The Dead Mother Series of Egon Schiele: psychoanalytic use of an artist’s image

Prudence L. Gourguechon
(Winter 2009)

Paper presented at the Hektoen Institute of Medicine on Nov. 6, 2007
Revised for publication in Hektoen International, Vol. 2, Jan. 2009

 

Introduction

Two intensely creative men lived and worked in early 20th century Vienna, both intent on elucidating aspects of the darker side of the human psyche. There is no evidence that they knew each other. Sigmund Freud of course was developing the theory and technique of psychoanalysis. The painter Egon Schiele lived a mere 28 years before succumbing to influenza in the 1918 pandemic. In his short life and artistic career, he created a remarkable body of work that vividly communicates inchoate, nonverbal, profound psychic experiences.

As Freud invented and elaborated psychoanalysis, it was known as the “talking cure.” Freud’s clinical theory came out of the enlightenment idea that reason could replace superstition and prejudice. Freud’s own theory of cure evolved from the verbal and affective catharsis of trauma, to making the unconscious conscious, and finally allowing reason and thought to modulate unbridled passion. But all the while words remained the primary mode of communicating mental contents from one person to another.

Much of the work of the clinical psychoanalysts today focuses on words. “Say whatever comes to your mind” remains the “basic rule” of psychoanalysis. We find that by putting language and words to unarticulated experience, by creating a narrative, a patient will find greater freedom, creativity and ease. However, even in verbally skilled patients there are many experiences that are encoded before a child had words, and that even after we acquire language, register in our brains in nonverbal ways. Much of psychoanalytic theory since Freud’s time has been devoted to early development and the understanding and treatment of preverbal or nonverbal experience and pathology.

One of the most poetic modern psychoanalytic writers, Christopher Bollas, is particularly interested in what he calls the “wordless element of experience.” Bollas writes about the “unthought known”—that which we know but have not yet “thought.” Encounters with the “unthought known” occur in every day events, not just in the psychoanalyst’s consulting room.

I hope to demonstrate how my own encounter with Egon Schiele’s paintings provided a bridge to that “unthought known.” Schiele’s images allowed me to articulate certain aspects of the experience my patients “knew” but couldn’t think of or express. The artist’s images helped me begin a conversation in words about these early and otherwise inaccessible aspects of my patients’ lives. The images acted as a portal, and ultimately a language.

 

The Dead Mother Series

In 1908 Schiele painted Madonna and Child (Fig. 1) that foreshadows the first dead mother painting to come two years later.  While alive in structure and expression, the dark faced Madonna has blackened hands around her child’s head, almost grabbing his neck. She conveys an ominous, frightening, anti-maternal aura. In contrast, her plump light skinned child looks robust if not especially happy to be trapped in the lap of his eerie, death-giving mother.

In Dead Mother I, 1910, (Fig. 2), a baby is enclosed both by black shrouding and his mother’s boney, fleshless hand. The child is highly colored—one can almost imagine the red blood coursing under his skin. His eyes gleam with light. Around and on top of him is a pale, drawn, depressed looking, emaciated mother holding him tight with no joy. Her mouth drops slightly open, her eyes are lifeless and empty. Her lank hair adds a third layer of circular binding. The baby’s position and the shape of the black clothes are intrauterine. The baby is trapped in a tight space, encircled by deadness. There is no visible escape.

 

Figure 1 – Madonna & Child, 1908

Figure 1
Madonna & Child, 1908

Figure 2

Figure 2
Dead Mother I, 1910

 

Dead Mother II (Fig. 3), painted one year later in 1911, is also titled The Birth of Genius. We can only assume Schiele refers to himself, with his customary grandiosity. The mother looks more dead than in the previous painting, and the baby is full of anxiety, struggling to escape her death grip. The womb like space has exploded into an ominous birth canal. The baby’s expression is one of horror and desperation.

In Mother and Child (Fig. 4), painted in 1912, the baby’s terror appears unabated. Due to the use of color, the mother does not look totally “dead.” She appears to be gripping the baby too tightly, almost strangling him.

 

Figure 3
Figure 3
Dead Mother II (The Birth of Genius), 1911

Figure 4
Figure 4
Mother and Child, 1912

The Dead Mother theme last appeared in a 1915 painting, Mother with Two Children (Fig. 5). Her corpse-like face, gaunt and gray, indicates we are encountering the dead mother again. Her two children, dressed brightly, have vivid faces and healthy looking bodies. The blankets around them are now bright orange, not the black and charcoal of the earlier pictures. Also, the children are placed at arm’s length from the dead mother and one of them reaches towards her.

The physical distance between the children and their mother likely reflects Schiele’s psychological progress towards separating himself from the suffocating internal psychic presence he portrayed as the dead mother. The dress of the two children features the colorful geometric designs of the Viennese secessionist school, perhaps representing Art and its vital role as a force that allowed Schiele to attain autonomy and separateness.

Between 1908 and 1915 we see considerable evidence of psychological growth on Schiele’s part, “working through”, as psychoanalysts say, his dread of the dead mother, and increasing personal individuation.

Schiele painted a striking group portrait Family in 1918 (Fig. 6), the last year of his short life. Each of the three figures looks alive as evidenced by their posture, healthy appearance, robust musculature, and flesh tone. Still, there is little, if any, connection among them. Each gazes off in a separate direction, and there is no enfolding or holding. The earlier paintings suggest that Schiele experienced intimacy as murderous. So for him, psychological health represented by these definitively alive figures, requires considerable distinctness and remoteness from others.

In the Dead Mother series, Schiele seems to be grappling with two issues: 1) separation from an engulfing mother, depicted by progressive physical distance and autonomy; 2) the experience of having a mother who is giving death rather than nurturing.

 

Figure 5

Figure 5
Mother with Two Children, 1915

Figure 6

Figure 6
Family, 1918

 

The artist infects the analyst

Some time after I first saw Schiele’s paintings, the dead mother images began to pop up in my mind while I was doing clinical psychoanalytic work. Psychoanalysts are trained to pay very close attention to such mental phenomena—our associations, and especially any strangeness or novelty in our thoughts. We use the contents of our own associations as clues to understanding the often unverbalized and unspeakable mental lives of our patients.

So, I asked myself what was going on with my patients that the Schiele images might be illustrating. I first noticed that the images of Dead Mother I, (Fig. 2) would appear when I was working with patients whose mothers had had, in my estimation, severe borderline personality disorders. A severe borderline mother has difficulty maintaining consistent emotional experiences of others, regulating her own emotional states, and thinking clearly. She tends to have excessive amounts of rage and destructive impulses, directed towards the self and others and shifts from seeing someone as all good, to all bad. She makes extensive use of projection, ridding herself of intolerable feeling states by extruding them into the other.

A borderline mother unpredictably withdraws from her baby, lost in her own idiosyncratic logic, tumbling affects, pressured thinking, and paranoid ideas. Her child experiences grief, loneliness, rage and depression, and often guilt over assumed culpability for the mother’s retreat. At the same time that she is prone to sudden emotional disappearance and abhors separation, the borderline mother is usually very enmeshed with her baby, feeling greatly in love, but actually merging with the baby as “a possession.” I believe that Schiele’s pictures capture quite exquisitely the internal experience of having a borderline mother. The baby shows signs of depression, anxiety, as well as suffocation. The mother’s posture is loving, but she is devoid of affection.

Striking to me was the fact that these images specifically came to me when my patients were talking about experiences that gave me the idea that their mothers actually wanted them dead. Sometimes this would manifest itself as a mother’s absolute inability to see the child, my patient, as a person with her own identity, needs and life. But I would simultaneously get a whiff of something more malignant, more dire, and reach an emotional conclusion, rarely attributable to anything more than images and feelings in me that this particular mother, in this instance, really wanted the child, my patient, dead.

I will illustrate this point with some clinical vignettes. One patient always experienced her mother as claustrophobically loving, generally supportive if emotionally inept. Her mother idealized her and insisted she was beautiful, brilliant. These compliments paradoxically filled my patient with depression and dread. In a key dream, the patient created the image of the mother as a destructive tornado from which she must shrink to a featureless blob of putty like substance in order to survive. In another dream a witch-like creature chased her through a statuary garden with a strong intent to kill.

Another patient, a girl with learning disabilities, was working hard to improve her school performance as well as her poise and independence. The better she did, the more her mother would deride and attack her for being stupid, and mock her with a predicted future at Wendy’s.

A third patient struggled with the sequelae of a very traumatic childhood, trauma from which her mother failed to protect her. She was prone to episodes of depression, which she fought through valiantly. Once, during a particularly difficult period of depression, she went home to her mother, who decorated the house for a “depression party” insisting she was trying to cheer my patient up, and she should be a better sport about it.

Perhaps these don’t sound like truly murderous moments, but I believe they do reflect micro-murders of the psyche. In each relationship, the child is actively annihilated psychologically; her being is noted and then ground up.

This is the kind of maternal-child relationship I believe Schiele was depicting. But, Schiele portrayed a dead mother and a live child not a live mother and a murdered child. On its way to my unconscious mind, the image reversed to a dead or threatened child and murderous mother. This type of reversal is actually not a bothersome contradiction for a psychoanalyst, for we are accustomed to thinking of the mental representations of relationships, thoughts and images in the unconscious as very fluid. In the unconscious, the roles of murderer and murdered are interchangeable.

Here is another interesting version of the relationship problem. Sometimes, the borderline mother can only experience herself as alive with her baby—only her baby’s vitality makes her exist. If the baby moves away from her, attempts to engage in normal processes of separation and individuation, she would have no ability to maintain her aliveness. No wonder the mother becomes enraged and destructive when the baby desperately tries to separate in Dead Mother II (Fig. 3).

I noticed one interesting phenomenon with these patients. When I mentioned, often with some passion, that their mother seemed intent on their destruction, or devoted to murderously denying their existence, their response was flat and unemotional, and oddly non-reactive. The faces of the children in Dead Mother I (Fig. 2) and in Mother with two Children (Fig. 5) capture this odd psychic inertia.

These patients understandably have ambivalence about intimacy. They do not want to get too close to other people, with the image of their destructive or smothering dead mother lurking in the background. Schiele’s figures in his later paintings are robust, healthy and related to others, but they are at arm’s length. My patients too, although warmly capable of love, and often desperate for closeness, feel a need for occasional reassurance that they could always get away from others to regroup.

My patients, raised by severely borderline mothers, encountered and internalized strange forms of relatedness and unrelatedness. They experienced their very existence and reality as dubious, and separation and growth were treacherous threats to love and sustenance. Not infrequently, they have difficulty feeling alive. They were cared for by mothers who at times were really anti-mothers, with traits in direct opposition to those subsumed under the maternal ideal. In mythology and folklore, the anti-mother is the witch, the siren, or the child stealing demon. Schiele’s striking and disturbing dead mothers add another face to the folklore of the anti-mother, and deepen our understanding of the suffering of these individuals.

I would like to close the psychoanalytic interpretation of the Dead Mother series with an appreciation for Schiele’s ability to depict intrapsychic change and development from a state of devastating anxiety and enmeshment to healthy individuation. This is the kind of change analysts strive for with their patients. A look at the transformation of Schiele’s self, from the trapped baby enmeshed in death (Dead Mother I and II, Fig. 2, 3) to a robust and differentiated young man relating to others (Family, Fig. 5), is truly inspiring. If he had lived longer perhaps the figures in his next portrayal of the family would be able to dare to connect to each other at a deeper level.

 

Note

Because this journal addresses the relationship of art and medicine, I will take a brief side-trip about Schiele‘s art to share some of my unexpected medical speculations.

Egon Schiele was born to a middle class family in Austria in 1890, the third of four children. His father worked as a provincial railroad official who contracted syphilis around the time of his marriage in 1879, eventually succumbing to the disease in 1905 when Egon was 15.

Marie, Schiele’s mother, was only 17 at the time of her marriage to Adolph. She suffered one miscarriage or stillbirth in each of the three first years of their marriage. Finally, a live daughter, Elvira, was born in 1883, but died at age 10 of congenital syphilis. Melanie was born in 1886 and survived a normal life span. Egon was born in 1890 and lived until his death in 1918 during the influenza epidemic. Gertie, the youngest sibling, was born in 1894 and survived into old age.

Clearly, the mother must have been infected with syphilis by Adolf—though this is not mentioned in the Schiele biographical material—and her infection seems to have been especially virulent during the first 5 to 10 years of her marriage, resulting in three still births and the infection of Elvira. Cecil’s textbook of medicine tells us that pregnant women can transmit the disease to the fetus after many years in the latent phase, but especially during the first five years of the mother’s own infection. It says “untreated maternal infection may result in stillbirth, neonatal death, prematurity or syndromes of early or late congenital syphilis.”

Manifestations of brain involvement in late congenital syphilis include psychiatric symptoms such as grandiosity and psychosis, delusional elation, and lack of insight. Biographical material about Schiele’s adolescence depicts bizarre levels of grandiosity. For example, Jane Kallir recalls that when adolescent Egon would enter the room, he would say “make way for the Godhead. Here comes the divinity.”

Physical markers of congenital syphilis were precisely described in the 19th century medical literature and probably well known to the educated public. A number of these markers involve abnormal bone development, including prominent frontal bones in the forehead, a depression in the bridge of the nose (saddle nose), poor development of the maxilla (upper jaw), shins bowed outward (saber shins), widely spaced and notched upper central incisors, tapered like a screwdriver.

Schiele’s body of work contains innumerable self portraits.

 

Figure 7

Figure 7
Nude Self-Portrait, Grimacing, 1910

Figure 8

Figure 8
Standing Nude Boy, 1910

Figure 9

Figure 9
Egon Schiele standing before the mirror, 1916

 

In figure 7, the forehead, jaw and nose suggest the congenital syphilitic symptoms of prominent frontal bone, underdeveloped maxilla and “saddle nose.”

In figure 8, Schiele again paints a striking “saddle nose” deformity, as well as sharp delineation of the tibias and sternum, suggesting other boney stigmata of the disease.

This photograph of Schiele (Fig. 9) from 1916 shows a prominent forehead and depressed nose bridge. The photograph also depicts Schiele’s preoccupation with his body image, a theme that obviously pervades his paintings.

I believe that Schiele may have had congenital syphilis, perhaps accounting for the extravagance of the eroticism and grandiosity in his work. He may have thought of his mother as a giver of death rather than life. This raises the possibility that the Dead Mother series had an historical or biographical rather than psychological root. Obviously the two are not mutually exclusive. I do believe Schiele painted himself as if he had the stigmata of congenital syphilis whether or not he had the actual condition.

 


 

PRUDENCE L. GOURGUECHON, MD, practices psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and psychoanalytic consultation to businesses, nonprofits, and the legal profession in Chicago. She is the current president of the American Psychoanalytic Association.

 

Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2012 – Volume 4, Issue 4, and Winter 2009- Volume 1, Issue 2
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