If you’ve ever learned about psychology, you’ve probably heard about Sigmund Freud and his theory about the mind’s unconscious. The field of psychoanalytic psychology was popularized by Freud and quickly became a topic of fascination in the early 20th century among doctors and human service workers. Psychoanalysis spread to the general public, mostly relating to its component of dream analysis. While Freud began to explore other directions for his practice, students like psychologist Carl Jung continued to focus their study on the role of imagery and symbolism in human life.
Jung is primarily known for humanistic psychology, which was developed as an offshoot of his psychoanalytic beginnings. Humanistic psychology places special emphasis on the self and the importance of humans finding stability and fulfillment. Years of his humanistic practice led him to eventually develop a comprehensive “theory of aesthetics”. This theory builds on Freud’s dream analyses and draws upon how images in our lives take on unconscious meaning for our core needs.
"Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes." Carl Jung
In his last book before his death, Jung writes that “symbols serve as a link between the archetype and consciousness and in a like manner between the artist, the work, the audience and the unconscious.” Man and His Symbols points to how societies develop a collective consciousness about certain inherently meaningless forms which are passed down over time. For example, people in the civilized world see a young child and associate it with innocence, playfulness, and curiosity. However, individuals can further impart meaning onto symbols based on their own experience. This is the foundation of art appreciation. While a child is easily identified to most people, individuals may have more or less proclivity towards them due to differently balanced experiences with kids over their life.
Jung specifically separates symbols into natural and cultural. Natural symbols are encountered in individual persons’ dreams and fantasies, and date back to early human history. Cultural symbols are informed by society to express “eternal truths” and may disappear or emerge over time.
Many artists use “natural symbols” from dreams as the subject for their artworks. Dreams in particular can provide unique insight into a person’s unconscious that would otherwise be unrealized in waking consciousness. Jung points to dreams as a valuable source of intel for developing further insight, which can help individuals better direct their lives. Even nightmares can be a form of communication from your unconscious that an issue needs to see the light. Cultural symbols also hold roles in visual art to indicate the political or social context of the artwork, though typically are less the moral of the work.
Jungian symbolism can be a helpful lens to analyze a piece or art, or better portray the intended meaning of the work as the creator. It may be helpful as an artist to ask yourself, What are the symbols in my past artwork, and are they obvious to a viewer? How can I best balance my personal symbolism with broader cultural symbolism? What is my current balance of cultural and natural symbols, and why? What symbol can I choose to clearly communicate an abstract or intangible idea?
This past Spring, we learned about Jung’s work and incorporated dream symbols into our workshops! We dedicated a session to the illustration of “dreamscapes” via drawing and collage as well as another session for painting visions akin to how surrealist painters like Dali composed their works. Creating dreamscapes provides a unique opportunity to fully visualize and make tangible what is often intangible in our minds. Participants felt particularly captivated by these projects given their inherent closeness to their current and imagined selves.
For more information about Jungian symbolism and how to use it in the art-making process, you may want to read Man and His Symbols and/or The Red Book, available widely through online distributors and various secondhand book sellers.