms, all elaborated, compromised, and channeled into overt behavior by the ego (conscious)” (Kreitler & Kreitler, 1972).

Freud saw the development of personality as largely determined in childhood, but later psychologists such as Erikson regarded social factors as more important influencing the lifelong development of the ego.

Unconscious, Pre-Conscious and Conscious

Fig 2a
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Figure 2 The conscious, pre-conscious and unconscious

Based on his analysis of dreams, the unconscious was Freud’s great discovery. Dreams are Freud’s “royal road” to the unconscious (Figure 2). The unconscious comprises the repressed contents and instincts that have been denied access to the pre-conscious or conscious states. Much in the unconscious content derives from events early in life of which we have no recollection and include desires, fears, and socially unacceptable feelings and wishes, many of which are sexual in nature which powerfully affect our conscious thoughts and behavior. Psychoanalysis aims at the gradual uncovering of these repressed memories to free the patient from their influence. The unconscious was regarded by Freud as the source of symbolism on which creative imagination is based.

The second area of the mind, the pre-conscious, comprises the knowledge and memories that are not presently conscious but which can be drawn on by the conscious mind. The contents of the unconscious are censored from being passed into the pre-conscious without transformation. Freud linked the conscious mind, the third area, directly with perception; it covers both the awareness of the external world and of internal perceptions.

Pleasure Principle & Reality Principle

As biological beings, humans seek to attain pleasure and avoid pain. According to Freud’s pleasure principle humans are driven to seek that which results in pleasure such as food and to avoid things that can reduce pleasure. This is the id (unconscious instincts) seeking release. Along with the pleasure principle, the reality principle, governs mental functioning. The reality principle is the awareness of the external world which a child gradually grasps and understands. The pleasure principle is instinctive, but the reality principle is learnt and in time comes to dominate as a regulatory principle. The pleasure principle operates instinctively and directly, (e.g. as a baby or young child demands food). The reality principle results in the pleasure principle being satisfied less directly, through the detours and postponements imposed by the external world. The pleasure principle is central to Freud’s aesthetics.

Delight in attractive landscapes is an example of the pleasure principle operating, resulting in spontaneous, wholly subjective pleasure. The reality principle may influence our preferences through cultural and other factors on our preferences. Since Freud’s time, however, many artists have rejected the emphasis on pleasure and through contemporary  paintings, music, plays and other art forms have sought to provoke other emotions such as shock, horror, amusement and puzzlement.

While humans can recognize a wide range of qualities in the external world, Freud found that internal reality is expressed solely in terms of an increase or decrease in tension as expressed on a single qualitative axis – namely, the pleasure-unpleasure scale (LaPlanche & Pontalis, 1967). Freud found far more complexity than simply a direct relationship between pleasure and a consequential reduction in tension, or its inverse. He believed that there could be situations which, though producing tension, are pleasurable. Freud indicated that this might be related to changes in the level of the cathexis within a given space of time – cathexis being psychical energy being attached to something. This was the basis of the pleasure that people in the eighteenth century felt when viewing mountains and other images they regarded as sublime (see Chapter 8) – potentially dangerous situations enjoyed in safety.


Symbolism is a central concept in psychoanalysis as Freud regarded humans as animals capable of symbolism. Less importance is now placed on symbolism than in Freud’s time. It involves an object having more than one meaning and representing ideas and fantasies of which the viewer is barely, if at all, aware. Sexual symbolism dominates, but it may also extend into all aspects of life – birth, love and death. Based on his clinical work on dreams, Freud described the following as symbols (Spector, 1972):

  • Drawings by dreamers of landscapes in their dreams that when looked at closely, represent the human body, genitals, etc;
  • Pillars and columns as legs;
  • Gateways as a body orifice;
  • Water pipes as a urinary apparatus;
  • Kings and queens of fairy stories representing one’s parents while princes or princesses represent the dreamer;
  • All elongated objects such as sticks and tree trunks representing the phallus while boxes, cases, chests, cupboards, ovens and ships represent the uterus;
  • Rooms representing women, especially if the means of access are represented while the key to the lock signifies the penis;
  • Steps, ladders, staircases and climbing or descending them representing intercourse;
  • A woman’s hat or an overcoat represents a genital organ while a tie represents the penis which is also represented by plows, weapons, snakes, umbrellas and even airships – the list is endless.

The phallus plays a prominent role in psychoanalysis and refers not to its actual representation but to its symbolic function. Historically, its representation has been used in initiation ceremonies and has symbolized sovereign power and transcendent virility. The phallic symbol should not be taken to mean:

“a specific allegorical meaning … however broad that might be (fecundity, potency, authority, etc), (it) cannot be reduced to the male organ … itself in its anatomical reality … The phallus turns out to be the meaning – i.e. what is symbolized – behind the most diverse ideas just as often as (and perhaps more often than) it appears as a symbol in its own right…”  (LaPlanche & Pontalis, 1967, their emphasis).

Freud regarded the phallic symbol as one of the universal objects of symbolism which has indeed been found in archaeological digs in many ancient settlements.

Freud emphasized that the sexual aspects of dreams should not be exaggerated by attributing exclusive importance to them  (Spector, 1972) and did not assert that all dreams require a sexual interpretation. Symbolism is a route by which artists tap their unconscious; the means by which the instinct, (the unconscious), may be liberated (Dalbiez, 1941).

windows_xp_bliss-wideC  Photo by C.O.’Rear
Microsoft screen wallpaper “Bliss”
A subtle mammary image?
51. Guilin 2ps500C
Guillin mountains, China
Phallic symbols writ large

The works of art examined by Freud and other psychoanalysts did not contain explicit sexual content; their sexual allusions needed to be drawn from their works. The point has relevance to landscape where mammary-like hills or phallic rock outcrops are sometimes suggested as evidence of seeing sexual images in landscapes. The psychoanalytic frame suggests that it is the far more subtle features, probably not even apparent to the conscious mind, which are important in sexual terms, rather than those which are obvious.

Introjection and projection

Introjection was first coined by the early Hungarian psychoanalyst, Sandor Ferenczi, in a paper “Introjection and Transference,” published in 1909 and was further developed by Freud. Introjection involves the absorption by the ego of external objects that provide pleasure, including ideas, impressions and influences. This contrasts with projection which, in psychoanalytic terms refers to the ego thrusting “forth upon the external world whatever within itself gives rise to pain” (Isaacs, 1952), i.e. pushing painful things out of oneself.

The first object introjected is the mother’s breast.  Aspects of parents are introjected and throughout life a person both introjects and projects to obtain pleasure and avoid pain. However, that which constitutes pleasure and pain changes with maturity. Introjection and projection are among the earliest mental mechanisms. Introjection helps the ego cope with losing an object.

Projection is a primitive defense mechanism of which the subjects may be unaware because they may refuse to recognize certain qualities, feelings, wishes or even ‘objects’ within them which they therefore project onto another person or thing.  For example, a person with delusions of persecution says of another, “I love him”. The unconscious statement is “I hate him” which is transformed by projection into “He hates (persecutes) me”. The mechanisms of projection and introjection are among the earliest of mental mechanisms and are fundamental to our relationship with and our perception of the external world.

“Perception and its component operations (attention, taking notice of, storing in memory, judging, etc.) are bound up with introjection and projection … To appreciate the role which introjection and projection play in early development in the function of perception leads us to realize that perception cannot be divorced from object-relation” (Heimann, 1952).

Introjection begins in infancy with the breast, and from then on the infant introjects all pleasurable objects. Objects that yield pleasure, including people, food, smiles and laughter, pets, and the wider environment, are taken into the infant’s inner world. Both introjection and projection continue throughout life but what constitutes pleasure and pain changes with personal growth.


In contrast with the word “fantasies” which are conscious mental images, psychoanalysts use the term ‘phantasy’ to refer to unconscious mental content that may or may not become conscious. Freud found that everything conscious has a preliminary unconscious stage – all mental processes originate from the unconscious and only under certain conditions become conscious. Phantasy is the psychic representative of instinct:

“there is no impulse, no instinctual urge or response which is not experienced as unconscious phantasy” (Isaacs, 1952).

This internal psychic reality is just as real to the person as external reality. Only under certain circumstances do they become conscious (e.g. via dreams). Phantasy is thus important in understanding perception.

(There is) “a wealth of evidence to show that phantasies are active in the mind long before language has developed, and that even in the adult they continue to operate alongside and independently of words. Meanings, like feelings, are far older than speech … In childhood and in adult life, we live and feel, we phantasise and act beyond our verbal meanings … Words are a means of referring to experience, actual or phantasied, but are not identical with it, not a substitute for it” (Isaacs, 1952).

Phantasies are based initially on taste, smell and touch and other somatic sensations, particularly perceived through the mouth and lips which are the main means of early perception. Such sensations provide the basis for early phantasies. In infancy, the visual element is relatively small and there is no distinguishing between inner and outer reality. Later, about the age of 3 – 4 years, visual images play an increasing role but are still closely associated with somatic responses and with emotions. Sucking one’s thumb when young is a phantasy of sucking the breast.

The visual element in perception gradually increases, at first intertwined intimately with somatic responses and emotions, then differentiated from the somatic and distinguishing between the inner and outer worlds. As this occurs, the somatic undergoes repression and the visual elements in phantasy become stripped of emotion, separated from bodily ties.

Freud’s findings revolutionized psychiatry and broadened the understanding of the human psyche. Comparing his findings to that of Harvey, who discovered the circulation of blood and who showed the body as a functioning and organized organism, one writer noted that Freud:

“observed the operations of the unconscious mind and demonstrated that they could be understood as a dynamic system of which conscious awareness and overt behavior are only facets. The unconscious operations of the mind, … were as little open to direct inspection as the circulation of the blood” (MacAlpine, 1956).


In examining the psychoanalytic approach to landscape, one is immediately beset with a problem – little has been written on the subject. Given that the focus of the psychoanalyst is the human psyche and in seeking understanding as to why humans think, feel, and act in the way they do, it is surprising that human interaction with the external environment, in an aesthetic sense, has not attracted more extensive inquiry by analysts. The sole exception to this statement, to the author’s knowledge, is a brief section in a paper by Hanns Sachs (1951).

Hanns SachsPS      Hanns Sachs

Sachs (1881 – 1947) provides a psycho-analytic analysis of the changing taste of beauty since the Renaissance. Prior to this, he considered that nature was regarded as gentle, kind, smiling – the motherliness of nature. The image of the shepherd as in the Bible and through Greek and later poets also fitted this image. This was derived from the pre-pleasure furnished by the promise of fecundity and plenty and from the paternal kindness of the nourishing earth and a benevolent God. (Sachs, 1951). Pre-pleasure is the conscious pleasure afforded which serves as the facade to a deeper pleasure in the unconscious. The transition to the hidden occurs only where the link between the façade and the unconscious is seamless. Aesthetic pleasure is a function of the quality of the transition from facade to interior.

With the growth of scientific understanding of nature towards the second half of the eighteenth century, the näive dependence on nature’s bounty gave way to compelling it to deliver the goods that had hitherto been accepted as voluntary gifts. Mechanization of farming on a scientific basis replaced the pastoral shepherd.

The high mountains, cliffs and rocks were not regarded as beautiful because they were not productive, but rather as arousing anxiety, which excluded beauty. Chapter 8 examines the change in attitudes towards mountains occurred in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as fear and loathing gave way to “horror with pleasure,” a sentiment termed by writers of the time as “sublime.” Thus anxiety gave way to pleasure.

“Men had been taught beauty by fields and flowers, by hills and woods, by clear brooks and sunny lakes. They applied what they had learned to the new wide world and admired the formation and outline of cliffs and crags, the colors of the deep sea and the tints of the sunset” (Sachs, 1951).

The new beauty differed from the old in that it was not based on pleasantness; it was raw, intense, and “more deeply emotional.” The awe-inspiring appearance, far from being repulsive, was their main attraction.

Sachs distinguished between the old form in which beauty was in small, diluted, and pleasant doses, and the new beauty which is pure and undiluted. The former pleasant scenes offered a gratuitous pre-pleasure; the “mind is left free for the ‘pursuit of happiness’ for its own pleasure-seeking Id activity.” In the modern form, however, pre-pleasure mechanisms are almost absent and sublimation is at work “with as much zeal that the original sources are often hardly recognizable.” Beauty and anxiety are absolutely irreconcilable according to Sachs and sublimation of beauty occurs.


This section describes the psychoanalytical models and keys that are relevant and potentially applicable to understanding human aesthetic responses to landscapes. It begins with a general review of the psychoanalytic approach to artistic creativity and then examines a range of psychoanalytic models that have been developed to assist in understanding aesthetics. These are synthesized and a psychoanalytic model of landscape aesthetic response is presented.

Psychoanalytic approach to art

Psychoanalysts have been interested in art as an expression of the unconscious mind, whether in the fine arts of music, poetry, painting, sculpture and dance or in the range of other artistic pursuits. Many psychoanalysts have examined artistic impulses – the factors underlying creativity (Schneider, 1950).

In 1908, Freud asked the question:

“We laymen have always wondered greatly … how that strange being, the poet, comes by his material. What makes him able to carry us with him in a way and to arouse emotions in us of which we thought ourselves perhaps not even capable?” (Segal, 1955).

Concerning art, Isaacs wrote:

“We know from drawing, painting and sculpture and the whole world of art, what a wealth of implicit meaning can reside even in a shape, a color, or of melody and harmony in music” (Isaacs, 1952).

Essentially, psychoanalysis sees art as wish-fulfillment or as an expression of unresolved psychic conflict.

“The power of art comes … from the strength of (the artist’s) psychic energies which are powerful enough to surge through barriers erected by consciousness and by society. His craft lies only in his largely unconscious ability to find symbolic expression for his desires …” (Kernan, 1979).

Recognizing that ugly and beautiful are two aspects of aesthetic experience, Segal believed that both must be present for the full experience. Ugliness is the fragmented destroyed past; beauty is the object restored (Likierman, 1989). Psychoanalysts regard the main elements of beauty as the whole, the complete and the rhythmical (such as rhythmical sucking, breathing and heartbeats).

Wikipedia               Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud self portrait

In summary, the artist turns from reality and, through giving full rein to phantasies, provides symbolic expression to repressed unsocial feelings and thoughts. Gaining unconscious cathexis or relief, and seeking to overcome depression and re-create a lost object, the artist creates works of art that give vent to his or her phantasies in an acceptable way. Through this, artists becomes significant figures, heroes; through their art, they mold a new kind of reality and thus gain the freedom they previously lacked. Paintings by Lucian Freud, a grandson of Sigmund Freud, often express unsocial feelings and thoughts.

Herbert Read, an art historian with an interest in psychoanalysis, suggested that identification in aesthetics is not limited to some other person, but can be a plastic object, the essential aesthetic feeling being provoked, however, only when the object is a significant object (1951). His formulation provides a means whereby landscapes may provide a basis for identification.

Freud considered that artists express unconscious desires in a sublimated symbolic form, curbed and inhibited by the superego (Kreitler & Kreitler, 1972). Sublimation is the outward expression, in socially acceptable ways, of unconscious thoughts and drives that are socially unacceptable – exchanging an originally sexual aim for another one which is no longer sexual but which is psychically related to the first (Laplance & Pontalis, 1967).

Freud regarded the origin of beauty as being sexual excitement, stating that he considered it certain that beauty derived from sublimated sexual feeling (Spector, 1972). The appreciation of beauty and aesthetic pleasure was the indirect satisfaction of vital needs (i.e. a sensualist approach to aesthetics in contrast to an intellectual approach) (Dalbiez, 1941). The idea that beauty derives from sexuality was not new and many books covering the theme were available to Freud. (For example, George Santayana, 1896. The Sense of Beauty; Yrjo Hirn, 1900. Origins of Art,; as well as many German and French publications. See Spector, 1972, note 30.) Freud broadened sexuality, however, to include cultural activity and beauty as being derived from sexual feeling.

Sublimation of the sexual aspect is the key to Freud’s conception of art. Sublimation is a process argued by Freud to account for human activities that have no apparent connection with sexuality but which are assumed to be motivated by the force of sexual instinct (LaPlanche & Pontalis, 1967). Freud defined sublimation as “the capacity to substitute for the sexual aim of another, non-sexual aim which is genetically related to the first” (Dalbiez, 1941).

Since Freud, sublimation has been widened to cover a general mental process resulting in the transformation of any primitive trends into ‘higher’ civilized expression (Likierman, 1989). Freud’s original sexual formulation of sublimation has broadened to encompass the process of civilizing psychic processes.

Kris (1948) considered sublimation as the most frequently misused of Freudian terms. He describes it as:

“the social aspect of the process of discharge of energy: an instinctual drive, which tends to a goal disapproved by society and by the individual’s super-ego may be redirected towards an approved goal.”

Kris noted that artistic pursuits offered opportunities for sublimation of impulses of various kinds. Freud considered that artists sublimate their most personal wishes and phantasies, expressing them in an art form that softens the offensive aspects of these wishes (Spector, 1972), a kind of sugarcoating of content to make the art presentable.

For a period, Freudian analyses were made of the unconscious foundations of an artist’s work, but this is rarely practiced now. In the 1920s, the art critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell rejected Freud’s notion of art as sublimation and wish fulfillment substituting aesthetic creation in its place (Bell, C., 1925. Dr Freud on Art. The Dial; Fry, R. 1924. The Artist and Psychoanalysis).

Psychoanalytic models of aesthetics

The models are:

  • Hanns Sachs’ co-ordinated psychic model
  • Melanie Klein’s depressive integration model
  • Anton Ehrenzweig’s Apollonian and Dionysian model
  • Meira Likierman’s psychic growth model, and
  • Ellen Spitz’s transactional model.

Hanns Sachs’ Coordinated Psychic Model

“The creative mind, in reacting to beauty, in producing beauty, represents the highest form of psychic life, in which all its parts – the id, the ego, and the super-ego are co-ordinated” (Sachs, 1951).

So Hanns Sachs concludes his exploration of how it is that these normally separate entities combine in the presence of beauty. Sachs identifies the play element – the make believe that psychic processes easily distinguish from reality as the means through which things that would otherwise be forbidden (and hence repressed) are accepted. Through what is experienced, whether artistic creation such as paintings, plays or poems, or nature, an id content that is otherwise inaccessible “reveals itself in these moments with a clarity beyond words and intellectual conception.”

In revealing the hidden id (unconscious) content through its transference on the ego (conscious), Sachs is not offering any more than Freud in referring to sublimated drives and desires which are brought to the surface, i.e. the ego.

However, Sachs develops his theory further, drawing on Freud’s concept of the death instinct in beauty. Normally, the aggressive drive is part of this instinct that, through sublimation, is turned inwards against the ego and also strengthens the severity of the super ego. But with the super ego co-operating with the ego regarding objects of beauty, the death instinct cannot be converted into aggression since it has no object on which to focus, either inside or outside. The death instinct, therefore, continues its normal form with varying intensity of influence. In situations of diluted or weak beauty, it provides stability through an infusion of death instinct character into the play of ego and id tendencies. Functioning fully, the death instinct provides:

” a feeling of restfulness and bliss, … a haven of peace where the eternal necessity to choose between sensual gratification and peace of mind is abolished. This is the reason why some little bit of beauty is such an indispensable help in carrying the burden of life.”

Faced with great, pure beauty, life and death are present intensely and are indissolubly linked. Death strives for permanence, stability, and immobility; life seeks movement, dynamism and motion. Sachs concludes: Beauty is a quest which leads to motion as well as to immobility. Beauty is life dancing – but dancing to the tune of death. Motion is life, immobility is death; therefore, while beauty brings life, the peace it offers is death.

Contemporary psychoanalysts regard Freud’s notion of the death instinct as controversial and the analysis by Sachs is not now regarded as useful. However, Sachs’ theory of beauty, based on the unique co-ordination of the id, ego and super ego offer a further psychoanalytic approach to the issue of aesthetic experience. Sachs makes it clear that he is referring not only to artistic creations but also to nature so his model has relevance to landscape aesthetics.

Melanie Klein’s Depressive  Integration Model (or Object Relation Model)

Melanie_KleinC Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein (1882 – 1960), a psychoanalyst who specialized in children, attributes fundamental importance to an infant’s first object relation (i.e. the relation to the mother’s breast and to the mother) (Klein, 1957). Introjection of this primal object in a secure environment provides the basis for individual development.

The good breast is instinctively felt to be the source of nourishment and therefore, of life itself and provides unity with the mother, restoring, to some extent, the lost prenatal unity and, even when food is not sought, providing constant reassurance of the mother’s love. The good breast is internalized; it is:

“taken in and becomes part of the ego, and the infant who was first inside the mother now has the mother inside himself.”

Freud regarded the infant’s pleasure at the breast as the prototype of sexual gratification and Klein extends this to cover all later happiness and … the feeling of unity with another person.

However, the infant also experiences anxieties, possibly associated with the longing for the prenatal state in the womb, or related to difficulties the mother experiences in feeding and caring for her child or to physical inadequacies. Klein calls the results of this the “bad breast”. The child loves the good breast and hates the bad, but then comes to realize that they are the same. The infant works through this every day, loving and hating the same thing; a treadmill broken by love, which repairs and restores.  The infant has thus a sense of losing and regaining the good object.

During the first three to six months of life, the infant is subject to fears of the loss of loved objects. In phantasy these objects, external and internal, are destroyed resulting in persecution and guilt for their loss and a wish to restore and recreate the lost objects outside and within the ego. With growth comes a capacity to restore, a relinquishment of the depressive anxieties, and an integration and enrichment of the ego by assimilation of the loved objects. The guilt gives rise to a need to restore and recreate, and this provides the roots of creativity.

Although at face value the idea of depression as being the fount of creativity may seem contradictory, it is well known that many artists, writers and composers have produced some of their best work while in such a state. Regarding Mozart, for example:

“some of his gayest, brightest, most beautiful and cheerful music during periods of his life that were, to say the least, trying.  The depression Mozart tells of having suffered during these periods was accompanied by outbursts of creative activity, in which he sought unconsciously to restore the infantile situation of complete bliss at the mother’s breast…” (Esman, 1951).

Roger Money-Kyrle (1961) believes that the beginnings of a non-utilitarian Kantian attitude to things to be admired and loved, but not consumed, derives from the conflict between desiring to possess and consume the object and the desire to protect it forever from these pressures. Concurrently with these conflicts, the infant feels a oneness with the object – the mother, yet also a separateness as a distinct individual. This feeling of oneness and otherness, Money-Kyrle suggests, may be recaptured in later aesthetic experiences – the feeling of closeness, empathy and identification with a landscape, for example, and the objective recognition of one’s separateness.

Anton Ehrenzweig (1908 – 1966)

Ehrenzweig         Anton Ehrenzweig

Ehrenzweig addressed aesthetics through combining the Gestalt (See theme: Gestalt & aesthetics) and psycho-analytic approaches. In his book, The Psycho-Analysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing: An introduction to a theory of unconscious perception (1953) he developed a dynamic theory of beauty.  He drew from Nietzsche’s book, The Origins of the Tragedy from the Spirit of Music in which Nietzsche laid down the principles of Apollonian and Dionysian form principles.

Based on Greek art, Nietzsche differentiated the Dionysian art principle, which stands for chaos and destruction, from the Apollonian principle which molds chaos into order and beauty. While Greek tragedy originally expressed fear and anguish and acute emotion and pain, over the course of many generations they have been transfigured into the sublimity and grace of ‘classical beauty.’ Ehrenzweig notes that Dionysos is equivalent to Freud’s Thanatos or death instinct while Apollo represents his Eros or life instinct.

Ehrenzweig regarded aesthetic feelings as the product of the tension and conflict between the Gestalt (i.e. Apollonian) surface elements and the wholly inarticulate form (i.e. Dionysian) elements in which he includes background negative and superimposed masses of light and shade. He argued that the aesthetic feeling of beauty (and ugliness) intervenes in favor of the Apollonian principle of differentiation against the leveling tendency of Dionysian unconscious inarticulate modes of perception.

Ehrenzweig also argued that the Dionysian elements are found in the unconscious. When raised to the surface (i.e. the conscious) their lack of good Gestalt causes them to be expressed in half-articulated forms that are unaesthetic, and even ugly. He cited modern Gestalt-free art as an example.

Meira Likierman’s Psychic Growth Model

Meira Likierman, a child psychotherapist in London, England considers that aesthetic experience is primary and present from birth and that, rather than deriving from psychic growth, it is a precondition of growth (1989). Her model of individual development in infancy derived from Klein. In contrast to Klein, however, she regards aesthetic experience as not only preceding the depressive position but indeed the critical enabling factor in the depressive position.

The aesthetic experience commences at birth and derives from the earliest ‘good’ experiences. From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, she considers that appreciation of beauty is … a fundamental human capacity present within everyone. This capacity is a primitive precursor to the later development of taste and ability to judge and appreciate beauty. Our aesthetic knowledge is critical in representing the world to ourselves, providing the basis for fantasies for imagination and thought.

Likierman postulates that the aesthetic experience exists in a primitive form from the inception of life and that its characteristics are defined by Klein’s paranoid/schizoid position, which antedates it and serves as the basis for the development of the depressive position. Rather than seeking the reparation of a lost and destroyed object, the individual’s healthy development depends on transferring his/her early aesthetic experience into the depressive perception of an integrated object and on viewing the whole good/bad world in terms of aesthetic principles.

The paranoid/schizoid position has a lasting influence on artistic creativity and on how reality is viewed in adulthood. This is because ‘good’ is first experienced aesthetically as an infant and forever after aesthetics is known other than through the thinking mind.  The good is symbolized by the ideal object which Likierman considers is an aspect of reality which is integral to any experiencing of goodness. The ideal comprises the very essence and core of goodness, and so remains an inevitable dimension of all good experiences. An ideal can be so intense as to inspire awe for a good that is greater than self, a sublime experience – thus perhaps providing insight into our reaction to an outstanding landscape which can represent a good in its most ideal or sublime form.

The sublime experience (a perfect good), experienced in infancy and resulting in our comprehension of goodness reveals itself in the dreams and fantasies of individuals and in human cultural heritage. Likierman cites ‘light’ as an example, mentioning its use in Biblical themes, religious iconography in which the sun motif appears as a halo, and its use by painters such as Van Gogh. These are indications of common early intensely aesthetic experiences. 

With growth, the child enters Klein’s depressive phase of life discovering the good and bad parts of experience and bringing these together as two aspects of a ‘whole’. Never again will good be a fixed and absolute certainty. The phase is marked by recognition of the loss of an omnipotently ‘owned’ part object (i.e. the mother), the loss of ignorance and the process of integration into a ‘whole’ person.

The infant imposes an aesthetic pattern over his view of his life, attributes an aesthetic value to the whole good/bad world and begins to experience life from the point of view of order and meaning. From thereon, the ‘good’ is never conceptualized without accompanying unconscious aesthetic phantasies. The whole good/bad object provides us with the ability to value beauty otherwise it would be wholly utilitarian.

Drawing on Kant’s formulation of beauty as being an aspect of form not related to purpose (i.e. independent of its usefulness to us), Likierman notes that beauty indicates to us the existence of an objective world. She states, any value which the individual places on a non-functional, non need-fulfilling quality of the object is necessarily aesthetic. Beauty is a quality which is not given, consumed or possessed.

We express through artistic creations the aesthetic experiences which help shape us. Our mood affects our aesthetic response – Likierman considers that happiness can increase our sensitivity to beauty.

Likierman argues that the aesthetic content of an object lies in its form, not its content. Citing Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, she notes that an alternative phrase: “I have a conflict …” would not convey the same truth. She goes on to examine how Hamlet’s words turn facts into art, expressing a truth about his state of mind in a form that captures its close-to-suicide essence.

Likierman’s model of psychic growth overturns the classic model which views aesthetics as developing with growth, instead viewing aesthetics as developing from the beginning of life and, through its representation of the world, being crucial to growth and integration of the individual as a whole being. Her linking of aesthetics with the good/bad object provides a pre-cognitive means of assessing the value of an objective wholly subjectively and without considerations of purpose or utility, thus linking it with Kant’s aesthetics.

Ellen Spitz’s Transactional Model

Ellen Spitz        Ellen Spitz

Ellen Handler Spitz, Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Maryland, developed a rather radical view of aesthetics from a psychoanalytic viewpoint. She considered that psychoanalysis locates aesthetic pleasure in the subject (and) also in a dynamic in which the spectator-subject may become object to the aesthetic subject qua subject. (Spitz, 1991). By this, she meant that the art object itself gazes at the viewer as though to desire him or her. There is a hint of this in a statement by Cezanne: The great classical landscapes, our Provence, Greece and Italy as I imagine them, are those where clarity becomes spiritual, where the landscape is a hovering smile of acute intelligence” (Prodo, 1990, emphasis added).

Based on Freud’s major texts relevant to aesthetics (viz: Interpretation of Dreams, 1900; Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905; Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, 1905; and Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920), Spitz defined three major precepts:

  • An object found is an object refound, and the refinding rather than the intrinsic properties of the found or chosen object is of prime significance.
  • The relations of joke/teller/listener (work of art/artist/spectator) imply a dynamic characterized by subtle reversals, complex alignments, and shifts of position.
  • Subjectivity, born of loss, stages the replicative recovery of its object through links with an unconscious symbolic system that radically determines this very subjectivity.

Spitz’s approach signals an interaction between viewer and subject, an aesthetic experience involving an object intensely engaging a subject:

“the object’s presence figures an absence, induces a lack (desire) in the subject which it (the object) in an imaginary way, fulfils. The dynamic can be both reversed and replayed. Thus the subject experiences fulfillment and want – a pleasure in desiring – which constitutes the special quality of aesthetic experience.”

Adrian Stokes has a similar view. He considered art to invite emphatic identification – the “envelopment factor in art” which he called the incantatory process a term suggesting absorption to some extent in the subject matter (1965).

“…all art describes processes by which we find ourselves to some extent carried away, and that our identification with them will have been essential to the subsequent contemplation of the work of art as an image not only of an independent and completed object but of the ego’s integration.”


Summary of Psychoanalytic Models of Aesthetics

This overview of psychoanalytic approaches to aesthetics together with the description of the various aesthetic models that have been developed on indicates the rich insights and radical contributions provided by psychoanalysis for understanding aesthetics. Psychoanalysis focuses on understanding the underlying human motivations and processes that produce certain actions, rather than on the outcomes.

Although psychoanalysis helps to understand human psychic processes in selecting one landscape over another or to explain the content of landscapes in terms of symbolism, its use in assessing landscape quality will not be easy.         

Because the psychoanalytical approach could produce a range of differing interpretations of the object viewed (e.g. art, landscape) and its effects upon the viewer, it would be difficult to derive a universal predictive model. Nor does psychoanalysis provide for verification in an objective way to account for the formal aspects of the object or explain its cognitive content (Kreitler & Kreitler, 1972).

Others consider that because psychoanalysis does not follow the principles of scientific method, it is therefore, invalid. (Scientific method is based on observations under controlled conditions; constructs which must be operational (i.e. having clearly specified and identifiable empirical referents); and hypotheses which must be testable (Marx, 1963).) Kline considers it as a “huge collection of empirical hypotheses and propositions some of which may be true” (1972). Nevertheless, based upon careful examination of the evidence of studies which have sought to evaluate the veracity of psychoanalysis, he concludes that the majority of Freudian concepts are confirmed.

Having regard to these qualifications, the psychoanalytic model nevertheless is considered relevant to understanding human perceptions of landscape aesthetics. At the most fundamental level, it reinforces the significance of individual differences in psychological constituencies which derive from widely varying drives and desires. It also identifies a range of experiences (e.g. mothering, growth) and psychic mechanisms (e.g. introjection, projection, phantasy, symbolism and sublimation) which are common to virtually all humans from infancy and, which influence people throughout their lives.

It is apparent that the various approaches described above are variations upon the basic theme of the psychoanalytic model established by Freud, on which the later practitioners have developed their particular emphases and explanations of the mechanisms involved.

It is useful, therefore, to summarize Freud’s basic model of the individual psyche. This comprises the id, one’s unconscious instincts; the ego, which relates the individual to the real world; and the superego, which is that part of a person concerned with moral ideals; together with the unconscious and its importance as the container of hidden contents and instincts.

Various mechanisms connect the inner and outer worlds: introjection, the taking into the ego of things which give pleasure; projection, the displacement externally of a psychological element, including the expelling from the ego of things that cause pain; symbolism in which external objects are accorded internal meaning; phantasy in the unconscious about external objects; and sublimation by which socially unacceptable thoughts and drives are given socially acceptable expression.

Most psychoanalytic discussions of aesthetic uses artistic creation as their subject and few mention the natural beauty of the world. As discussed, there are significant differences between art and landscape, the most important in psychoanalytic terms being that, whereas a viewer can identify with the artist’s unconscious desires expressed through sublimation, this is not possible with landscape – although it is possible with the paintings and even photographs of landscapes in which a human creative element in involved.

The creative urge – capturing landscape in paint

Based on these fundamental concepts, a variety of models in relation to aesthetics have been developed. These are summarized in Table 1 together with the role of the viewer and the viewer’s relationship with the landscape.

Table 1 Summary of Psychoanalytic Models of Aesthetics

Table 1
Key outcomes identified by these models and psychoanalytic concepts are:

  • Development of unconscious phantasies, based on introjection of objects and things which give pleasure;
  • Symbolism of external objects in terms of an individual’s unconscious sense of meaning;
  • Projection of unconscious feelings and phantasies onto external objects as representative of these;
  • Sublimation of socially unacceptable unconscious feelings and drives in socially acceptable ways such as through art, recreation and other pursuits;
  • Creation of art which presents unconscious phantasies, desires and thoughts in socially acceptable ways – creating a new form of reality not previously present, through which the artist becomes a significant figure, socially esteemed figure;
  • Softening of the superego’s censorial role in the presence of aesthetic pleasure, and the unique combination of the id, ego and superego to enjoy it;
  • Cathexis or relief in artistic creation;
  • Overcoming depression through the rediscovery and recreation of the lost good object;
  • The aesthetic equated with the good or ideal object;
  • Pleasure from an aesthetic object gained without its consumption.

A Psychoanalytic Model of Landscape Aesthetics

Having examined the contribution that psychoanalysis provides in understanding artists and art, what triggers an aesthetic response to natural beauty? Psychoanalysis suggests that the starting point of such a response derives in a large measure from the infant’s image and relationship to its mother.

Qualities such as softness, warmth, roundness, closeness, love, nurture, envelopment, safety, security, fecundity and satiation describe the aesthetic feelings engendered in infants by their mothers. As noted earlier (Isaacs, 1952), words cannot convey the full richness of experiences. These describe in approximate terms the qualities that could generally be associated with one’s mother by an infant and as Likierman (1989) suggests, establishes the precondition for growth.

The qualities which are associated with the early pleasurable experiences are introjected into the ego (i.e. consciousness). In addition, ideas and feelings which are socially unacceptable are introjected into the unconscious (id). Fed by these and by further ongoing introjected inputs from the external world, phantasies develop, which reinforce the strength and influence of these inputs in the unconscious mind (Figure 3).

Fig 3
Figure by Figure 3  Psychoanalytic Model of Landscape Aesthetic Response

The introjected inputs, together with resultant phantasies, form the reservoir of unconscious experiences, from which the conscious mind (ego), in viewing external objects such as landscapes, draws in projecting onto these objects. External objects trigger symbolic associations with the contents of the unconscious. Objects which unconsciously remind one, for example, of maternal characteristics such as envelopment, roundness, serenity and fecundity, are viewed positively. Similarly, objects which trigger images of the phallus or other sexual images, repressed in the unconscious, are unconsciously recognized. The delight in steep mountains may well derive from such a source.

Features of the external world are continually being introjected into the unconscious, adding to the reservoir of experience by which future interactions are influenced. The feedback mechanism serves to reinforce the significance and influence of preferred objects, such as landscapes, leading to the desire for more similar experiences.

In summary, this psychoanalytic model of landscape aesthetic responses postulates the development in infancy of a reservoir of unconscious experiences based on introjected feelings and thoughts, which provide the raw material for phantasy. This unconscious content influences our perception when viewing aesthetic objects such as landscapes, projecting the content of our unconscious onto these objects and recognizing their symbolic content. These preferred objects add to the unconscious via the mechanism of introjection.

Links with Kant’s Philosophy of Aesthetics

Kant considered that the aesthetic experience is the mind’s representation of the object and, as experienced with disinterest, is pure and wholly subjective. Such pleasure is neither sensual nor intellectual; it does not involve conceptual judgements, rationality, reason or fulfillment of animal appetites. Objects that we consider beautiful have a special kind of formal quality dependent on their perceptual properties, a purpose of form but not of function – purposiveness without purpose.

How does Kant’s view correspond to the findings and models of psychoanalysis?

First, it supports Kant in asserting that the aesthetic content of a landscape is not an objective quality of the scene but rather derives subjectively from the viewer, based, in part on processes of introjection, sublimation and phantasy.

Second, the introjected and sublimated feelings and thoughts, particularly of a maternal origin, postulated as the basis of the unconscious experiences that the conscious mind draws on when viewing external objects such as landscapes may correspond with Kant’s concept of formal qualities that relate to beauty. Kant suggested that beautiful objects have a special kind of formal quality. He suggested some general or indeterminate “rules” covering this quality, although in doing so he was criticized for abandoning disinterest.

Kant’s rules covered the design and composition of objects rather than their color and tone, the form of objects rather than what they might represent, and the possible application of the rules to natural objects rather than works of art that embody purpose. These rules, particularly that which refers to form rather than what the object represents, may be suggestive of symbolism, in turn providing a basis for sublimation and introjection.

Third, Kant’s concept of beauty being purposiveness without purpose (i.e. independent of utility), is supported by Likierman’s view that the aesthetic experience commences from earliest infancy and is fundamental to understanding the good/bad world in terms of aesthetic principles. As quoted earlier, because the ‘good’ is first experienced aesthetically as an infant, from this time, aesthetics is “known other than through the thinking mind” (Spitz, 1989). She states, “any value which the individual places on a non-functional, non need-fulfilling quality of the object is necessarily aesthetic.” Beauty is a quality not given, consumed or possessed; it is the quality which the object “keeps to itself and represents its “essential ‘otherness,’ … its unique identity.”

Similarly, Money-Kyrle (1961) believes that the beginnings of a non-utilitarian Kantian attitude to things to be admired and loved but not consumed can be explained psychoanalytically. He believes that such an attitude derives from the conflict between desiring to possess and consume the object (i.e. the mother), and the desire to protect it forever from these pressures. The infant feels a oneness with the mother, yet also their separateness as distinct individuals. This feeling of oneness and otherness, Money-Kyrle suggests, may be recaptured in later aesthetic experiences – the feeling of closeness, empathy and identification with a familiar landscape, for example, and the objective recognition of one’s separateness.

Finally, Melanie Klein’s concept of the good/bad breast may explain the changing tastes in landscape. While historically mountain scenery was not regarded as beautiful, perhaps, as Sachs (1951) suggests, because they aroused anxiety in the presence of which beauty could not dwell, with the concept of the sublime, anxiety waned and the landscapes acquired beauty. The change represents the bad breast being made good; what was once abhorred has now become accepted and admired.


The psychoanalytic approach provides rich insights into human motivations and underlying drives and desires. While possibly difficult to apply in a predictive or even explanatory sense, it does provide valuable understanding which can inform research and analysis.  

Significantly, the psychoanalytic approach reinforces the subjective paradigm but its special contribution is its emphasis on the unconscious as having a very significant influence on preferences. This may help explain the immediacy of interpretation of scenes and their evaluation in qualitative terms.


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The following definitions and notes are based on Laplance & Pontalis’s The Language of Psycho-Analysis. Of the hundreds of definitions cited, only words used in this chapter are included here. Generally for reasons of space, only a summary of the definition is provided although in some cases a verbatim definition is used.

Cathexis  The concept that a certain amount of psychical energy is attached to an idea, to a group of ideas, to a part of a body, an object etc.

Consciousness A transient property that distinguishes external and internal perceptions from psychical phenomena as a whole. It receives information both from the outside world and from internal sources. This information comprises sensations, which impress themselves at some point on the pleasure-unpleasure scale, and revived memories.

Death Instincts Instincts that are opposed to the life instincts and strive towards the reduction of tensions to zero-point; in other words, they aim to bring the living being back to an inorganic state. Turned inwards at first, they subsequently turn against the outside world in aggression. The notion was among Freud’s later works and is not widely accepted.

Depressive Position A form of object-relations that is established after the paranoid position about the fourth month of life and is gradually overcome during the first year though it can be reactivated in later life (its formation is described under Klein).

Identification A process whereby the subject assimilates an aspect, property or attribute of another and is transformed, wholly or partially, after the model the other provides. In a wider common use, identification overlaps with psychological concepts such as imitation, empathy, sympathy and projection. Introjection is a prototype of identification.

Instinct (or Drive)  Traditionally, a hereditary behavior pattern that varies little from one member of an animal species to another. In psychoanalysis it describes a dynamic process comprising a pressure (or energy) that directs the organism towards an aim.

Introjection  In phantasy, the subject transposes objects and their inherent qualities from the ‘outside’ to the ‘inside’ of self. Discussed further in text (Introjection and Projection).

Object – relation  A relatively contemporary term describing the subject’s mode of relation to his world. O-R’s exist with regard to specific subjects and also to types of O-R such as oral O-R. Objects include people as well as the projected and introjected, and the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects of Klein.

Phallus  Classically the figurative representation of the male organ but in psychoanalysis the symbolic function taken on by the penis in the intra- and inter-subjective dialectic.

Phantasy (or fantasy)   Imaginary scene where the subject is a protagonist, representing the fulfillment of an (unconscious) wish in a manner distorted by defensive processes. While phantasy has been suggested as referring to unconscious fantasies, few American writers use it in this sense. Phantasies have different modes: conscious (day dreams), unconscious, and primal.

Pleasure Principle  A key principle that governs mental functioning – psychical activity is directed at avoiding unpleasure and procuring pleasure.

Preconscious  A system of psychical apparatus that is distinct from the unconscious and the conscious; its contents are not currently present in the field of consciousness but, in contrast to the unconscious, are still accessible to the conscious (e.g. knowledge and memories). Unconscious contents and processes cannot pass into the preconscious without transformations.

Projection   In a psychoanalytic sense projection is an operation whereby qualities, feelings, wishes and even ‘objects’ that the subject refuses to recognize or rejects in himself, are expelled from the self and located in another person or thing. This is a primitive defense mechanism (e.g. in paranoia and superstition).

Subconscious  Used in Freud’s early writings as a synonym for ‘unconscious’ but discarded because of the confusion it created. It referred to that which was scarcely conscious.

Sublimation   Human activities that have no apparent connection with sexuality but are assumed to be motivated by the force of the sexual instinct. Artistic creation and intellectual inquiry are described by Freud as principal sublimated activities. The instinct is said to be sublimated insofar as it is diverted towards a new, non-sexual aim and to the degree that its objects are socially valued ones.

Symbolism   Indirect and figurative representation of an unconscious idea, conflict or wish. In psychoanalytic terms, symbolism gives expression in a way that is indirect, figurative and difficult to decipher. Symbolism can cover all forms of indirect representation and generally escape censorship by the ego. While the symbols discovered are very numerous, the range of things they symbolize is very narrow: the body, parents and blood relations, birth, death, nudity and above all sexuality (sexual organs, the sexual act).

Transference   A process of actualization of unconscious wishes (e.g. of infantile prototypes that re-emerge and are experienced as if they were actually happening). Transference involves an unconscious idea, which cannot enter the preconscious, linking with an idea already in the preconscious and transferring its intensity on to it.

Unconscious    The repressed contents that have been denied access to the preconscious-conscious system. Its contents are representatives of the instincts and are governed by the mechanisms of condensation and displacement. The contents seek to re-enter consciousness but cannot do so without transformation through compromise and censorship. Freud regarded dreams as providing the ‘royal road’ to the unconscious.