How Peter Blume Painted His Personal Reality of Hope

On October 3, 1948, at 3:50 pm, Peter Blume finished his epic painting, years in the making, titled The Rock (shown above). “After a turbulent decade in which Peter Blume embarked on false starts, endured debilitating anxiety, experienced self-doubt, and found his faith in the creative process renewed,” Robert Cozzolino writes in the catalog to the new exhibition Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis, finishing The Rock must have been a great relief. Blume recorded that date and time the way many record the birth of their children, for The Rock was his precious baby, but completing it marked a rebirth of sorts for Blume as a different kind of artist. Shaped by political and artistic currents of the first half of the 20th century, Blume emerges as a difficult to categorize artist, but also as a fascinating visionary who struggled to paint a personal reality clinging to the foundation of hope.

On October 3, 1948, at 3:50 pm, Peter Blume finished his epic painting, years in the making, titled The Rock (shown above). “After a turbulent decade in which Peter Blume embarked on false starts, endured debilitating anxiety, experienced self-doubt, and found his faith in the creative process renewed,” Robert Cozzolino writes in the catalog to the new exhibition Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis, finishing The Rock must have been a great relief. Blume recorded that date and time the way many record the birth of their children, for The Rock was his precious baby, but completing it marked a rebirth of sorts for Blume as a different kind of artist. Shaped by political and artistic currents of the first half of the 20th century, Blume emerges as a difficult to categorize artist, but also as a fascinating visionary who struggled to paint a personal reality clinging to the foundation of hope.


“My realism is not real,” Blume explained late in his life, “I mean, it’s realism on another level altogether. It’s ‘real’ but it has nothing to do with a photograph. It’s not what anybody else sees, it’s only what I see… Not even what I see but what I think ought to go into something to make it ‘real.’” Blume took things he saw in real life—from the places he lived or traveled to, to the Flemish and Italian Old Masters he studied, to the photographs of war and the Holocaust—and reassembled those images idiosyncratically in his paintings based not on some rational cause and effect but rather on a sense of synchronicity. Whereas Blume’s almost exact contemporary Francis Bacon called himself “a grinding machine” that “ground up” experiences and influences “very fine,” Blume lets us see his experiences and influences nearly whole, but recontextualized into a new kind of “real” addressing the very real needs of the artist and his age.

Because of Blume’s elusive brand of painted reality, art historians during his lifetime and posthumously tried to pin him down with labels, primarily that of Surrealism. However, as Cozzolino points out, “Blume rejected Surrealism as too rigid and dogmatic and also not having gone far enough.” Whereas Surrealism “dreams” its reality, Blume actually sees his. Fiercely independent, Blume fought off “isms,” groups, and even second opinions that he felt interfered with his deeply personal approach. Blume’s independence, sadly, cost him mainstream appeal. This exhibition, the first retrospective of Blume’s art since 1976 (and the first posthumous show since his death in 1992), aims at “undoing a cycle of repetition that privileges the same unchallenged modernist narrative” that curator Cozzolini sees as not only unfairly marginalizing outsiders such as Blume, but also unhealthy in terms of dogmatic narrowness. Robert Cowley, son of poet Malcolm Cowley and friend of Blume, dubs Cozzolino “the curator of the dispossessed,” a well-earned title judging from this remarkable exhibition.

The exhibition Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis is one of those shows where you really need to take your time, read the wall text (and the beautifully written and illustrated catalog), and let Blume’s world blossom in your head. Blume’s works are so packed in terms of content and style—inseparable elements in his approach—that you need to unpack such works as South of Scranton, Light of the World, The Eternal City, Tasso’s Oak, Recollection of the Flood, and The Rock.

The Rock, for example, encompasses personal and public events stretching from 1938 to that final day in 1948. Cozzolino begins the story of The Rock with the fallout of The Eternal City, whose green-hued, Jack-in-the-Box depiction of Benito Mussolini earned Blume rejection in the pre-World War II days when American and Italy were still on diplomatic terms and fascist sympathies were still socially acceptable to a degree. When Edgar Kaufmann commissioned Blume to paint his new home, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Blume’s struggles to deliver mounted up into a full-scale crisis of confidence. A foray into automatic drawing freed Blume up to gather together such seemingly disparate events as the heated conflict of World War II, the Cold War chill of atomic bomb fears, the aesthetic challenge posed by Abstract Expressionism, and the discovery of the suicide of his friend and fellow artist Arshile Gorky in July 1948, just as The Rock was reaching completion.

In the end, Kaufmann accepted The Rock as the fulfillment of the Fallingwater commission, mainly out of appreciation of how the work marked the fulfillment of Blume as an artist. “The Rock and its challenges taught [Blume] to trust his intuition; simply put down all of his ideas with whatever was at hand; and then test, define, rethink, work around every angle, turn things inside out, and allow for change and accident,” Cozzolino concludes, ultimately calling the painting “a cenotaph of hope, a grand allegory of renewal,” for an artist and a world rebuilding and renewing. The road to understanding The Rock seems as daunting for the observer as it was for Blume himself, but the destination is well worth the work. Many studies and cartoons surrounding each of the major works in the exhibition (a practice Blume started when he first exhibited these works) display not just a master draftsman at work, but also a mind and soul.

Offsetting the brainy side of Blume is the visual richness of his works, from the fury of a preliminary sketch to the high finish and bright colors of an oil. Nature predominates the art of Blume’s post-1950s art, the product of his powerful attention to detail focused on the oldest themes of the flowers, rocks, water, and the seasons. Blume’s impish humor slips out when you walk up to the innocently titled New England Barn (1926) and are surprised by the female nude in the window or view Pig’s Feet and Vinegar (1927) and notice the urine-streaked snow at the base of the tree. The personality of the artist in every facet is present powerfully throughout the show.

Near the end of the exhibition you’ll find Blume’s 1961 painting Banyan Tree, a self-portrait showing the artist sketching his surroundings within a dense network of foliage. Much of Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis, which runs through April 5, 2015, feels like working through dense underbrush to get to the heart of Blume’s message and art, but you come away not seeing it as a barrier but rather as an invitation into a safe haven, a place where you can rest and recreate yourself. By renewing the memory of Peter Blume’s art, Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis invites us to slow down and imagine our own personal reality of hope.

[Image: Peter Blume. The Rock, 1945‑48. Oil on canvas, 57 5/8 x 74 3/8 in. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., 1956.338. Art © The Educational Alliance, Inc./Estate of Peter Blume/Licensed by VAGA, New York.]

[Many thanks to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA, for providing me with the image above from, other press materials related to, a review copy of the catalog (University of Pennsylvania Press) to, and a press pass to see the exhibition Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis, which runs through April 5, 2015.]

[Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less