There are long view shots that offer a sense of the larger studio space, up close views of the tools of the trade, studio vignettes that capture objects used in the paintings, and of course, a photo of Ula, the studio dog. I have put these together in a slide show.
A Studio Visit in the Country
Recently, Patrice Wynne, a good friend who lives in San Miguel de Allende and travels to New York, spent some time with us in Pine Plains. She took great photographs of my studio as we talked and caught up with life and each other.
There are long view shots that offer a sense of the larger studio space, up close views of the tools of the trade, studio vignettes that capture objects used in the paintings, and of course, a photo of Ula, the studio dog. I have put these together in a slide show.
It is hard to beat this: At the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, sitting with a friend in the third level cafe, looking out the windows and across Central Park to the San Remo building (1930). Nonetheless, it does get better. After eating a bit and talking a lot -- much to catch up, we set out to view two wonderful exhibitions: the grand Kandinsky retrospective, Around the Circle, and a introduction to the paintings of Etel Adnan, Light's New Measure.
Starting at the museum's top, we first made our way through the extraordinary number of works by Kandinsky that are on view. I am always charmed and intrigued. Here is his 1910 Landscape with Rolling Hills. What an invitation this is to all that comes next. Of course, you want to entire the landscape of this artist's colors, shapes, brushstrokes, rhythms.
The exhibit had many old favorites up for view, paintings that I have been trying to figure out for a very long time. Having learned something about the many places in which he painted, the historic events he contended with, and people with whom he worked, I have come to understand more about Kandinsky's pieces overtime, but I have still a long way to go. Here are some of those old favorites:
Small Pleasures, 1913
Composition 8, 1923
Several Circles, 1926
Dominant Curve, 1936
And here are some of my favorite surprises. They include early paintings and woodcuts.
Pond in the Park, 1906
Church, woodcut, 1907
Santa Francisca, on glass, 1911
I have been blessed as a painter by having wonderful spaces in which to work, both in the city and in the country. In the city from November to April, for more than the past ten years, I have painted in the studio created by the late Saul Lambert, internationally recognized illustrator and spiritually and physically powerful painter. In the country, from April to November, a painting studio grown out of a sturdy three car garage lifts my mood and inspires me to work every time I step into it. Having a good studio space is really really important. Here are just a few artists' quotations on their connections with their studios:
Bruce Nauman: "I was an artist and I was in the studio, so whatever I was doing in the studio must be art."
Delacroix, the more romantic, describes the studio as: "...the crucible where human genius at the apogee of its development brings back to question not only that which is, but creates anew a fantastic and conventional nature which our weak minds, impotent to harmonize it with existing things, adopt by preference, because the miserable work is our own."
And the more direct and slightly less intimidating words about his studio from a very old abstract expressionist painter: "Don't go in there. I have been making wild passionate love in there for fifty years. It is not pretty."
This year, because of the pandemic, there was not the usual seasonal transfer from country studio to city studio. For the first time since buying our country home in 1986, we decided not to return to the city and to spend the winter in Pine Plains. Because the country studio is not fully insulated and has a concrete floor that holds the cold, I needed another space, a heated space, in which to work.
A room above the metal working shop of the artist and artisan, Tim Jones, became the solution. Tim had been using the room only as a storage space. Once emptied, it became a room large enough for some painting. I brought in some lights and a lot of my painting stuff --- a working studio requires a lot of stuff. I began work there in November and just moved back into my own studio at the end of March. It was a good five months.
Let me tell you a little about each of these photos that I took before leaving Tim's space.
The space in which I worked is on the second floor of Stissing Design. Tim's working areas are to the left. On the first floor of this section is a display area for Tim's work that is now being transformed into an art gallery for the work of many local artists.
This is the entry to my painting space. At the top of the staircase to the second floor, I placed a 'Japanese corner" with calligraphy and local grasses.
Here is where the important stuff happens. I set up my easel to take advantage of the best light available in this space. I made use of the structures already there in the room like this shelf that became home for still life objects.
And these are the other work areas: the work table and the desk, both at a distance and up close, where I did research and took notes on the work.
The next photo shows some of the paintings that happened in this space. They are in a tower that Tim made for the display of paintings, while planning his gallery downstairs.
The studio's textiles. Here are the cloths I use in still life paintings and my much loved French farmer's smock. How could I paint without it?
The view out my only window. In the background, the trees for which Pine Plains is famous. Closer are the compartments of a storage faculty; and in the foreground, some of Tim's sculptures.
Last, but certainly, not least, are the guardians of the studio space. The first is a five foot tall charcoal and chalk drawing that I did of an African ritual object that I have had with me in studios and offices for many many years. We close with Ula who watches over all of my moves in the studio, insuring I always work from my heart as well as mind.
A New Yorker writer once described Tommy Tune, the tall song and dance man famous for his showmanship and big, fancy productions on Broadway, as "never having met a costume he didn't like." I feel that way about myself: I never met a cup I didn't like and didn't want to paint.
Pottery has been especially important to me these days, during the pandemic. We spend so much time at home. The objects we have at hand have a solemnity and prominence we didn't always give them when we rushed from home to the outside world. Now, we can savor and linger over that morning coffee and make a slow ritual of tea in the afternoon. Given how much I had come to appreciate these moments with cup in hand over the last several months, it seemed right to bring them into the painting studio and do their portraits.
This white French porcelain cafe au lait cup is my favorite way of drinking a latte in the morning. There is something wonderful about having to hold both sides of the bowl, with fingers around the lions' heads and face deep in the bowl. We have collected these bowls at local estate sales and at distant flea markets in our travels. All of our bowls have been preowned and preloved.
This object provokes so many memories. I will always remember the first time a waiter in a simple French cafe poured hot strong coffee from a pitcher in one hand while pouring hot milk from a smaller pitcher in his other hand; for me, into a bowl like this. Coffee never tasted so good. With a marvelous baquette and un oeuf sur le plat, I thought I had gone to heaven.
In the painting, my latte bowl sits on a favorite piece of antique French cloth.
There are some mornings when it feels just right to hold both a cup and a saucer. We found this mid-century cup in an antique store in Northeast Harbor, Maine. At first site, I loved the cup, its color and shape; but that it came from Maine -- a spot very close to my heart -- made it really special. The object was made by a potter in Blue Hill, Maine.
In the painting, the cup and saucer sit on a favorite tablecloth for picnics. The cloth brings a relaxed country mood to the modern object.
Talk about modern design. This is one of two mugs I brought back from a visit to the Heath Ceramics store in Sausalito, California. Health Ceramics was founded in 1948 by the ceramic artist and studio potter, Edith Heath. Although this particular mug was created after the business was taken over by others, it has all of the handcrafted beauty, functionality, and timeless style for which the company has always been known. I like to drink strong black tea in this mug, with just a touch of milk.
No special cloth here. The mug sits on a simple linen napkin, also purchased at Heath. As I set up the still life/portrait, the mug called for a very simple, minimalist background.
My Zen cup. This is one of a pair of cups purchased at a marvelous pottery in the Berkshires, known for its famous kiln and for the formal tea ceremonies it hosted. I am always enchanted by the glaze on these cups. The blue is startling, but so are the many greys. This is an especially good cup for Japanese tea and any other green tea.
No cloth at all here. The cup sits on a wooden cutting board. While working on this painting, I was also experimenting with an ochre background. I just couldn't resist the combination of yellow and blue.
This solidly crafted mug with its unusual handle was purchased at the Bennington Pottery in Bennington, Vermont. It is good for an afternoon latte, when I let myself do that, and for soups. It sits on a favorite piece of estate sale velour fabric in a strange greenish tone. The painting came to be about playing with different versions of white.
By the time I got to this cup, my still life objects had begun a revolt. They organized to tell me that they had had enough of being painted all alone, without any company. "Isn't it bad enough that so many people are feeling so alone in these pandemic days," they asked me, "why do we need to be alone, why can't we have company in your paintings of us." The Vermont cup had a particularly strong and grumpy way of putting this point, so I agreed to add a clear bottle to the set up. Early in the painting, I realized that the bottle had brought along its own friend, its shadow. Now we were three in the painting.
Music in the Painting Studio
Early in my art training as an adult, I learned an important lesson about listening to music while working. The lesson was provoked by a young woman in the class who was always plugged into some sort of music-playing device. She liked her music loud, so even though she wore headphones, we all got to "enjoy" what she was listening to. Bearing this for a while but reaching his limit by the third class, the teacher told her to unplug. He told us all that we should draw and paint only to our own internal music. Listening to others' music was a dangerous distraction, he said. Radios, tape players, walkmen, etc. were from that day on banned from the class.
Then and now, I understand what that teacher was getting at. There is music inside my heart and soul that is an invaluable guide to the work. It shouldn't be blocked by an external source of music. Nonetheless, I have found it helpful at particular times in the painting studio to have others' music available for listening. I like to start off a work session with some favorite music, and then, within minutes, I no longer hear what my iPhone is playing. Once the painting gets going, I go off somewhere where there is only that internal music. When I stop painting to take a break or call it a day, I return to ordinary consciousness and what my iPhone is playing.
What I want to write about is the music I choose to play in this listening/no listening way. Below are some of the composers, artists, and radio stations on Pandora from which I am selecting my daily fare, these days. Without an upgrade, I unfortunately cannot share audio files. I am forced to resort here to You Tube clips. I hope you can hear snippets from them without being bombarded by too many ads.
Best is to start off every day of painting with Johann Sebastian Bach. The composer's combination of order and surprise is always inspiring and launches me quickly into the deep parts of the work.
By the middle of the morning session, I am taking a break and needing to hear a little piano music, usually something composed by Chopin and played by Maurizio Pollini or Jeremy Denk. The break involves sitting or standing and just looking at what I have been painting -- I look at it straight on, I turn it upside down or on its side, I bring it to the natural light by the window, I look at it reversed in a mirror. The beauty of Chopin guides me into this reviewing process but then, before I know it, I don't hear Chopin anymore, brush is back in hand, and I am painting again.
By mid-afternoon, I am ready for some jazz. That could be something like Pandora's Dinner Jazz station, selections from Paul Desmond, Bill Evans, or Django Reinhardt. These days, the wonderful guitarist, Roni Ben-Hur is just what I need as I move into my final painting session of the day. The careful attention and sensitivity that Roni shows in his guitar playing is exactly what I want to bring to my painting before leaving it for the evening.
It is getting dark outside. It is hard to put down the brushes and usually takes at least four attempts. Finally, I stop. Now, this is when the music really rocks in the studio. The music is for listening and even dancing. It is not going to usher me back into the work. All is has to do is keep me company as I clean my brushes, scrape my palette, and do a general tidying up. As the sun starts to set, French popular music like Yves Montand, Latin-inspired cocktail music like Pink Martini or Tito Paris, wonderful rock and roll from Nick Lowe or Lou Reed help me call it a day.
Sending Out Poems: The Backstory
One day before the COVID pandemic struck and shut down New York City, we arrived in Mexico, in San Miguel de Allende, for what was to have been our annual month long stay. Given growing health risks in New York, the seemingly lower risk in Mexico, and the generosity of friends, we decided to extend our time. We were in Mexico until early June, nearly two months longer than planned.
As a way of keeping in contact with friends and family while we were away from home, within our first week, I began sending out daily poems to people through email. The launch was set by a group email from my friend, Michelle Fine, who wrote to current and former friends and family of the CUNY Graduate Center to check in on how we all were doing. I responded to her and her full list with a poem. Since then, the list of "Poetry Friends" has grown and nearly 350 poems and wise words have been delivered. The poetry posting has become an important part of my morning ritual, a very rewarding way of being in contact with others during this very difficult time we are all struggling to get through.
From time to time, I plan to post on this blog selections from the daily emails (I promise, not too many), as a way of keeping a record. Today, I share some very favorite early poems from Mexico.
The darkness lifts, imagine, in your lifetime.
There you are - cased in clean bark you drift
through weaving rushes, fields flooded with cotton.
You are free. The river films with lilies,
shrubs appear, shoots thicken into palm. And now
all fear gives way: the light
looks after you, you feel the waves' goodwill
as arms widen over the water; Love
the key is turned. Extend yourself -
it is the Nile, the sun is shining,
everywhere you turn is luck.
– Louise Glück
In the Morning, Before Anything Bad Happens
The sky is open
all the way.
Workers upright on the line
I know there is a river somewhere,
lit, fragrant, golden mist, all that,
whose irrepressible birds
can’t believe their luck this morning
and every morning.
I let them riot
in my mind a few minutes more
before the news comes.
– Molly Brodak (1980-2020)
In a world of grief and pain,
Goodbye to Tolerance
Genial poets, pink-faced
you have given the world
some choice morsels,
gobbets of language presented
as one presents T-bone steak
and Cherries Jubilee.
I don’t care
if I never taste your fine food again,
neutral fellows, seers of every side.
Tolerance, what crimes
are committed in your name.
And you, good women, bakers of nicest bread,
blood donors. Your crumbs
choke me, I would not want
a drop of your blood in me, it is pumped
by weak hearts, perfect pulses that never
to nightmare reality.
It is my brothers, my sisters,
whose blood spurts out and stops
because you choose to believe it is not your business.
shut their little mouths,
your loaves grow moldy,
a gulf has split
the ground between us,
and you won’t wave, you’re looking
We shan’t meet again--
unless you leap it, leaving
behind you the cherished
worms of your dispassion,
your pallid ironies,
your jovial, murderous,
wry-humored balanced judgment,
leap over, un-
balanced? ... then
how our fanatic tears
would flow and mingle
for joy ...
What Issa Heard
Two hundred years ago Issa heard the morning birds
singing sutras to this suffering world.
I heard them too, this morning, which must mean,
since we will always have a suffering world,
we must also always have a song.
The World Has Need of You
seems to need us
—Rainer Maria Rilke
I can hardly imagine it
as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient
prayer of my arms swinging
in counterpoint to my feet.
Here I am, suspended
between the sidewalk and twilight,
the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.
What if you felt the invisible
tug between you and everything?
A boy on a bicycle rides by,
his white shirt open, flaring
behind him like wings.
It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much
and too little. Does the breeze need us?
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple.
– Ellen Bass
Winter: A Very Evocative Season
Along with paintings and photographs, there are many beautiful poems about Winter. Among them are some that go straight to the heart and soul. They bring back wonderful memories and evoke strong yearnings. A few of these are posted here.
By Gail Mazur
In the warming house, children lace their skates,
bending, choked, over their thick jackets.
A Franklin stove keeps the place so cozy
it’s hard to imagine why anyone would leave,
clumping across the frozen beach to the river.
December’s always the same at Ware’s Cove,
the first sheer ice, black, then white
and deep until the city sends trucks of men
with wooden barriers to put up the boys’
hockey rink. An hour of skating after school,
of trying wobbly figure-8’s, an hour
of distances moved backwards without falling,
then—twilight, the warming house steamy
with girls pulling on boots, their chafed legs
aching. Outside, the hockey players keep
playing, slamming the round black puck
until it’s dark, until supper. At night,
a shy girl comes to the cove with her father.
Although there isn’t music, they glide
arm in arm onto the blurred surface together,
braced like dancers. She thinks she’ll never
be so happy, for who else will find her graceful,
find her perfect, skate with her
in circles outside the emptied rink forever?
February Evening in New York
by Denise Levertov
As the stores close, a winter light
opens air to iris blue,
glint of frost through the smoke
grains of mica, salt of the sidewalk.
As the buildings close, released autonomous
feet pattern the streets
in hurry and stroll; balloon heads
drift and dive above them; the bodies
aren't really there.
As the lights brighten, as the sky darkens,
a woman with crooked heels says to another woman
while they step along at a fair pace,
"You know, I'm telling you, what I love best
is life. I love life! Even if I ever get
to be old and wheezy—or limp! You know?
Limping along?—I'd still ... " Out of hearing.
To the multiple disordered tones
of gears changing, a dance
to the compass points, out, four-way river.
Prospect of sky
wedged into avenues, left at the ends of streets,
west sky, east sky: more life tonight! A range
of open time at winter's outskirts.
Dusk in Winter
by W.S. Merwin
The sun sets in the cold without friends
Without reproaches after all it has done for us
It goes down believing in nothing
When it has gone I hear the stream running after it
It has brought its flute it is a long way
Poetry on a Snow Day
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
By Billy Collins
Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows
the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.
In a while, I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,
and I will shake a laden branch
sending a cold shower down on us both.
But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news
that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed.
the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with—some will be delighted to hear--
the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.
So this is where the children hide all day,
These are the nests where they letter and draw,
where they put on their bright miniature jackets,
all darting and climbing and sliding,
all but the few girls whispering by the fence.
And now I am listening hard
in the grandiose silence of the snow,
trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,
what riot is afoot,
which small queen is about to be brought down.
by William Carlos Williams
All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
As I described in the prior blog post, I am on the lookout for art that will supplement the little photographic evidence we have about Sabina Spielrein. Felix Vallotton (1865-1925), printmaker and painter, is the artist most helpful to me so far in my search for art that expresses Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942) — art that represents something of her way of being in the world. They are contemporaries. While Vallotton makes his art in France, all the following happens for Sabina: She journeys from a troubled childhood in Russia, undergoes treatment for psychiatric symptoms in Switzerland; and, most importantly, establishes an impressive career in psychiatry and psychoanalysis as a scholar and therapist in Zurich, Vienna, Berlin, Geneva, and Moscow. The year of Vallotton’s death coincides with Sabina’s return to Rostov, the Russian city of her birth.
The scene Vallotton gives us in his 1897 woodblock print, Money , from the series he titled, Intimacies, is full of ambiguity. What is going on here and what does it have to do Sabina?
The print invites the viewer to fill in her own explanation of the scene. For me, the woman at the left edge of the print is Sabina. She stands at an open window at the Burgholzli hospital where she was admitted just a few months earlier in a highly anxious state. She is calm now and looks to the light outside. She is perhaps a little apprehensive, but mostly, she is optimistic. She sees a world outside that will provide opportunities to put to good use the brilliance she is sure she possesses. She sees possibilities to actualize the special calling she knows she is destined for.
At the same time that she looks into the light, Sabina looks away from the large mass of darkness to her left (our right). That darkness contains memories of her troubled childhood, including abuse by her father whose love she sought. The darkness also holds those negative ideas and feelings she has long carried about terrible things yet to happen in her life. The window seems a way out of the darkness, yet the darkness encroaches her space.
At the leading edge of the black mass that takes over most of the print is a man. For me, that man is Carl Jung. He engages Sabina in a conversation. Part of that talk may be helpful to her. He stands with Sabina at the window, he may be encouraging her to engage with life and work outside the clinic. Nonetheless, he is an ominous figure. As I look at him, taking over a little too much of Sabina’s space, I cannot help but think of the harm and injustice in his close sensual relationship with Sabina. That happened when she was his young vulnerable patient and he was her older married physician. Sabina writes that she both loved and hated Jung. In her diary and letters, she records many ways he rejected her and sought to limit her possibilities. He is indeed part of the darkness she seeks to escape.
In the second 1897 print, The Symphony, Vallotton shows us a young woman who sits and performs at a grand piano. Half of the print is taken up with her serious playing. At the left are a group of men who look at her and listen. It is an updated Susanna and the Elders image: Older men observe and leer at a beautiful young woman.
For me, the young woman is again Sabina. Although she was a skilled pianist and had a life-long love of music, she was not a concert pianist. Sabina did, however, perform and deliver papers at important psychoanalytic meetings. Just replace the piano with a meeting table or a conference podium. She was often the only or one of the very few women present. For me, the men in the print represent members of Freud’s psychoanalytic circle and other analysts, The men may have asked her to perform/give the lecture, but their response seems mixed. The motley assortment of faces expresses attentive interest but also boredom and anger. At the top of the heap is a man who pulls at his beard with eyes closed (how can one not see Freud in this figure?). The apparent leader is silent. That is as it should be as she plays, but I want him to speak when she finishes. I want him to praise her and to encourage his colleagues to recognize her contributions.
We know that Freud invited Sabina to give a paper to the Vienna psychoanalytic circle early in her career. That was probably one of her first major presentation to the group of specialists, essentially all men. Most of those present were critical of her work, finding it difficult to integrate her unique theories and accept that a “little girl” could make serious contributions. Freud was too distracted to bring some sense and order to their responses. He saw the brilliance in her
paper but was too distracted by fears that her ideas might not support his own to give her the appreciation she was due.
The Vienna episode was one of many times that Sabina’s distinctive ideas and hard work to advance psychoanalysis as a science were dismissed and overlooked by others.
The third Vallotton piece is a 1909 painting titled Box Seats at the Theater: The Gentleman and the Lady. It shares many of the themes offered by the first two works — the ominous man (is he Sabina’ s father? Is he Jung?), the young woman looking out into a lighted area, the darkness that looms behind the woman.
There are new ideas here too. Sabina seems trapped here. What should be simply the edge of the box seats over which she looks to see the theater action below appears as a thick wall that pens her in. The man is more her keeper than her play going companion. Sabina here seems on the wrong and worrisome side of things.
And there is the color in the painting. When I read what Sabina wrote and what others have written about her, I see her world in black and white, maybe occasionally some grey and brown, but mostly black and white. So, how is it that this colorful painting speaks to me of her? I think it is because that yellow is a pretty scary color. That color says that, in this world, something is dreadfully wrong or about to be dreadfully wrong. The color reflects the fear and worry in Sabina’s face and the premonitions she carried in her head and heart.
Also a contemporary of Sabina’s was the German painter, printmaker, and sculptor, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938). This is his 1911 painting, Russian Dancer Mela.
What does this image allow me to write about Sabina? It is highly doubtful that Sabina ever danced in this way or that she ever wore anything like this costume. Nonetheless, there is something about the aloneness of this figure that I connect with the way Sabina was in all of the settings of her life. She is out there, on the stage, all by herself. Also, there is a drive and determination in this woman’s presentation that I think Sabina had. She is out there, on the stage, working very, very hard. And she looks right at us as she does her work. As I wrote in the prior blog about images of Sabina, we seem to have only two images of her as an adult. The two are fuzzy but in both, we see her looking directly at us. In the look, she seems to be saying that important line that she wrote about herself: “I too was once a human being. My name was Sabina Spielrein.” Not only does she look at us directly, she looked at hard work, loss, disappointment, and death directly.
The final artist who helped me imagine Sabina more fully than the available photographs was a surprise. At an exhibit of a contemporary Japanese artist that I went to simply to learn more about how current artists use traditional Japanese painting techniques, I was stopped in my tracks by this very large painting done in 2011.
The artist, Eri Iwasaki, calls this Rain Clouds. A woman holds her head above the weather. Sabina is the central figure. She holds her head above all of the interpersonal, professional, societal, cultural, and political “rains” that fall around her. At their most extreme, those rains include the Nazis who in 1942 massacred the Jews of Rostov-on-Don in Russia. Sabina and her two daughters were among the at least 13,000 Jews shot and thrown into mass graves on that one day. The darkness in her life is not simply to her right, to her left, behind her, and below her. It falls down upon her.
In this image, Sabina does not look directly out at us. She looks to her left, over and beyond us. Maybe there, she sees possibilities and opportunities. We need follow her sight line and the work that she left behind to discover what hope she might have seen.
Iwasaki says about this piece: “We all change constantly in response to the environment where we find ourselves...swayed by the state of our mind and heart. Depending on the nature of that heart, our meager existence can inspire great hope.” I think Sabina Spielrein had one of those hearts.
Art Fills Photography’s Gaps: What To Do When There are No Photos of Sabina Spielrein
We live with photographs always at hand. All our media sources are filled with peoples’ pictures, friends and family are constantly sending us pictures of themselves, we have selfies; and, of course, there are Facebook and Instagram images showing us how so many of us look, in so many places, at so many times. It is distressing now when we can’t find an image of another person.
This is a blog about a woman with an exceptionally sparse photographic record and a story of how I tried to make up for that lack by creating an image of her through the art of her time and my own. First, I will write something about who the woman was and then I will share images of paintings and prints that I think show us something about her. The artists who helped me fill out the picture are Felix Vallotton, Ernst Kirchner, and Eri Iwasaki.
Sabina Spielrein was an early psychoanalyst. She worked in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Russia from the early part of the 20th century until her death in 1942 in the Nazis’ massacre of Jews in the Russian town of Rostov. She made pioneering contributions to child analysis and development; and the understanding of critical ideas such as the relevance of evolutionary theory to psychology, and the link between the death instinct and the sex instinct. She was an extensively published scholar, a teacher and lecturer, and a clinician and analyst. She was a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and the analytic associations in Switzerland and Russia. She had important ties with key figures in the field, including Freud, Bleuler, Piaget, and Vygotsky. Still a teenager, she was briefly a patient at the Burgholzli Clinic where she was treated by Carl Jung. She quickly went on to become Jung’s research assistant and student, collaborator, and close friend.
In spite of the breadth of her connections and key role in the creation of a scholarly respectable psychoanalysis, Sabina Spielrein and her work were virtually forgotten from the time of her death until the late 1970s. All the scholarly and clinical work she had done appeared to have been erased. Thankfully, that changed in the late 70s with the discovery in Geneva of her personal papers including a diary and letters. Since then, scholars have begun paying attention to her work and writing seriously about it. The popular media has also taken notice. Unfortunately, too much popular attention has put the spotlight on her relationship with Carl Jung and questions about the whether theirs was a sexual connection and the extent to which it set up a triangle involving Sabina, Jung, and Freud. Her work, again, appears to be at risk of being overlooked.
In wanting to know more about Sabina and how she moved through her very complicated times and places, I wanted to know what she looked like. Unfortunately, I could find only two photographs of Sabina as an adult. Both were very fuzzy images, one from her identity papers (1931) and the other, a group shot of the men and women staff of the Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1921).
That is it. One cannot explain the gap with the claim that there were not so many photographs then. There are certainly many photographs of Freud and Jung and their male and female associates. In fact, two other prominent women in these circles, Lou Andreas-Salome and Toni Wolff, are frequently and stunningly captured by the camera. Take care: If you google for an image of Sabina, you are likely to get Lou and Toni.
Art images on the way. Please revisit this blog.