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Psychologist Tilmann Moser on Painting and the Soul – “Family is the challenge of art”

Mr Moser, you are a psychoanalyst dealing with the Nazi era and the long-term effects of war. How did you get into art?
I have always loved going to museums. During my studies, the museum landscape in Berlin particularly inspired me.

Any key experiences?
Picasso was a key figure for me. When I was at school there was a lot of criticism of his work. Many people said it was not art. At some point, I looked closely at the works and found myself in them. Later added the landscapes I had seen in Italy. I realised that she was psychologically interested in me.

What is the connection between soul and painting?
I think landscape artists are as sensitive to this subject as psychoanalysts are. I would even say that you do some form of emotional research with your paintings.

So is it possible to draw conclusions about the psychology of the artist from the pictures?
It is definitely a temptation. Without considering the psychology of the artist, I think there is a lot that simply cannot be understood. It seems to me that both are important: to deal with the artwork in its purest form and also to take into account the personality of the artist. However, it should not be pathologised.

What does it mean to be a family?
In art, this is a huge challenge. Many photographs show the extent to which artists deal with their families. That can be very different. Some photographs are completely heroic about the family, others are more sober and distant.

How has the representation of the family changed over the centuries?
Even in the Middle Ages, depictions of the family ranged widely, from the heroic to the theological abstract. For example, when Max Beckmann depicted Adam and Eve, the painting resonated with the poverty of the 1920s in which the artist lived. Artists became increasingly psychologically adept, adopting the attitude of researchers from the 19th century onwards.

In your book you refer to the therapeutic process reflected in the pictures, even though some of the works were created more than a hundred years ago. So the basic model of the family has not changed?
Yes, even on a large scale. Politically, sociologically, but also in terms of the reception of the paintings. At first, the focus was more on the extended family, shifting more and more towards depicting couples. Maybe with a child or two. When I walk through the museum, it’s like seeing what my patients tell me is on display in front of me.

Can painting be seen as the emancipation of the soul?
Not directly. Painting is more like depiction and exploration. I doubt that it has created liberation. You could perhaps call it the liberation of truth, because through the process of research that the artist goes through he reveals some truth.

As a psychoanalyst, do you have a desire to talk to artists about what they have painted?
That would be beautiful, but I’m very reserved. I had two very fruitful conversations with artists about their work. One was even upset because he didn’t want me to try to draw conclusions about his psychology from the photographs. I had very little contact with the artists.

You are already deeply involved with God. Do you think it plays a part in the family portrait?
It must have been early on, because that’s where the Holy Family is usually depicted. You can also see religious references in Romantic works. Especially Caspar David Friedrich. His landscape paintings exude a religious atmosphere. Of course, the crosses in the pictures must also be related to religion. But even without them, they have a very religious effect.

You often let your patients comment in your books.
I have a lot of pictures hanging in my practice. By the artist, but also by the patient. Sometimes I let the patients tell something about the pictures. Then they start talking to the plant and I talk to them.

So what is the significance of art from a psychoanalytic point of view?
Art opens the door to one’s soul and has become an integral part of psychoanalytic therapy.

Tilmann Moser “Kunst und Psyche. Familienbeziehungen”