A Metaphorically Mythologizing And Intellectually Demythologizing Art (the Art of Cathartic Imagination)

Our borderline cases carry around with them experiences of unthinkable anxiety, which are failures of communication at the stage of absolute dependence.
D. W. Winnicott, “Babies and their Mothers”, Free Association Books, 1988, p. 109

You can drive the devil out of your garden but you will find him again in the garden of your son. In psychoanalytic terms, one could say that it is the split-off and unintegrated parts of his parents that have been introjected by the child
Alice Miller, “The Drama of the Gifted Child (How Narcissistic Parents Form and Deform the Emotional Lives of their Talented Children), Basic Books, 1981, p. 27

Oedipus’ unconscious anger is most likely fuelled not by just the king’s position as a depriving and constraining overlord, but also as a potentially nurturant figure, who had painfully rejected his attachment needs. Anger is a natural response of the child to a threat to the attachment relationship, when the expectation of safety near attachment figure is jeopardized.
Judith Trowell (Ed.), “The Importance of Fathers” (A Psychoanalytic Re-evaluation), Brunner- Routledge, 2002, p. 47

Psychoanalytic theory uses concepts such as repression, denial, disavowal and projection to describe the manifold ways in which bygone thoughts, feelings, memories and fantasies have disappeared from consciousness… We are all relatively unconscious of childhood mortifications, with their quota of infantile rage, or of the envious and often murderous feelings that the child hidden within us still entertains toward those who were nearest and dearest to us in childhood. These primitive impulses all have a number of potential outlets in adult life.
Joyce McDougall, “Theaters of the Body”, W. W. Norton, 1989, p. 51

… The crucial acts of primal scene, this theater of origin…
Erik L. Santner, “The Royal Remains (People’s Two Bodies and Endgames of

In his “Totem of Blessed Subjectivity” Brauner represents the primal scene (the mysterious sexual coitus between parents) as it can be seen/imagined by the over-powerful mythological “layer” of the child’s psyche. By following the law of condensation/displacement of information under which the human and especially infantile psyche functions, Brauner’s painting imitates the child’s unconscious imagination which mixes its impressions about intercourse between parents with the enigma of child-birth.

Does Brauner’s painting reflect his possible intention to create a special deck of cards which could symbolize the child’s relations with his/her parental couple? Was this game meant to be contesting comparison of destinies of relations between infants and the parental might? Or, was Brauner just trying to use his embellished stylization of card game subculture to illustrate the problems between baby/child and parental king/queen couple?

Victor Brauner’s “Totem of Blessed Subjectivity” (1948)
V. Brauner, “Totem of Blessed Subjectivity”, 1948 (1)

By Looking at this painting we, step by step, can discern what is so important for every human being – the primordial figures of everybody’s life, the parental couple. But why to demythologize in front of adults (to transform what for them is sacred into what is horrifying, even if it indeed, corresponds to the child’s unconscious ideas) – our parents, their love, their emotional and physical unity and our bonds with them – the point of birth of a future life? Sometimes for some of us in our childhood and adulthood, relations with our parents are not what we could dream of having. They are full of frustrations and anger. But we are made of these relations, we cannot separate ourselves from it, we cannot magically “forget” our ontogenetic beginnings. We, human beings have to know the truth about ourselves and our parents – not to repeat parental mistakes and understand better our own children. It is a matter of our respect for our parents based on repression and superstition vs. our reverie for truth about parents and us. Besides the “organic” distortions of reality on part of infantile “thinking”, many people are abused or/and neglected by their parents. There is a strong need in us to love our parents, but also a lot of bitter feelings of injustice connected with their mistreatment of us in our infancy and later on. Brauner’s painting is a result of his intellectual courage to elaborate a topic that many try to avoid, because they try to avoid emotional pain and because they feel guilty in front of their parents for being too critical when they really prefer to be grateful.

Brauner follows our human unconscious rooted in our childish feelings of anger at our parents which coexist with our love for them. Let’s look again at the painting. The mother’s womb here is represented as located in between the father’s and mother’s bodies during their physical embrace. The baby has a prenatal memory and easily “imagines” something like a womb and itself inside it – in a bliss of primordial safety and plenitude. But baby doesn’t know that the womb is inside mother’s body. Babies intuit that their very existence is tied not only to the mother and father but to the parental couple’s physical unity. Brauner represents this imagined (by baby’s unconscious) togetherness in which the parents are mysteriously and absurdly combined.

So, a proto-womb is located in the painting in between the father and mother’s bodies. It (we can call it the embryo-womb) is, as if, ripped off by the power of the parents’ ontological might creating an opening for the baby’s birth (the infant’s mind exaggerates the sado-masochistic aspects of human birth, because it is prone to interpret what is psychologically painful/stressful as a result of sadistic intent on part of some evil energies). In this phase of human life father and mother’s might is equal to the law of life.

But even later on fathers tend to unconsciously play the archetypal king with their children, and the mothers – the archetypal queen. For parents it takes a lot of psychological maturity to abandon this unconscious posture and be ready to be in the perception of their children just human beings, mortal, fallible and sometimes helpless. Often child abuse and neglect is a result of parental inability to throw away in front of their children this solemn mask of superhuman status because they prefer the feeling of being super-wise figures disappointed in the imperfections of their too human (too animalistic) children. By faking of super-human pose, parents, in a way, are irrationally trying to protect themselves from their children’s expectations and demands.

Brauner represents child’s perception of parental gaze as one-eyed – a narrow, one-sided: mono-vision of their child’s reality that is a characteristic feature of widespread parental psychopathology when father and mother judge their children instead of caring about them. This strictly hierarchical perception of their children Brauner connects with a tendency of mother and father to disagree with one another (in the painting each looks at the opposite direction). Such a moralistic and quarrelling mother and father have frontal gazes even we see them in profile because they always see the world frontally – confrontationally, they didn’t get the relativistic plurality of human vision that comes with humility and curiosity. Brauner’s representation of parents in profile expresses the fact that babies/children often feel that they don’t have enough contact with them (parents always rush somewhere else, to their adult life). So, we see the parents’ frontal eyes on their profiles – a paradox which frames especially the father’s gaze into a negative, sinister, aggressive.

Victor Brauner’s “Totem of Blessed Subjectivity” (1948)
V. Brauner, “Totem of Blessed Subjectivity”, 1948 (2)

Brauner interprets giving birth as a violent act of parental god-like “glory“. Father hurts the baby-womb – with his crown. But the mother, as if, hurts the baby’s primordial existence inside the womb – with the crown of her very being, while preparing for giving birth. The baby has the feeling that mother’s relation to him/her is more somatic than the father’s – she rips the womb with her very body. That’s how baby’s psyche (helped by the painter’s imagination) perceives birth regardless of using/not-using modern technology, especially if relationships with parents in later life are not completely benign in child’s perception. The father’s crown is his earthly weapon (his background in the painting is the earth), but the mother’s crown as belonging to her body is provided to her by the heaven (her background) with all the connotation of heavenly glory. Contrary to the human mythological tradition that makes man a creature of heaven and woman that of the earth, feelings of the child, according to Brauner, is rather that father’s power is earthy while mother’s – heavenly. The father’s power of masculinity is perceived by the child’s unconscious as the part of this world, while the primal pleasures connected with mother are so intense and at the same time so relaxing that they are perceived as the opposite of this world as the abode of reality principle which demands from babies and children the ability to postpone and dose satisfactions.

Fatherly power is completely of earthly nature – it is power of Cesar. The baby empirically knows that mother has two hands for holding and touching him/her, two hands like two breasts which she is generously squeezing for the sake of the child (as it is shown in the painting). One breast is that of her fertile “sainthood” (which she squeezes by her milky-gray hand echoing of the sleepy blue of the heavenly background) and the other is of a fleshy pink color. The former breast is impregnated with light – with milk of the iconic aspect of physical fertility of maternal breast, the holiness of the very function of motherhood, but the latter one is symbolizing the libidinous/sensual aspect of the feeding the earthly/heavenly baby. Although in real life the father also has two hands, like mother, Brauner here risks with a metaphorical generalization. He makes the father, as if, one-handed, not only because of his relative distance from the baby’s body in comparison with the mother, but because of the importance (for the child’s unconscious) of the psychologically archetypal motif that instead of two feeding and satisfying breasts the father has penis/phallus which he is “monstrously” holding in the painting like the mother her breasts. Brauner represents here hands-breasts and hand-penis/phallus as Deluzian machine-like aggregate.

Mother’s leafy green hair is, it seems, a humorous modification of the halo motif (the heavenly nature of woman demands earthly embellishments), and so is the humorously yellowish upper part of the father’s face/head keeping the aggressive crown. Mother’s mouth is full of belligerent teeth which are not for eating – it is to frighten, as an echo of her bodily cutting crown (this predatory mouth is a sign, it seems, of mother’s emotional withdrawal from her baby which he/she is afraid more than anything else – Brauner makes mother’s teeth grimace the opposite of her celebrated iconic smile). This mother’s grimace is rather otherworldly than predatory, but father’s mouth is as earthly as the green coloration of the lower part of his face and the dark background of his worldly conquering ambitions. His carnivorous grimace looks intimidating not without connection with how the eyes of two parents are depicted (mother’s pupil and iris are of the size of the whole eye, while father’s are smaller and that makes him, as if, more predatorily concentrated). While the mother’s legs are as pink as her earthly hand keeping her sensual breast – she being of heavenly nature, walks the earth, the father’s legs are of bright and optimistically “ideological” sky-like color – as if he is walking on the sky (he is earthly conqueror with a heavenly ambition). His gaze is purely predatory and menacing, while mother’s is frightened and thoughtfully sad. That’s how Brauner balances the psychological natures of heavenly and earthly elements of the mother and father’s supernatural powers in baby’s perception.

This nightmarish vision of the parental couple during coitus and in relation to the baby’s birth has the right to exist in art as frightening images in the unconscious of children and adults. “Blessed subjectivity” is Brauner’s ironic title for the newborn, the future subject of human life with its bliss and despairs. But why the painter chose to represent father and mother as a totemic animal with four legs? It is the very exact metaphor indirectly referring to psychological maturation of a child – the slow outgrowing of ambivalence the child feels towards his/her parents. Brauner suggests that the symbolic: the psychological killing of the totemic animal (the baby and child’s archaic phantasy of the parental couple in coitus which hurts the child by throwing him/her out of its mutual bliss through the birth) is a necessity for making a child to be able to discover the humanity of his parents who then deserve to be loved by their child. This archaic phantasy expressing defensive aggression of the child against the overwhelmingly powerful primordial parents stimulates his/her unconscious to “slaughter” the parental couple together with this phantasy and makes him/her able to perceive parents more realistically and positively.

This totemic animal – the father-king keeping the mother-queen standing on his feet and by this prohibiting her from confronting his earthly power (he relegates her to the realm of the obvious sacred – keeping her out of earth in the sacred area of primordial motherly functions of giving birth and nursling/nursing of the baby) – should, according to Brauner, be slaughtered if humankind wants to live in democracy and not in totalitarianism. For Brauner, the absence/lack of equality between man and woman (father and mother) in families with conservative sensibility condemns new generations to give themselves to archaic fears and phobias accumulated in their unconscious.

Because in Western tradition the reverential approach to the theme of parenthood dominates in the mythology of parent-child relationship, Brauner’s intuition finds a very resourceful stylistic solution to oppose the “natural” colors of the painting which reflect a positive – worshipping interpretation of the topic, and the content of the painting expressing itself through the frightening and alerting semantic and stylistic details. The pastel colors of the painting contradict its aggressive lines and shapes. This incompatibility between the “reliable” colors and aggressive forms refers to the incompatibility between (unconditional) worshipping parents and the unpleasant truth about the real relationships between parents and their children full of the examples of child abuse and neglect, and blind vengeful feelings on part of children (on top of archaic imagery dominating their unconscious).

Brauner’s “Totem of Blessed Subjectivity” depicts not the condition of the adults who were grown up from the abused and neglected children, but their unconscious position towards their parents. By this painting Brauner, as if, lends his talent to the unconscious of these people who are, to a various degree, all of us.

Victor Brauner’s “Totem of Blessed Subjectivity” (1948)
V. Brauner, “Totem of Blessed Subjectivity”, 1948 (3)