Lacan, l’exposition. Quand l’art rencontre la psychanalyse

Pierre Bismuth

Pierre Bismuth, En suivant la main gauche de Jacques Lacan – L’âme et l’inconscient / Following the left hand of Jacques Lacan –The soul and the unconscious, 2012, video, black and white, sound, 4 minutes 59 seconds (film still). Courtesy the artist and Jan Mot, Brussels. In an echo of Picasso’s “light drawings” with Gjon Mili, the movements of Lacan’s hand are transcribed in real time as a series of brush strokes, leaving a mass of lines on the screen.

This article introduces the landmark Lacan exhibition now showing at the Pompidou-Metz. Curated by Marie-Laure Bernadec and Bernard Marcadé, and supported by psychoanalysts Paz Corona and Gérard Wajcman. The exhibition stages an encounter between art, on the one hand, and “Lacan”, in the personal, textual and conceptual sense, on the other. The article describes some of what is in the exhibition including some of the theoretical context elaborated in writing associated with the exhibition, and what might go missing. The article also explores some dangers that attend an exhibition that aims to function as homage to Lacan – dangers the curators navigate with verve.

The Centre Pompidou-Metz hosts “Lacan, l’exposition. Quand l’art rencontre la psychanalyse”, an exhibition that lays claim to be the first to put on show an encounter between art and Jacques Lacan, the singular figure whose rereading of Freud changed the face of contemporary psychoanalysis and opened pathways of theoretical enquiry the effects of which have been felt directly in the field of art. It is curated by art historians, Marie-Laure Bernadec and Bernard Marcadé, with the support of psychoanalysts Paz Corona and Gérard Wajcman.

The reference in the title to “encounter” [“rencontre”] (translated as “meets” in the English version of the exhibition guide), indicates what is at stake in this exhibition, which, says curator Marcadé in his essay for the exhibition catalogue, can be read in terms of three “gaze regimes” [“régimes de regard”]: the encounter implied by Lacan’s regard for specific works of art, by the regard given by specific artists and works to Lacan’s thought, as well as the encounter implied by works where is no direct reference to Lacan in the work, nor to the work in Lacan, but where some real relation may nonetheless be supposed (Marcadé, 2024, p. 18). What emerges is a complex tapestry of connections that puts “Lacan” on show, in the personal, textual and conceptual sense, his relation to the work of art as established in each of the contexts these different senses imply, and woven together by those with a virtuosic grasp of the details of Lacan’s life and work, as well as the art to which he responded and which responded to him.

The exhibition is structured with the figure of Lacan himself in the foreground. Opposite the entrance plays a large projection of the appearance Lacan made on French television for Benoit Jacquôt’s, Un Certain Regard, contextualised by artefacts from Lacan’s life – books, correspondence with other intellectual figures – as well as an abbreviated history from his birth in Paris in 1901 to the foundation after his death of L’Association Mondiale de Psychanalyse by his son-in-law, Jacques Alain Miller in 1992. In the adjacent spaces is work from Lacan’s personal collection – most famously Courbet’s L’Origine du monde, for which Lacan’s friend, the artist Andre Masson painted a screen (also on display) designed to conceal the painting “when required”, as well as work to which Lacan referred directly in his seminars and writings – much, for instance, is made of Lacan’s commentary on Vélasquez’s Ménines, which is linked in the exhibition to Lacan’s notion of the gaze and object a. From there, the exhibition is oriented with respect to key concepts in Lacan’s work, with particular emphasis, says Marcadé (2024, p.18), on what in Lacan’s work relates essentially to his relationship to art – object a, the name of the father, lalangue, the mirror stage, topology, jouissance, the non-existence of the sexual relation, masquerade, woman, anatomy is not destiny – and with a particular focus on art that is modern and contemporary. A room is also dedicated to “curiosa”, in which is included work of interest that did not easily find a place elsewhere, and at something like the centre sits El Consultario del Psicoanalista, Leandro Erlich’s installation of a recreated psychoanalytic consulting room.

The priority given to what in Lacan’s work pertains essentially to his relationship to art is one way to make sense of the absence in the exhibition of those concepts Lacan himself – at least, at one point in his work – considered fundamental to psychoanalysis – the unconscious, repetition, drive and transference.[1] With regards to the last of these – the question of transference – this does perhaps impose itself with particular urgency in an exhibition in which a figure as charismatic and seductive as Lacan is given such prominence. From this perspective, striking was work that seemed to deal directly with a relation to the figure of Lacan himself, such as Pierre Bismuth’s En suivant la main gauche de Jacques Lacan – L’âme et l’inconscient, or Sharon Kivland’s subtly subversive Envoi V, in which Kivland presents extracts from Lacan’s seminars as artefacts of an erotic affair, addressed to her by Lacan in the form of postcards from Munich.

However, in his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Wajcman hints at another reason for the absence of at least the first of these “fundamental concepts”. For Lacan, says Wajcman, unlike for Freud, or the post-Freudians, art is no longer to be considered a “formation of the unconscious” – art objects are not to be considered, in other words, manifestations coming from the psychic depths, in the form of dreams, symptoms or fantasies (Wajcman, 2024, p. 27-28). Rather, for Lacan, the work of art is on the side of object, as “object-cause of desire”. This has consequences at the level of interpretation, for if the art object is now to be considered an object in the particular sense given it by Lacan, this implies, says Wajcman, that the work of art is no longer an object to be interpreted – it is, he says, an object that is strictly uninterpretable. It is, instead, an interpreting object, much like the figure of the analyst, with which the art-object, as object in Lacan’s sense, shares a structural position in the discourse Lacan called the “analyst’s discourse”.

What is also largely absent from the exhibition, however, is an attention to the points in Lacan’s work where he is most interested in the signifier and signifying relations – for instance, the influential discussion of signifying relations that appears in his seminar on psychosis, or the historically proximate work on the “letter”. One reason for this absence may be that Lacan’s references in, for instance, Seminar III on psychosis tend towards literature – say, Racine’s Athaliah, in Lacan’s discussion of the point de capiton – rather than the visual arts, correlative, perhaps, to the focus on letter, such that an attention to these features necessarily falls outside the scope implied by the priority given in the exhibition to the visual. However, it is also likely that this absence reflects the priority given to the “real” (and its correlative lalangue) in a particular way of periodising Lacan’s work, in which an early attention to the image – the “imaginary” – is superseded by a middle period focussed on the “symbolic” – the dimension of the signifier and language – and finally by a later period emphasizing the “real” – the period in which the object and jouissance are given prominence – with the assumption, perhaps, that each period is a progressive improvement on what came before. Leaving aside the sense in which such periodisations are necessarily limitingthey might, in certain senses, perhaps, be delimitations – it is also likely the case that the marginalisation of the “middle period”, in which Lacan is focussed on symbolic relations, has the effect of rendering invisible those works of art – some of which may be visible on the floor just below, in the concurrent exhibition on “Repetition” – with a relationship to Lacan’s work that is no less real, but very different to the relations on show in this exhibition.

The curators are also keenly aware of a number of dangers that attend a project that aims to function as what Wajcman (2024) calls an “homage” to the figure of Lacan (p.27). First, there is the danger that this homage becomes a monument, with all of the effects that Wajcman suggests accompany monumentalisation, primary among them repression, insofar as the monument functions as something that remembers on our behalf – it remembers, in other words, so that we can forget (p.24). If the exhibition is to be a monument, it must be, says Wajcman, a “living monument [my translation]” (p.24)[2] – an allusion, perhaps, to the anti-monumentalising monuments of the artist, Jochen Gerz, about which Wajcman has written so elegantly elsewhere (Wajcman, 2001) – that exposes Lacan “in all the intensity of a work in movement [my translation]” (Wajcman, 2024, p.23).[3] These concerns are perhaps particularly acute for an exhibition that, in order to establish some elementary coordinates in the field, might be thought to require a not-inconsiderable weight of explanation, even definition, potentially at odds with the dedication to a thought in motion. Second, especially for a project in which Lacan – and theory – does, in a sense, “come first”, there is the danger that the work of art is reduced to the status of illustration – at worst, a series of footnotes to Lacan – rather than “an inspiring and provocative source [my translation]” (Marcadé, 2024, p.18).[4] In the relation between art and psychoanalysis, Wajcman and Marcadé both suggest, art is to have precedence, such that we can imagine a new order inverse to the one implied by “applied psychoanalysis”, with its movement from psychoanalysis to art, the new order implied by an art applied to psychoanalysis, where the question is now on what point of analytical theory the work of art can shed light, rather than how psychoanalysis can interpret, and perhaps explain art (Wajcman, 2024, p.29). In this sense, with respect to the display of Lacan’s relation to Vélasquez’s Ménine, the aim might be to show the extent to which the development of Lacan’s notion of the object emerges from his analysis of this painting, rather than the painting simply functioning as confirmation or support for a theory already constituted.

In fact, perhaps what the focus on “Lacan” allows us to perceive is the profound entanglement of art and theory at levels that are personal and conceptual, such that the relation between one and the other appears at times as parallel – two fields with fundamental concerns in common, each developing the other by other means – and at other times, as directly generative, such that art, on the one hand, appears “infected” by theory, put on a theoretical course that might have been otherwise, and, on the other, perhaps like the Lacan seen gesticulating wildly in front of Caravaggio’s Narcissus, theory appears as a struggle to attain the status of art, what Wajcman (2024) refers to as its privileged position as pure thought (p. 29).

In any case, the curators navigate these dangers with real verve; this is, without question, a landmark exhibition in the field of the relations between psychoanalysis and art. It boasts the participation and support of some of the liveliest and most original minds in contemporary Lacanian thought, and it shows. In particular, the participation of Gérard Wajcman, a thinker with a serious engagement with both art and psychoanalysis, is a real coup. And if the exhibition succeeds in its aim to put on show the vividness of Lacan’s thought for our time and for the art contemporary to it, one hopes it also inspires a return to the multivalent signifiers of Lacan’s original and creative speech and writing, as well as a bodily encounter with the art that inspired them, finding there new coordinates and lines of enquiry, new directions in the field of relations that exist between the work of art and the work of psychoanalysis.

Bibliography:

Jacquôt, B. & Miller, J. A . (Writers), & Jacquôt, B. (Director). (1974, March 9 & 16). Jacques Lacan: psychanalyse [TV series episodes]. In Jacquôt, B. (Director), Un Certain Regard. Office national de radiodiffusion télévision française.

Lacan, J. (1993). The Psychoses (R. Grigg, Trans.) Routledge. (Original work published in 1981)

Lacan, J. (2006). Écrits: A Selection (A. Sheridan, Trans.) Routledge. (Original work published in 1977)

Lacan, J. (2007). The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (R. Grigg, Trans.) W.W. Norton and Company. (Original work published in 1991)

Marcadé, B. (2024). “De l’art nous avons à prendre de la graine”. In Lacan l’exposition: quand l’art rencontre la psychanalyse [Exhibition catalogue]. Exhibited at Pompidou-Metz December 31, 2023-May 27, 2024.

Wajcman, G. (2001). “The Absence of the Century”. Translated by J. Jauregui. Lacanian Ink, 18. 60-79.

Wajcman, G. (2024). “Lacan le montreur”. In Lacan l’exposition: quand l’art rencontre la psychanalyse [Exhibition catalogue]. Exhibited at Pompidou-Metz December 31, 2023-May 27, 2024.

Notes:

[1] Perhaps it is also significant that these are concepts that Lacan did not invent, but rather inherited from psychoanalysis, even if “fundamental” was his designation.

[2] “un monument vivant”

[3] “dans toute l’intensité d’une oeuvre en mouvement”

[4] “une source inspirante et provocante”

Bio:

Alex James is a writer and researcher from London.

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis