As mentioned briefly in a previous post (Unexpected Item of the Month) the Edinburgh-based psychoanalyst, William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn, was notable for the diversity of subjects he pursued with a psychoanalytical eye. One of the best represented subjects in the Fairbairn Archive is art.
The first evidence we have for Fairbairn’s interest in this subject is from 1937. The item in question is a talk, written and delivered by Fairbairn at a meeting of the Scottish Branch of the British Psychological Society and entitled ‘Prolegomena to a Psychology of Art’. This little-known paper was published in ‘From Instinct to Self’, the 1994 compilation of Fairbairn’s papers, co-edited by David Scharff and Fairbairn’s daughter, Ellinor Fairbairn Birtles. In it, ‘Prolegomena’ is described as being, ‘written largely from the standpoint of the pleasure principle…Fairbairn described art as play; thus artistic activity is making something for fun’. This starting point is important, because it would later bring Fairbairn into conflict with members of the artistic world who objected to what was viewed as a superficial treatment of the subject.
‘Prolegomena’ was quickly followed by ‘The Ultimate Basis of Aesthetic Experience’, also read at a British Psychological Society, Scottish Branch meeting, in 1938. Fairbairn re-worked both papers which were then subsequently published in the ‘British Journal of Psychology’, in 1938.
Although Fairbairn’s ideas on art did undoubtedly offend some in the art world – if his correspondence is anything to go by – they nevertheless received unexpected support from the then Director of the National Gallery of Scotland, Stanley Cursiter. In what could be one of the greatest letters in the Fairbairn Archive, Cursiter reassures Fairbairn that fun was indeed the correct attitude for the appreciation for a work of art and,
‘I am glad you take this line because to serious-minded people seeking the meaning of art, I have always contended that the fundamental meaning of a picture was the fundamental meaning of a plum pudding – and have been counted frivolous for it!’
Perhaps buoyed by such high-profile vindication, by the 1950s Fairbairn had hopes of writing a book on the subject. The working titles was ‘Art and Psychoanalysis’ and Fairbairn had undertaken quite detailed preparatory work in advance of its hoped-for publication. This included not only collecting items such as this picture postcard of the statue ‘Church and Synagogue’ in Munster Cathedral:
but also compiling this list of illustrations:
Fairbairn corresponded with a wide-range of people and organisations in relation to this proposed book, including Stanley Cursiter and T Elder Dixon, Vice-Principal of Edinburgh School of Art. Fairbairn was clearly attempting to learn more about the minefield that is ownership and copyright in relation to reproducing works of art. He also sought companies who had the requisite skills to reproduce the works, once permission had been secured. However, the book was not to be and Fairbairn’s contribution to this field has been largely, and perhaps not surprisingly, overshadowed by his work on object-relations. However, few papers in the Archive demonstrate such personal enthusiasm for a subject; art was clearly something of great importance to William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn.