Finding Fantasia: Leonardo da Vinci, Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, and the Aesthetic Subject

by Kimberly Coates

November 21, 2010


Leo Bersani’s contribution to the fields of psychoanalysis, aesthetics, and queer theory has recently received renewed attention.  Relying upon Bersani’s theory of the “aesthetic subject,” my study reexamines Freud’s infamous “psychoanalytic novel,” Leonardo da Vinci and A Memory of His Childhood. After situating Freudian aesthetics in the context of current discussions art critics are having about art and its reception, I contend that Freud’s text needs to be reevaluated as a distinctly modernist invention harboring the potential for new mappings of self and other. It is finally Melanie Klein’s rereading of Freud’s text that offers us a methodology premised upon a confluence of psychoanalysis and aesthetics useful for theorizing art’s affective dimension. I conclude by turning to Leonardo da Vinci’s own notion of fantasia, which has much to say about how psychoanalysis might begin to elucidate an aesthetic subject as opposed to a psychoanalytic subject when it approaches art.


“Before the problem of the [artist], analysis, must, alas lay down its arms” (SE XXI, 177).

What could there possibly be left to say about Freud’s 1910 monograph Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood? Such a question presumes that the final verdict on Freud’s now infamous text is in and that there is no reason to reopen discussion or debate. However, despite years of psychoanalytic and art historical research addressing Freud’s text, the art historian Klaus Herding insists that such presumptions are premature. With only a few exceptions, argues Herding, scholarly readings of Leonardo have not progressed much beyond a concentrated focus on the psychoanalyst’s projections onto and identification with the famous Renaissance artist.[i] To some degree this trend in scholarship is understandable given that Freud’s own diagnosis of the artist’s personality supersedes his close analysis of the paintings. Nevertheless, Freud had provocative insights into aesthetic form and the affect it generates both in the beholder and the creator. It is Freud’s affect-related argument in relation to Leonardo’s paintings that Herding invites scholars to reconsider.

In this essay, I seek to answer Herding’s call in part by arguing that we reread Leonardo for the way Freud’s self-proclaimed “psychoanalytic novel” belies its own theoretical speculations, not by revealing the pathology of a psychoanalytic subject—be that subject Freud or Leonardo—but instead by presenting us with an aesthetic subject. According to Leo Bersani, aesthetic subjects refer less to the subject as articulated by psychoanalysis than to a “relational mode of being”(164).[ii] I contend that Bersani’s notion of art as both created and produced by an aesthetic subject has the potential to move us beyond readings that fixate solely on Freud and/or Leonardo da Vinci as purely psychoanalytic subjects.[iii] Furthermore, I suggest that we might think of aesthetic subjects as suffering from aesthetic symptoms as opposed to neurotic or hysterical symptoms. These aesthetic symptoms are physical in nature in the same way that a hysterical symptom is physical in nature. However, while a hysterical symptom, according to psychoanalysis, involves the return of the repressed and can be traced back to an earlier libidinal fixation on a specific object, an aesthetic symptom bears traces of an earlier libidinal attachment but is in no way limited to or by that attachment.

At stake in asking how art positions its beholders as aesthetic subjects rather than as psychoanalytic subjects is a new understanding of how psychoanalysis and art might speak to one another. If psychoanalysis has tended to insist on a projective and largely antagonistic relationship between self and world, art produces new modes of subjective relations, which, as Bersani elaborates, exceed individual subjectivities. If we attempt to understand the correspondences between self and world that Bersani suggests are put into circulation by art, and which I have asserted may manifest themselves in the form of aesthetic symptoms, then we can imagine and try to articulate relations between self and other that also exceed the adversarial constraints of the typical psychoanalytic narrative. Moreover, as Susan Best has urged, we might begin to think of the affect generated by a work of art less as a response to its ideational content than as an expression having the potential to construct a multitude of affective objects, which in turn provoke new forms of feeling (167). We then might heed what Kaja Silverman has recently referred to as Bersani’s “ethical call” (“Looking” 411).  That call, Silverman tells us, “goes something like this:  what are the perceptual circumstances that would make it possible for us to correspond with other beings not only formally but also psychically?” (411).

I begin by revisiting Freudian aesthetics in the context of current discussions art critics are having about art and its reception. Such a reconsideration suggests that art historians, aesthetic theorists and, counter-intuitively, even Freud himself, have sought to articulate an aesthetic subject against the perceived limitations of a psychoanalytic subject. I then reread Freud’s Leonardo as revealing, but abruptly concealing, alternative modes of subject being, which he finds to be at play in the shadows of Leonardo’s art. Although Freud succumbs, as we might predict, to the limitations of his own discipline, I argue that it is his failure to articulate just what determines how “artistic activity derives from the primal instincts” (Leonardo 136) that marks Freud himself as an aesthetic subject and his psychoanalytic novel as a distinctly modernist invention harboring the potential for new mappings of self and other. I conclude by introducing Melanie Klein’s interpretation of Freud’s Leonardo as presented in her essay “Early Analysis.” By attending to Leonardo’s aesthetic symptoms and by registering the correspondences that reverberate between the painter and his world, Klein, I argue, effectively depicts art as producing an aesthetic subject whose modes of being exceed and revise the limitations inhering in the psychoanalytic dyad. Klein’s work becomes crucial to forming a methodology, premised upon a confluence of psychoanalysis and aesthetics, which is then capable of theorizing art’s affective dimension.

Revisiting Freudian Aesthetics

Leo Bersani’s notion of an aesthetic subject and Klaus Herding’s insistence that we attend to the affective structure of literary and visual art participate in a contemporary return to critical discussions surrounding affect, art, and aesthetics. Recent criticism has tended to argue that contemporary theories like semiotics, deconstruction, and poststructuralism have consumed art historical criticism to the extent that an examination of feeling has been taken for granted but not adequately explained. While acknowledging what deconstruction and poststructuralism have taught us—we cannot access our material realities without leaning on discursive constructs—these scholars nevertheless insist upon art’s transformational qualities and reclaim aesthetics as the study of affects.[iv] This renewed emphasis on aesthetics as primarily a study of affective experience depends on a definition of affect as referring to those feelings that cross the borders of psyche and soma, consciousness and unconsciousness, mind and physiology (Armstrong 108).[v] 

These contemporary efforts to reclaim art’s function as transformative and to define the affect associated with its creation and experience find a precursor in Freud’s own work. In his essay “The Moses of Michelangelo,” written in 1913 and published anonymously the following year in the psychoanalytic journal Imago, Freud wrestles self-consciously with his own aesthetic symptoms as they are provoked by seeing Michelangelo’s marble statue of Moses, located in the Church of St. Pietro in Vincoli Rome. [vi] “No piece of statuary,” exclaims Freud “has ever made a stronger impression on me than this” (213).  Before the “tremendous physical power” and the intense “inward passion” of the giant marble figure, Freud frequently finds himself “paralyzed,” “transfixed,” and “overwhelmed” by what he refers to as the statue’s “inscrutability”(213). While he stubbornly refuses to succumb to “intellectual bewilderment,” Freud also admits that intellect alone is not adequate for understanding this aesthetic experience: “I realize that this cannot be merely a matter of intellectual comprehension; what [the artist] aims at is to awaken in us some emotional attitude, the same mental constellation as that which in him produced the impetus to create”(213).[vii] Here Freud acknowledges that art generates an affective correspondence between the artist and the beholder which, in order to be defined, requires a complex understanding of the way physiological sensations translate into mental processes.

As early as 1891 in “On Aphasia,” Freud had maintained the psychic to be a process parallel to the physiological—a “dependent concomitant” (55).[viii]  Similarly, he never argued that an understanding of hysteria could be limited to physiological explanations nor did he assume that a psychological theory of the disorder as only a mental disease was adequate. In fact, at the same time he was working on Studies on Hysteria, Freud was also writing The Project for a Scientific Psychology, a dense and complicated attempt to explicate what he strongly felt must be the physiological mechanisms behind repression. Ultimately, Freud hoped that his work in The Project would explain what a famous Berlin psychiatrist by the name of Griesinger had deemed incomprehensible: “How a material, psychical process in the nerve fibers or ganglion cells [could] become an idea, an act of consciousness [. . .] (Jones 377).[ix] It is Freud’s unrecognized attempt to discern exactly how the unconscious impressions received from bodily organs are transformed into ideas that informs his most interesting investigations into aesthetics.

Nevertheless, despite the provocative nature of Freud’s investigations, his work on aesthetics was often cited out of context and made to square with the popularized notions of psychoanalysis circulating throughout Europe at the time.[x] His essay “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” for example, was read as simplistically equating creative writers/artists with neurotics who were ashamed of their phantasies and daydreams and who found themselves compelled to confess them through an artistic medium. In the essay, Freud ostensibly reduces aesthetic form to a “bribe.” It is this assertion that his critics latched onto without exploring the theoretical nuances of the claims following it.[xi] Freud does go further, however, by suggesting that the impetus to create and the connection such creation forges with the artist’s audience originate in a memory—usually from early childhood—which is then transmitted via the art to an audience who experiences a correspondent “forepleasure.” He defines forepleasure as a “yield of pleasure [. . .] which is offered so as to make possible the release of still greater pleasure arising from deeper psychical sources” (153). Here Freud indicates that form is more than merely a bribe; instead, in the hands of the artist, it represents the complex interlacing of past, present, and future affect. Aesthetic form in turn suspends and transmits this temporally mobile affect to the artist’s recipient thereby becoming the “current impression” (153) responsible for arousing an “intense desire” (153), which again carries echoes of a past seeking embodiment in a future. All of which suggests not so much a regressive fixation as a creative, temporal suspension achievable only through art.

Freud’s understanding that art generates the enigmatic affective quality he calls “forepleasure” has some affinity with Bersani’s notion that art invokes an aesthetic subject. According to Bersani, it has been psychoanalysis’ inability to think the unconscious—and by extension phantasy—as a “dimension of virtuality rather than of psychic depth” (“Psychoanalysis” 170) that has hampered psychoanalytic approaches to art. A sense of the unconscious as implying psychic depth invokes an account of the self as constructed by a buried past that determines its future, a self that is always already situated antagonistically in opposition to the external world. By contrast, to think the unconscious and its phantasies as a dimension of virtuality necessitates configuring the extension of self into world as a continuous encounter, temporally suspended across past, present, and future, premised upon reciprocity and a shared contingency.[xii]

In “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” it is true that Freud adheres to a notion of the psychoanalytic subject—premised as it is upon psychic depth—when he defines phantasy as that which shapes the external world or, as he writes, “creates a situation relating to the future which represents the fulfillment of a wish” (147). Bersani, by contrast, defines phantasy in relation to the aesthetic subject as the liminal space between our invisible inner world and the world made present to our senses: “[Phantasy] is not a symptom to be cured; rather, it is the principle ontic evidence for an ontological regime of correspondences in which the discreteness of all things (including human subjects) is superseded, not by universal fusions, but by the continuation of all things elsewhere”(170). Nevertheless, even if Freud cannot quite relinquish a psychoanalytic configuration of phantasy, he does anticipate Bersani’s account of the aesthetic subject in the sense that he is aware of artists as individuals capable of exceeding their own subjectivities and of creating representations that temporally suspend both the artist and the beholder across three modes of time. As we are about to see, Freud’s Leonardo can be read as dramatizing the tension between Freud’s desire to confirm the therapeutic relationship of analyst and patient—leading him to a diagnosis of art as symptom—and his realization that Leonardo’s art is speaking a far more complex relationality that refuses either temporal or narrative containment.

“Look Again”[xiii]:  Rereading Freud’s Leonardo

In “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming” and “The Moses of Michelangelo,” Freud had come to the assertion that aesthetic form involves a libidinal exchange between artists and their recipients—a moment of shared unconscious identification. In Leonardo, he takes this same conclusion a step further: he recognizes, but will not fully acknowledge, the idea that this shared unconscious identification originates in a sentient relation to the maternal body, a relation that ultimately exceeds its maternal referent and refuses to be consigned to the past. Reading Freud reading Leonardo’s paintings makes apparent the lengths Freud must go to in order to deny his own, as well as Leonardo’s, aesthetic symptoms in favor of a narrative that presents art as the symptom of a repressed homosexuality for which the mother’s excessive affection provides the germ.  This narrative, with which many will be familiar, corresponds conveniently to Freud’s already established theory of homosexuality as arrested development. However, if we take Freud at his word and consider that in writing Leonardo he has indeed created a psychoanalytic novel—and we might even go so far as to say a queer künstlerroman—then it would seem his own aesthetic form speaks what his theory cannot. In other words, if Freud’s theory suggests that the art itself is symptomatic of a repressed libidinal attachment to the mother, his psychoanalytic novel instead implies that this libidinal attachment is the progenitor of a wealth of sensation that art alone can keep in circulation. As such, Leonardo’s art speaks not so much to a desire for or a fixation upon a specific object, but rather invokes the fluidity and movement of desire itself.[xiv] Hence, despite Freud’s efforts to make Leonardo’s art conform to his own legitimizing narrative and therefore yield a psychoanalytic subject, the art instead generates an aesthetic subject who refuses to be contained within predictable psychoanalytic narratives.

Early in Leonardo, Freud presents the Renaissance artist as a quintessential psychoanalytic subject who exemplifies the third vicissitude of the instincts as he had first described it in Three Essays on Sexuality. In Three Essays, Freud explains that in the first vicissitude, both research and sexuality remain unable to supersede inhibition. Consequently, intelligence is undermined and neurosis is likely to occur. In the second, although sexuality is repressed, the intellect successfully evades such repression. However, the repressed sexual activities of research reemerge from the unconscious in the form of obsessive brooding. As a result, investigation and research become inflected with the sexual processes. In the third vicissitude, rather than being repressed, the libido is sublimated into intellectual curiosity. According to Freud, it is this third vicissitude—characterized by sublimated as opposed to repressed libido—that Leonardo dramatizes so well as both a brilliant scientist and an artist (79-80).

Broadly speaking, Freud defines sublimation as the bending of a sexual aim towards a more acceptable cultural aim. This definition seems to imply that sublimation is equivalent to a successful repression. However, the concept of sublimation as it plays out in Leonardo proves to be much more complicated than this general definition would suggest.[xv] At the end of the first section of Leonardo, Freud distinguishes sublimation quite clearly from repression. Framing the third vicissitude of the instincts as the “rarest and most perfect,” (80) Freud argues that its perfection lies in the fact that although sexual repression does occur, there is some component instinct of sexual desire that does not get relegated to the unconscious. This excess libido then somehow “evades the fate of repression by being sublimated from the very beginning into curiosity and by becoming attached to the powerful instinct for research as reinforcement” (80). As Freud defines it here, sublimation refers to a psychical process entirely different from the mechanism of repression so central to his theory of sexual neurosis: “[O]wing to the complete difference in the underlying psychical processes (sublimation instead of an irruption from the unconscious) the quality of neurosis is absent; there is no attachment to the original complexes of infantile sexual research, and the instinct can operate freely in the service of intellectual interest” (my emphasis 80). In this instance, Freud theorizes the excess libido as having escaped repression and as having remained unattached to the original infantile complexes. However, when he offers Leonardo as a model instance of the third vicissitude, he revises his previous definition of sublimation as a unique psychical process and suddenly suggests instead that its mechanism is closely related to repression: “The core of [Leonardo’s] nature, and the secret of it, would appear to be that after his curiosity had been activated in infancy in the service of sexual interests, he succeeded in sublimating the greater part of his libido into an urge for research” (80). This second definition suggests that the sublimated libido remains attached to infantile sexual researches and thereby opens the door for Freud to explore the ideational content of Leonardo’s phantasies as having had sexual themes.

Freud appears, then, to give us two very different definitions of sublimation and hence two very different subjects. In the first, he departs radically from his own psychoanalytic narrative and presents us with Leonardo as an aesthetic subject. Sublimation, in relation to this aesthetic subject, speaks to a mysterious process that moves the artist beyond a desire with any specific sexual content. In the second, however, Freud departs from his own deviation by returning us to Leonardo as a psychoanalytic subject who, though he has indeed sublimated a large extent of his libido into research, found that libido initially activated in the service of infantile sexual researches. The tension between these two definitions of sublimation—the first evoking Leonardo as an aesthetic subject and the second relegating the artist to the status of psychoanalytic subject —inform the remainder of Freud’s text and account for the elaborate fiction he spins around a reading of both Leonardo’s phantasies and his paintings.

Freud finds the evidence he needs to confirm Leonardo as a psychoanalytic subject in a by now familiar childhood memory the artist recorded in his notebooks:  “It seems that I was always destined to be so deeply concerned with vultures; for I recall as one of my very earliest memories that while I was in my cradle a vulture came down to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against my lips’ (82). Typically, scholars have not contested the psychoanalytic insight that this memory may reveal something important about Leonardo’s relation to his mother.  It is instead Freud’s well known translation error—he replaces Leonardo’s use of the Italian word “nibio” meaning “kite” with the German word “geier” meaning “vulture”—and his subsequent digressive turn to Egyptian mythology, which has prompted critics to dismiss his reading as having little if any merit.[xvi]

Rather than merely dismissing Freud’s interpretation as untenable due to his mistranslation, I find it far more compelling to focus on how he deliberately sets out to construct Leonardo as the quintessential psychoanalytic subject—a construction he knows to be a fiction—so that he might avoid having to theorize a definition of sublimation in relation to an aesthetic subject whom he cannot contain within the limits of his carefully wrought psychoanalytic methodology. Freud’s motivation for fixating on the vulture in Leonardo’s memory then becomes more understandable as does the elaborate narrative he conjures to support a metaphorical connection between vulture and mother. Once he has established that, according to Egyptian lore, the vulture who is mother possessed both a phallus and breasts, Freud surmises that what Leonardo presents us with in the form of a vulture opening a child’s mouth and energetically beating its tail against his lips, is a scene of fellatio. In Freud’s lexicon, fellatio, as a sexual act, repeats the pleasure the infant found when it first suckled at its mother’s breast. This superimposition of a fellatio phantasy over the memory of being breast fed suggests to Freud that Leonardo transforms the memory of suckling at his mother’s breast into a passive homosexual phantasy: “it resembles certain dreams and phantasies found in women or passive homosexuals (who play the part of the woman in sexual relations)” (86). Leonardo, then, assumes the passive role of the mother/woman and the mother takes the unusual role of aggressor. 

This narrative leads Freud in turn to read another phantasy he claims to be buried in the first. This second phantasy testifies to the fact that the artist’s mother, possessing both breasts and phallus, showered him with excessively tender caresses: “In words which only too plainly recall a description of a sexual act (‘and struck me many times with its tail against my lips’), Leonardo stresses the intensity of the erotic relations between mother and child” (107). Freud’s invention of this second phantasy allows him to do two things: 1) to claim that Leonardo’s homosexual tendencies, suggested by his attraction to young boys and the passive nature of the original phantasy is the consequence of an erotic relation with his mother and 2) to take credit for explaining what art critics had puzzled over for centuries world wide—the presence of that “remarkable smile, at once fascinating and puzzling, which he conjured up on the lips of his female subjects” (107). 

In order to verify the first of these claims, Freud merely assures us that his case studies of homosexual men typically reveal the presence of an excessively tender mother bearing masculine characteristics and an absent father. According to Freud, Leonardo suffered both of these conditions. The mother, defined as such, becomes the source of Leonardo’s homosexuality. The second point—the meaning of the “remarkable smile” that appears in Leonardo’s art—allows Freud to answer his own question:  “Can it be that there is nothing in Leonardo’s life work to bear witness to what his memory preserved as the strongest impression of his childhood?” (107). Freud answers this question by surmising that the vestiges of Leonardo’s libidinal impulses find expression in the artist’s compulsion to note the finer details of his mother’s funeral expenses and in the enigmatic smile that graces several of his most well known paintings.

Determined to account for this smile, Freud pursues the definition of sublimation that will render Leonardo a legible psychoanalytic subject and thus argues at length that although repression brought the period of infantile sexual researches to an end, Leonardo sublimated the needs of his sexual instincts into an intense desire to know. A small portion of his libido also goes towards sexual interests that turn out to be homosexual due to what Freud deems is his fixation on his mother. While his investigative urges cause him to abandon his art completely for vast periods of time, Freud speculates that it is Leonardo’s encounter with a Florentine woman by the name of Mona Lisa del Giocondo that reawakens his earlier memories of his mother and results in the most productive period in the artist’s career. 

The most famous painting resulting from this meeting is, of course, the “Mona Lisa.” Instead of situating the mysterious smile gracing Leonardo’s canvases within the context of the affective traces spoken by other formal relations in the paintings, which may refer back to but are not fixated upon the mother—an interpretation that would have elucidated Leonardo’s status as an aesthetic subject—Freud proceeds to read the smile and the paintings as psychoanalytic symptoms indicative of the artist’s repressed love for his mother. The paintings, accordingly, substitute for what Freud notes as the pathology that could have been—homosexuality.

This analysis comes fairly easy for him in relation to the “Mona Lisa,” in part because he leans heavily on Walter Pater, whom he quotes as characterizing “‘the unfathomable smile [. . .] play[ing] over all Leonardo’s work” as having “a touch of something sinister in it’” (110). However, Freud has to work harder to sustain his reading in relation to another painting, “St. Anne with Two Others”[xvii]: “It would best agree with our expectations if it was the intensity of Leonardo’s preoccupation with the features of Mona Lisa which stimulated him to create the composition of St. Anne out of his phantasy” (110-111). In other words, in order for Freud’s previous analysis of the vulture phantasy to prove relevant to the art work, he has to be able to show that the themes he has analyzed earlier in that phantasy—the son’s fixation on the mother due to her excessively tender ministrations—are relevant to Leonardo’s other paintings. Thus, he proceeds to argue that due to the memory of his mother called up by the Florentine woman’s smile, Leonardo was driven to “create a glorification of motherhood, and to give back to his mother the smile he had found in the noble lady” (112). As a result, claims Freud, Leonardo’s version of “St. Anne with Two Others” is very different than the versions created by other artists. Whereas other painters have positioned St. Anne and Mary with the child between them, Leonardo positions Mary sitting on St. Anne’s lap reaching forward to caress the young boy who is at her feet playing rather roughly with a lamb.[xviii]Freud further notes that rather than having the child divide the two women, Leonardo merges them almost as if they were one figure bent on adoring the young boy. 

Initially Freud reads “St. Anne with Two Others” as steeped in the idyllic bliss that attends an infant’s earliest relations to its mother. While the smile gracing the women’s lips echoes that of the “Mona Lisa,” he finds in the St. Anne painting that it has “lost its uncanny and mysterious character; what it expresses is inward feeling and quiet blissfulness”(112). The painting, Freud concludes, could only have been painted by Leonardo as it contains the “synthesis of the history of his childhood,” the earliest years of which were spent exclusively with an overly attentive mother and the latter in his father’s house with his stepmother Donna Albiera (and less significantly his father’s mother Monna Lucia): a childhood which bears little impression whatsoever of the father’s presence or intervention. According to Freud’s interpretation here, Leonardo’s painting indicates an intense identification with the two women who raised him and also suggests their undeniable influence on his creative psyche. 

Kaja Silverman has pointed out that because identification depends on its corporeal equivalent incorporation—the process by which the infant phantasizes having an object penetrate his body so as to keep it inside his body—then “it represents the very antithesis of retreat; it entails ostensibly closing the gap between subject and object, taking the latter within the psyche as the basis of the self” (368). Consequently, asserts Silverman, Leonardo’s phantasy, which clearly provides us with an image of incorporation in that the mother/vulture’s tail is inserted into the infant’s mouth, cannot possibly represent a “flight from the mother” but instead establishes the “closest possible intimacy with her” (368). Freud’s original analysis of “St. Anne with Two Others” confirms this intimacy as does his analysis of the vulture phantasy. However, what follows suggests that he is suddenly startled by his ownconclusions: Leonardo was raised by two women, and it is their potency and his powerful erotic attachment to them that is ultimately responsible for his most productive artistic period and for the spectacular paintings that result. 

While Freud has no problem accounting for Leonardo’s presumed homosexuality as being due to the fact that he was surrounded almost exclusively by women, he cannot abide the conclusion that this maternal influence is solely responsible for shaping Leonardo’s creative imagination. Consequently, the text suddenly swerves away from articulating an aesthetic subject whose art speaks to an affect originating in, but not limited to, the maternal relation, towards a much more familiar narrative—the Oedipal.[xix] As he describes the positioning of St. Anne—the grandmother, who corresponds to the “true” mother and Mary, who corresponds with Donna Albiera—Freud observes that “the artist seems to have used the blissful smile of St. Anne to disavow and to cloak the envy which the unfortunate woman felt when she was forced to give up her son to her better-born rival, as she had once given up his father as well” (113). If only moments ago the smile on St. Anne’s face had suggested “inward feeling and quiet blissfulness,” the reference to the “sinister menace” inherent in the “Mona Lisa’s” smile, as suggested to Freud by Pater’s comments, abruptly reemerges. According to Freud, due to the absence of an intervening father who bears the responsibility for satiating the mother’s erotic desire and for assuring the son identifies with the “true” possessor of the phallus, Leonardo becomes a homosexual “robbed of his masculinity” and the mother a forlorn victim forced to seek compensatory erotic satisfaction from her unfortunate son (117).

Once he has recast “St. Anne with Two Others” as indicative of his own psychoanalytic narrative for male homosexuality, Freud turns our attention to a general assessment of other paintings that bear the imprint of the same smile but which, though they still seem “androgynous,” no longer suggest the sense of the vulture-phantasy (111).  The figures in these paintings are “beautiful youths of feminine delicacy and with effeminate forms” who gaze in “mysterious triumph, as if they knew of a great achievement of happiness, about which silence must be kept [. . .]” (111). Freud contends that our focus should be Leonardo’s successful sublimation of his homosexual desire into the art. Significantly, however, the Eros expressed in these paintings is no longer that between a phallic mother and her son. Instead, as Freud describes them, the paintings reflect a “wish fulfillment” meant to serve as a denial of the “unhappiness of his erotic life” by suggesting a “blissful union of the male and female natures” (111). This version of sublimation is the one Freud finally prefers to leave us with: a version that depends upon the unfortunate absence of the father and an idea of deviance easily “assimilated into a devotion to masculinist principles” (Jackson 67), thereby marginalizing the phallic mother goddess.[xx]  

In order for his reading of Leonardo’s relationship with his father to square with the analysis that has preceded it, Freud needs to make the father’s role somehow significant in light of the artist’s vulture phantasy, a phantasy that appears to have had no investment whatsoever in a father figure. By some further stretch of the imagination, Freud proceeds to associate Leonardo’s intense interest in birds with a paternal identification. Hurrying his reader along a metonymic fast track, Freud links the wish to fly, to storks who bring babies, to the ancients who represent the phallus as having wings, to the German word ‘vogeln’ which means “to bird” and is slang for sexual intercourse, to the Italian word for penis which is ‘l’uccello’ and means ‘the bird,’ to the primal scene. Our phallic mother bird is quickly stripped of her phallus and the erotic relation between mother and son finds itself replaced by the son’s desire to align himself with the father’s potency in the primal scene, a desire expressed in dreams in “the form of flying” (126). Hence, Freud associates Leonardo’s childlike tendency to remain obsessed throughout his life with birds and mechanical toys as merely a repetition of the artist’s infantile erotic desire to wield the phallus.

Although Freud never denies that Leonardo’s earliest days were spent in an idyllic state of erotic bliss, at this point in the narrative, he abruptly consigns the phallic mother, whose smile had made the past the present via the body of art, to an irretrievable past.  Rather than reading the art as signifying the ongoing effort to render concrete the aesthetic symptoms induced by a mother’s excessive tenderness, Freud interprets Leonardo’s paintings as a symptom of the repression of a desire that can no longer be actualized.[xxi] The father, by contrast, has facilitated the exchange of sensation for the “sublime achievements” of science:“It is probable that Leonardo’s play-instinct vanished in his mature years, and that it too found its way into the activity of research which represented the latest and highest expansion of his personality” (128-29). Acknowledging the difficulty of tearing one’s self away from “the highest erotic bliss,” Freud nevertheless makes clear that it is the paternal influence which has served Leonardo’s most sublime achievement—surprisingly now not his art, but his investigative research. 

As if he recognizes the precarious nature of these assertions given his earlier analysis of Leonardo’s “St. Anne with Two Others,” Freud adds, in 1919 and then again in 1923, two footnotes that testify to an attempt to reread the painting according to his reassertion of the Oedipal paradigm. In 1919, he adds that if one attempts to separate the St. Anne figure from that of Mary in the painting, it is almost impossible to do so. Initially, Freud’s assertion might appear to reconfirm the idyllic period in which Leonardo was subject to the loving ministrations of two mothers who are represented in the painting as “melted into a single form” (114). However, Freud goes on to note that the fused figures bear some resemblance to “badly condensed dream-figures”(114), which suddenly implies that there is a nightmarish quality to this fusion. 

In 1923, he adds yet another footnote that mentions a “celebrated London cartoon” in which Leonardo had made use of the same material: “Here the forms are even harder to make out, so that critics, far removed from any attempt to offer an interpretation, have been forced to say that it seems ‘as if two heads were growing from a single body’” (115). While critics have intensely debated whether the cartoon was produced prior to or following Leonardo’s painting, Freud decides that it “fit[s] excellently with [his] arguments if the cartoon were to be much the earlier work” (115).    If this is true, he further suggests, “we can see how Leonardo may have felt the need to undo the dream-like fusion of the two women—a fusion corresponding to his childhood memory—and to separate the two heads in space” (115). Following this note we return to another, also added previously in 1919, that acknowledges the fortuitous and “remarkable discovery” made in the painting by Freud’s colleague Oskar Pfister of “the outline of a vulture,” which becomes clearly evident on closer examination in the folds of Mary’s drapery: ‘In the picture that represents the artist’s mother the vulture, the symbol of motherhood, is perfectly clearly visible’ (115). Pfister even goes so far as to confirm Freud’s analysis by noting that the vulture’s tail, as it is visible in Mary’s skirts, is pointing towards the child’s mouth “exactly as in Leonardo’s fateful childhood dream” (115). 

If we follow Freud’s logic here, given the placement of the footnotes at precisely the moment in his narrative where he attempts to wrench Leonardo and his art away from the intense relationship to his mother(s) and to reinscribe him into a more predictable Oedipal plot, then he appears to be forcing a reading of “St. Anne with Two Others” in which he argues for Leonardo’s own desire to lessen the potency of this maternal fusion. Relying upon Pfister’s observation, Freud reads the outline of the vulture hidden in the folds of Mary’s skirt as Leonardo’s deliberate marginalization of an all too sexually aggressive mother. In order to reassert his Oedipal narrative, he obviously needs to figure Leonardo as retreating from maternal intimacy rather than seeking to reenact it.

Freud reminds us rather defensively in his conclusion that the aim of his work has been to “explain the inhibitions in Leonardo’s sexual life and in his artistic activity” (131). Defending his analysis against those who might accuse him of merely writing a “pathography,” he insists that illness is really only a “practical concept” and that the distinctions between health and illness are practically moot in the eyes of psychoanalysis:  “neurotic symptoms are structures which are substitutes for certain achievements of repression that we have to carry out in the course of our development from a child to a civilized human being” (81). Leonardo, then, is exceptional because other than some evidence of obsessive compulsions, he managed to escape illness. This ability to escape illness, as Freud informs us, did not necessarily have anything to do with his genius as either an artist or a scientist. Rather, as he has explained previously, Leonardo’s early infantile sexual researches went unhindered by a father’s prohibitions. These infantile sexual researches were then sublimated into a more general urge to know and therefore were not subject to repression. According to this analysis, it would appear to be the father’s absence that is responsible for facilitating sublimation whereas his presence, which would have thwarted Leonardo’s early sexual curiosity, would have necessitated repression.

It will be helpful now to return briefly to the two definitions of sublimation Freud offers us in Leonardo: recall that the first definition Freud provides us with in the early pages of his text suggests that a certain amount of excess libido, though initially generated by the original complexes of infantile sexual research, somehow evades repression and, having remained unattached to the infantile complexes is effectively sublimated in the service of other interests. This definition implies that sublimation entails a very different process than repression. Freud’s second definition offers us an understanding of sublimation whereby the libido instead remains attached to the infantile sexual researches but is successfully sublimated—and hence repressed—into an urge for research. I noted earlier that Freud was unable or unwilling to articulate the aesthetic subject that follows from the first definition and instead elaborates the second definition of sublimation as it renders a legible psychoanalytic subject. 

Faced with the fact that Leonardo grows up to be an astonishing artist whose talents were clearly enabled by “the precocious awakening in the first years of childhood of his scopophilic instinct” (132), Freud finds himself at a crossroads. In order to stay with the second definition of sublimation so as to continue constructing Leonardo as a psychoanalytic subject, he cannot attest to the mother as the instigator of this “precocious awakening” (132) and therefore as the catalyst for the affective energy behind Leonardo’s artistic impulse. To do so would necessitate acknowledging not only the sexual but also the creative power of a phallus-wielding vulture/mother. It is thus that we learn Leonardo had, according to Freud, a crucial masculine creative influence in the form of one Duke Lodovico Moro: “Just as he modeled himself on his father in the outward conduct of his life, so too he passed through a period of masculine creative power and artistic productiveness in Milan, where a kindly fate enabled him to find a father-substitute in the duke Lodovico Moro” (133). Earlier in the text Lodovico Moro had been mentioned only as Leonardo’s patron or mentor. Now, at the end of his psychoanalytic novel, Freud quite suddenly casts Lodovico as Leonardo’s artistic father, a father whom he claims is responsible for nothing less than a “masculine creative power and artistic productiveness” (133) in an artist whom we have otherwise come to believe has a tendency toward the feminine. Freud insists that it is only when Leonardo loses Lodovico as his patron, and by extension as his artistic father, that his path would have taken a regressive turn back towards his repressed love for his mother.

Thus, according to Freud, once Lodovico is no longer a presence in Leonardo’s life, the only course left to him, other than the sublimation of his scopophilic instincts into investigative research, is to regress towards a repressed unconscious truth. It is this truth—his irretrievable yet undeniable love for his mother—that finds itself awakened by a Florentine lady’s mysterious smile. The love for this mother, as Freud plays it out here, can only lead to homosexuality and an art that is symptomatic of a love that can never be. The sublimation of these “primal instincts” cannot be explained because Freud cannot fully accommodate the futurity of the love from which such instincts first emerge but only their repression:  “Since artistic talent and capacity are intimately connected with sublimation we must admit that the nature of the artistic function is also inaccessible to us along psycho-analytic lines.  [. . .] We will not [. . .] leave the ground of purely psychological research” (136). These are astonishing words as Freud seems to have very clearly illuminated for us the nature of Leonardo’s “artistic power.” However, perhaps recognizing that he really should be returning us to his earlier, abandoned definition of sublimation as yielding an aesthetic subject, Freud suggests that the primal love for the mother cannot be sublimated but only repressed and is therefore destined to return as a symptom made manifest in Leonardo’s art. Nevertheless, the inadequacy of this conclusion, given the various twists and turns the narrative has had to make to reach it, leaves Freud equivocating: psychoanalysis can (but paradoxically also cannot) discern what motivates the artistic impulse and how that impulse might be translated into art.

Klein’s Intervention

If Freud remains unable (or unwilling) to define the nature of the artistic function as it is intimately connected with sublimation and the maternal body, Melanie Klein, by contrast, reveals sublimation to be fueled by the anxieties associated with an early relationship to that body. Klein charts a developmental paradigm in which the infant’s imagination is constantly being inflected and shaped by a mother who is deemed a potent and creative being. The Kleinian infant’s world is the mother’s body. Its only way of understanding this world comes from a primitive understanding of its own bodily sensations. Thus, the infant is linked to the external world from the beginning by an internal world built solely upon the biological experience of sensations, impulses, and emotions.

According to Klein, the infant has an innate instinctual awareness of the mother, and it is the encounter between the infant’s highly sensate body and the mother’s body that serves as the origin of phantasy. Juliet Mitchell notes that Kleinian phantasy, which takes this instinctual awareness of the mother as its origin, differs significantly from Freud’s concept of psychical reality, which is produced by particular circumstances rather than being innate to the human being. Mitchell writes,  “[i]n Klein’s concept, phantasy emanates from within and imagines what is without, it offers an unconscious commentary on instinctual life and links feelings to objects and creates a new amalgam:  the world of the imagination” (22-23). Klein’s concept of the imagination is thus funded by and founded in a relationship to the mother. Movement away from the mother, incited by anxiety, results in symbol formation that indirectly provides an affective return to this original relationship. The Kleinian world of the imagination, fraught with what Julia Kristeva has referred to as “carnal metaphors,” becomes possible only when these anxieties have been fully experienced and put to rest (13).[xxii]

In her paper “Early Analysis,” Klein equates “the capacity to sublimate” (81) with the “capacity to employ superfluous libido” (81). Reminding us that, according to Freud, the ego instincts always remain tinged by the sexual instincts (hence giving them their libidinal components), she states that the “sexual symbolic cathexis of a trend or activity belonging to the ego-instincts corresponds to this libidinal component” (85). Klein continues, “[w]e call this process of cathexis with libido ‘sublimation’ and explain its genesis by saying that it gives to superfluous libido, for which there is no adequate satisfaction, the possibility of discharge, and that the damming-up of libido is thus lessened or brought to an end” (85).  “Superfluous libido,” according to Klein, refers to the quantity of affect that vanishes, without leading to a formation of symptoms, in a successful repression. The ability “to employ superfluous libido in a cathexis of ego-tendencies” (85), or to sublimate, would then seem merely to indicate a successful repression. 

If she had stopped here, Klein would have gotten no further than Freud did in his analysis of Leonardo.Recall that sublimation, as Freud finally wants us to understand it in Leonardo, becomes the mechanism by which the artist successfully channels his scopophilic instincts into his research and his libidinal cathexis to his mother into his art.  In this equation, despite his earlier acknowledgment, Freud does not account for any “superfluous libido.” In fact, it is precisely Leonardo’s excess libido as associated with the mythological phallic mother that Freud must suppress by returning us to his Oedipal narrative. It soon becomes very difficult, as we have seen, to make a distinction in Freud’s essay between repression, symptom formation, and sublimation. 

By contrast, if, as Klein defines it in “Early Analysis,” sublimation involves the “capacity to employ superfluous libido” (85), she would seem to propose that symbolic formations like art stimulate and revisit libidinal energies that exceed a relationship to one specific object or experience. As such, in Kleinian theory the identification with the mother’s body that proves so central to symbolism, and therefore to art, implies more than a mere substitution of one object or experience for an original other. [xxiii] Instead it suggests that what the infant’s initial encounter with the mother generates is a libidinal excess, an overwhelming rush of sensation, which then seeks corroboration and expression in the external world but that, beyond its original affiliation, is decidedly non-referential.

If Klein’s definition of sublimation as put forth in “Early Analysis” allows us to read art as something other than a symptomatic repetition of an earlier pleasurable experience and thereby avoids the equation of art with symptom for which Freud was so notorious, she nevertheless infers that Freud’s reading of art as symptomatic is understandable given that symptoms and sublimation, up to a point, share the same course of development. Both symptoms and sublimation take as their foundation a process of identification, which as the prelude to symbolism involves the child’s effort in the earliest stages of development to “rediscover its bodily organs and their activities in every object which it encounters” (85). This search for objects in the world that resonate with the child’s own capacity for self-pleasure begins with the child’s own bodily comparisons—what feels good below must have an affective equivalent with something above—and extends to other objects on the basis of a “similitude of pleasurable tone” (85). This pleasurable bodily extension leads to libidinal phantasies becoming fixated in a sexual-symbolic fashion to other objects and activities. For example, according to Klein’s index for such substitutions, the sexual symbolic meaning of walking, running, and other types of movement stand for penetrating the mother. She reminds us that this substitution is not dissimilar to Freud’s notion of the hysterical attack, which is simply a “pantomime representation of phantasies, translated into terms of motion and projected on to motility.  An analogous assertion may be made of those phantasies and fixations which, as in the artist, are represented by physical motor innervations whether in relation to the subject’s own or some other medium” (88). At this point it would seem that Klein comes dangerously close to repeating Freud’s equation of art with hysterical symptom. Indeed, what she has shown us is that this lack of distinction is in a sense a justifiable one since both hysterical symptoms and sublimation rely upon the body’s capacity for displacing its erotogenic zones. 

However, despite this very crucial similarity between symptoms and sublimation, Klein determines that there must be an essential difference. In order to elucidate that difference she returns us to Freud’s analysis of Leonardo. “How,” she asks, “did Leonardo escape hysteria?” (87). Freud would respond by saying that Leonardo successfully sublimates those instincts associated with the early infantile sexual researches, which were clearly invoked by his fellatio phantasy, into his research and his art. Sublimation then becomes a far healthier version of what could otherwise have become a symptom. But while Klein is keen on noting the similarities between symptoms and sublimation, she is not content to rest with such a facile substitution. Remember that Freud leaves us in Leonardo with what he pronounces to be psychoanalysis’s inability to determine “how artistic activity derives from the primal instincts of the mind” (136). Klein tells us that the “how” lies in an understanding of the temporal relation between repression and sublimation. While Leonardo’s vulture phantasy, interpreted by Freud as a gratification through fellatio that contains the real memory-content of the child being suckled and kissed by its mother, certainly has the potential, given its erotic charge, to follow the course of hysterical conversion, Klein tells us in “Early Analysis” that it is precisely at the point of fixation that there is a divergence.

Key to the development of the artistic capacity, as Klein defines it in “Early Analysis,” are three central characteristics: 1) an early and particularly intense narcissistic connection between self and other; 2) the ability to hold libido in a state of suspension; 3) a body that is unusually and highly receptive to its surroundings to the extent that it may be deemed symptomatic—suffering from, in my words, aesthetic symptoms—as well as a body whose deepest instincts correspond with but do not merely translate into libidinal drives (87-88). Klein tells us that Leonardo, as the exemplary artist, possessed all of these attributes. Had he only established an identification between his mother’s breast, the penis, and the bird’s tail, then he would no doubt have succumbed to hysterical symptoms. However, his identification of the above three instead became merged with a broader spectrum of interest—the sensations associated with contemplating the bird itself, its ability to fly, and its relation to the space around it—thereby enabling the affect associated with the original pleasurable situations to remain at play. “When they receive this sort of representation,” writes Klein, “the fixations are divested of sexual character; they become consonant with the ego and if the sublimation succeeds—if, that is to say, they are merged in an ego tendency—they do not undergo repression” (88). Here Klein clarifies the hypothesis Freud fails to develop in “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming”: the artist has a unique capacity for sublimation and the ability to override repression. Klein asserts that while sublimation without a doubt involves an unconscious fixation on an earlier pleasurable experience, such experience remains at play—the superfluous libido remains suspended—because it has gone unthwarted, as we know Leonardo’s did, by a father who brings repression to bear down upon it.  

As I argued earlier, in “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming” Freud moves us towards understanding that there is a temporal suspension of affect associated with art.  However, whether consciously or unconsciously, Freud recognizes that theorizing this suspension would require denying the father’s role in the artistic process. Hence, sublimation becomes conflated with repression and art is thus easily equated with a return of the repressed. According to Klein, all fixations are destined for sublimation. If, however, they undergo repression too early, then they are not allowed to resonate with other experiences—to merge with ego-tendencies—and therefore find themselves deprived of the affect necessary to render art. “In my opinion,” asserts Klein, “ we find that a fixation which leads to a symptom was already on the way to sublimation but was cut off from it by repression. The earlier this happens the more will the fixation retain of the actual sexual character of the pleasure-situation and the more will it sexualize the tendency on which it has bestowed its libidinal cathexis, instead of becoming merged in that tendency” (89). It would seem, therefore, that Leonardo had the ideal upbringing for an artist: surrounded by an excess of maternal affection early in his life and an absence of paternal repression, his libidinal energies avoided the fate of fixation and remained at play in a field where the other became more than a substitute for a former pleasure and was instead a stimulus for an endless array of suspended responses. It is the accumulated energy of these responses subjected to the incandescent mind of the artist that then finds expression in art.

If Freudian theory ostensibly offers no future for the affective relationship to the maternal body beyond art as symptomatic of a desire that can never be fulfilled, Kleinian theory suggests that the act of symbol formation always involves the possibility of a new love and a new relation that brings the past into the future via the body of aesthetic form. Such affect refers back to the infant’s early relation to the mother’s body, but it also brings forward a whole geography of sensation exceeding that relation.[xxiv] According to Klein, it is our unconscious reliving of this geography that ultimately yields aesthetic pleasure.

Leonardo’s Fantasia

In Leonardo, Freud restricts the artist’s libidinal energies to the prescribed boundaries of his Oedipal narrative despite the fact that his libidinal attachments clearly exceed that narrative. Freud’s awareness of this fact is apparent both in the definition of sublimation he provides the reader with in the first section of Leonardo—a definition which, like Klein’s, suggests that sublimation involves “superfluous libido” that has escaped early fixation and its consequent repression—and again at the end of his psychoanalytic novel, where he admits the following:  “[T]his repression after the first erotic satisfactions of childhood need not necessarily have taken place.  [. . .] We must recognize here a degree of freedom which cannot be resolved any further by psychoanalytic means” (135). Fixated himself upon Leonardo’s phantasy of the vulture, Freud cannot think the unconscious and its phantasies as anything other than an indication of psychic depth, which leads him inevitably to read Leonardo as a psychoanalytic subject who can be rendered coherent through analysis even if the art itself cannot be. To read Leonardo as an aesthetic subject, Freud would have had to think through the process of sublimation more thoroughly. Were he to have addressed the relationship between art and psychoanalysis at length, his obvious next step would have been to write a theoretical exegesis on sublimation. However, as Bersani has noted, to do so Freud would have had to radically reconfigure his belief that psychoanalysis held the key to opening up the mysteries of culture as well as those of the human mind (“Death and Literary Authority” 34). 

Although he never wrote the paper on sublimation, Freud does “lay down his arms” at the end of Leonardo. He inadvertently leaves readers with both analyst and artist as aesthetic subjects: 

[W]e are all too ready to forget that in fact everything to do with our life is chance, [. . .] chance which nevertheless has a share in the law and necessity of nature, and which merely lacks any connection with our wishes and illusions.  [. . .] Every one of us human beings corresponds to one of the countless experiments in which these ‘ragioni’ [countless causes] of nature force their way into experience. (137) 

If Freud veils psychoanalysis’s failure to fully elucidate Leonardo or his art in denials, mistranslations, and convenient oversights, his psychoanalytic novel ultimately implies that he knows art’s power lies in its ability to provoke correspondences between self and world that dwell not in certainty but in possibility.

I would like to conclude by turning our attention back to Leonardo’s phantasy and to his paintings—most specifically “St. Anne with Two Others”—so as to ask how we might read both phantasy and painting for their revelation of an aesthetic subject rather than a psychoanalytic subject. This task, as I shall point out momentarily in relation to Klaus Herding’s reading, continues to be just as difficult for today’s art historians and art critics as I have illustrated it was for Freud. We will be helped in our endeavor by returning to Leondaro da Vinci’s own definition of art as it is related to science and the imagination.

Leonardo’s notebooks are filled with fantastical descriptions that at first glance might seem entirely at odds with his scientific discipline. However, the artist’s imagination, far from a negation of rational thought, served as an extension thereof. According to the art historian Martin Kemp, Leonardo’s imagination can be described as a modified version of medieval psychology’s understanding of the inner senses referred to as the “realm of fantasia” (160). Leonardo’s fantasia conceives the imagination as an “active, combinatory” force that continually “recombines sensory impressions [and] visualiz[es] new compounds in unending abundance” (160). Sounding very much like the version of phantasy Bersani attributes to his aesthetic subject—phantasy as a source for understanding our contingency in relation to the world—Leonardo’s realm of fantasia invokes the virtual and the concomitant.

Keeping Leonardo’s notion of fantasia in mind, let us return to the artist’s kite/vulture phantasy. At the time Leonardo records this memory of the kite coming to him in his cradle, he is also preoccupied with the possibility of human flight and was in fact planning a trial flight of his flying-machine, which he also referred to as his ‘big bird’—from the summit of Monte Ceceri in northern Florence (Nicholl 32). Rather than suggesting an erotic fixation, Leonardo’s phantasy could be read as incorporating a recombination of the sensations he associated unconsciously with infancy and those he also imagines to be associated with the possibility of flight. We could then interpret Leonardo’s phantasy as revealing an interface between the moving subject and its world and as invoking an ur-originary affect that finds resonance in human flight. As such, Leonardo’s phantasy might be interpreted as signifying a set of unique correspondences between the artist and the world he encounters rather than as representing a Freudian narrative of arrested development.

In Leonardo’s “St. Anne with Two Others” infancy and the maternal relation are correlated with fluidity and movement rather than with flight specifically. At this point, it is worth mentioning two observations Klaus Herding offers in relation to Leonardo’s painting but does not fully pursue. Referring to Freud’s reading of the cartoon drawing of “St. Anne” in which he notes the doubling and even fusing of the two mothers, Herding remarks that it is not only the similarity between the two women that should be noted or their physical proximity. Even more importantly, he writes, it is “the affectionate engagement of the women with each other. Strangely enough this has been overlooked by psychoanalytic scholars” (353). However, after reading this affectionate engagement as invoking a phallic ur-mother, Herding, like Freud, seems to disavow the unconventional affiliations he has just acknowledged. Also overlooked, according to Herding, both in the drawing and the painting, is what he refers to as the “negative grounding” (355) of the composition: “That is, instead of a stable base for the figures there is a sloping terrain, possibly even water. [. . .] It is possible to bring together the hydrological particularities of the ground with the instability of the artificially constructed group. This is deserving of psychoanalytic attention”(355). Having earlier gestured towards a desire that refuses to be contained within normative narrative constraints, Herding here refers to the women and child as an “artificially constructed group” (355) whose instability is mirrored in what he later refers to as the “uncertain constitution” (355) of a natural environment all of which might imply a “threat to human relationships” (355).

Despite urging us to read Freud’s Leonardo and by extension Leonardo’s paintings for their “poetic overtones,” it would appear that Herding has returned us to the limitations of a psychoanalytic reading of art by tacitly disapproving of what he refers to as the compositions “negative grounding” (355). I call attention to this moment not so as to dismiss Herding’s reading, but instead to illustrate how difficult it is, even for an art historian of his stature, to do a psychoanalytic reading that does not merely reproduce a psychoanalytic subject. Let us return to Herding’s two very provocative observations—first, the desire circulating between two mothers and a child and second, the “uncertain constitution” of the natural environment behind them—and note how they might instead yield an aesthetic subject. Leonardo’s “St. Anne with Two Others” pulls the viewer who beholds it into a swirl of motility, crevices, and folds. At the center of the painting one sees the triangular configuration of Saint Anne, Mary, and the Christ child. While in the cartoon Leonardo positioned Saint Anne and Mary’s heads at the same height with Saint Anne looking intensely at Mary, the painting depicts Saint Anne gazing down at Mary who is in turn looking at and reaching for the child. While looking back at Mary, the child is simultaneously reaching for the lamb whose gaze is directed at both the child and Mary.

As a literary critic, I will make no attempt to elucidate the painting’s Renaissance iconography, which art historians like Martin Kemp and Klaus Herding have already done quite well. What I am interested in instead is the way the affective conduit between two mothers, a child, and a lamb moves circuitously within a pyramid shape whose borders are not clearly defined but rather blur almost indistinguishably, though not quite, into the natural environment behind them. The motility expressed in the glances between the figures as well as in the folds of their attire is repeated in the ravines, waves, and shadows of the background environment as Leonardo has imagined it. There is, as Herding suggests, a certain instability and precariousness implied by the volatile motility shared by the subjects and their external world. Saint Anne especially appears to be anchoring her foot on the edge of a precipice so as to keep them all from sliding beyond the painting’s frame. Despite the precarious nature of both the subjects and the outside world, the eye of the beholder is eventually drawn back to the converging maternal figures of Saint Anne and Mary. The affective power of these two mothers appears to contribute to the vertiginous movement created through and around them, while at the same time they are the ones who provide some semblance of stability.

In his exegesis of the aesthetic subject, Bersani argues that psychoanalysis has “failed to elaborate a concept of the world as much more than a vaguely specified (or, at best, normative) reality to which we must learn to ‘adapt’”(“Psychoanalysis” 174).  However, he goes on to suggest that while “external reality may at first present itself as an affective menace, psychoanalysis—like art, although in a more discursive mode—might train us to see our prior presence in the world, to see, as bizarre as this may sound, that, ontologically, the world cares for us” (174). Rather than reading a relational instability mirrored in an equally unstable environment as potentially a threat to human relations—can we, following Bersani’s lead, read the correspondences I have suggested are present in Leonardo’s painting as revealing an ontological truth about a precarious interdependency between human beings and the natural world? Might we also acknowledge such a precarious interdependency between self and world as having its affective touchstone in the erotic and highly ambivalent relation played out between the psyche and soma of mother and child?

As we look to the future of psychoanalysis and its ability to speak to art, Leo Bersani’s work continues to deserve our close attention. His notion of the aesthetic subject reminds us to think art and psychoanalysis together not so as to generate tidy explicative narratives but so as to feel their affective vibrations and to recognize the “copresence of tragically fixated content and gorgeously mobile form” (Kurnick 401). Leonardo da Vinci, Freud, and Klein serve to remind us in turn that such affective vibrations originate, however inexplicably, in our relation to our first aesthetic object—the mother’s body. This recognition does not negate what Bersani refers to as art’s “nonrealization of desire”—a  privileging of desire’s mobility as opposed to its object. Instead, it asks us to shift the focus of a psychoanalytic aesthetics away from notions of arrested development and ideational content towards an understanding of form as an “adaptive orientation to a fluid, present reality in light of the past” (Rose xix). To theorize art and psychoanalysis through the lens of the aesthetic subject is not to fixate so as to easily interpret, but rather to embrace art and the aesthetic experience as placing both artist and beholder somewhere between conscious and unconscious processes. It is finally to risk being overwhelmed by intoxicating new feelings so that we might gesture towards rather than conclusively define the vistas opened to us by art and psychoanalysis, each of which can take us to Leonardo’s fantasia.


[i] Herding names two exceptions to this assertion: Meyer Schapiro and Ernst-H Gombrich. See Collins and Adams for a thorough summary and critical overview of scholarship engaging Freud’s monograph.

[ii] I am specifically referencing Bersani’s detailed articulation of the aesthetic subject in his article “Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject”; however, much of his work arguably is dedicated to an elaboration of the aesthetic subject.  See also The Freudian Body, "Caravaggio’s Secrets,” and most recently Intimacies. For a recent assessment of Leo Bersani’s ongoing importance to the fields of psychoanalysis, aesthetics, and queer theory see Dean; Gallop; Kurnick; Lucey; Silverman. For Bersani’s response to these assessments see “Broken Connections.”

[iii] Collins provides a detailed summary and critical overview of such readings.

[iv] For example, see Armstrong, O’Sullivan, Bersani, and Best.

[v] While I am aware that the British Independents—James Strachey, Donald Winnicott, Paula Heimann, Ella Sharp, Sylvia Payne, Ronald Fairbairn, and Marion Milner, to name only a few—were theorizing the relationship between art, the aesthetic experience, and psychoanalysis long before Bersani and his contemporaries, their work is beyond the purview of this article.  Here I am interested specifically in rereading Leonardo, a text frequently dismissed as merely equating art with symptom, as instead a work that deserves new attention in the wake of Bersani’s efforts to reinvigorate psychoanalytic readings of narrative, art, and culture.

[vi] Geoffrey Hartman notes that Freud frequently found himself prone to an aesthetic response that, in a letter to Wilhelm Fleiss, he refers to as “form feeling” (formgefühl). In his essay, Hartman defines “form feeling” as “a neuroaesthetic response to the formal qualities of the artwork” and situates Freud’s efforts to articulate this response in relation to developments in German philosophizing about form and feeling (510). My notion of aesthetic symptoms is derived from a reading of Freud’s affective response to art as well as from British aestheticians and psychologists writing about art during the early twentieth century and certainly resonates with Hartman’s discussion of “form feeling.” However, my notion of aesthetic symptoms is intent not only on invoking what Hartman qualifies as a “neuroaesthetic response to form” but also the unconscious origins of such a response, which, as we shall see, exceed the psychoanalytic narrative to which Freud seeks to confine them in Leonardo

[vii] Freud’s bewilderment was shared by art critics like Roger Fry who in his essay “The Artist and Psychoanalysis,” originally delivered before the British Psychoanalytic Society in 1924, confesses that he too has been unable to answer one question he feels is central to an understanding of aesthetic form. “There is in art,” he speculates, “an affective quality [. . .]. I sometimes wonder if it does not get its force from arousing some very deep, very vague, and immensely generalized reminiscences” (365). 

[viii] Although Freud’s work was not necessarily being perceived as such, it was in the same vein as work being done by his contemporaries—both aesthetic theorists and psychologists—who were attempting to explain the aesthetic experience as revealing the complexities inherent to mind-body relations. See Hearnshaw; Bullough; Richards; Read; and Lee.

[ix] For a discussion regarding the influence of biology on Freud’s thinking see Jones and Sulloway.    

[x] See Frankland and Meisel for discussions of Freud’s reception by his literary contemporaries.

[xi] For reactions to this assertion by Freud’s contemporaries see specifically Bell and Huxley.

[xii] Tim Dean makes a similar point regarding the importance of linking Bersani’s notion of aesthetic subjectivity to the virtual.  Dean writes, “Aesthetic subjectivity, as Bersani analyzed it in “Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject” (his most important essay since “Is the Rectum a Grave?”), should be understood as neither purely formal nor psychological but virtual.  Whereas formal correspondence pitches subjectivity into worldly space by exploding the frame (that which encloses both the artwork and the self), the ontology of the virtual opens selfhood onto the potentiality inherent in time” (391).

[xiii] In his recent assessment of Bersani’s work, David Kurnick writes that “like the work he analyzes, Bersani models a certain recursive habit for his readers; he asks us to look again” (402).

[xiv] In “Death and Literary Authority,” Bersani refers to art as representing what he refers to as the “nonrealization of desire” (212).  “By repeating the movements of desire rather than its hallucinatory contents,” argues Bersani, “the work of art prevents desire from settling into any constituted, definitive meanings; it is as if unconscious desire were emptied of its specific representations by becoming the object of its own characteristic mode of operation” (212).

[xv] See Laplanche and Pontalis; Laplanche and Miller and Bersani.  Laplanche and Pontalis note that as a psychoanalytic concept, sublimation has continued to be referred to as “the one lacunae in psychoanalytic thought” because Freud himself never formulated a coherent theory explaining either its process or its ramifications (433). In “Death and Literary Authority,” Bersani has a long and engaging discussion of sublimation in which he does reference Freud’sLeonardo; however, he does not engage in an analysis of how the concept shifts in its ideational content as Freud proceeds to read both Leonardo and his paintings.

[xvi] See Bass and Collins for the most detailed account of debates surrounding Freud’s mistranslation. 

[xvii] Although art historians typically refer to Leonardo’s painting as “Madonna and Christ with Saint Anne” (1501-13? Louvre, Paris), in Leonardo, Freud calls the painting “St. Anne with Two Others.” To avoid confusion, I am using Freud’s title for the painting.

[xviii] The other painters Freud mentions as having treated the subject of St. Anne with Mary and the infant include Hans Fries, the elder Hans Holbein, Girolamo dai Libri, and Jakob Cornelisz.

[xix] In 1910, Freud was still trying to convince himself along with others that the Oedipus complex did indeed represent the primary developmental trajectory for infant boys and girls. For further discussion of Freud’s anxieties in this regard see Birmele. 

[xx] Earl Jackson Jr. argues that as a sublimated homosexual Leonardo becomes for Freud an idealized version of the safe homosexual. Jackson writes, “the ‘ideal’ or ‘sublimated’ homosexual becomes a fetish object that protects the phallic integrity of the male subject far more homogenously than a phallic mother goddess, because of the ideal homosexual’s absolute indifference” (67).

[xxi] As noted by Paul Ricoeur, “Leonardo’s brush does not create the memory of the mother, it creates it as a work of art” (174).

[xxii] Referring to Kleinian phantasy in her recent biography of Klein, Kristeva writes, “The Kleinian phantasy [. . .] is a veritable incarnation, a carnal metaphor, what Proust would call a transubstantiation” (13).

[xxiii] Bersani has argued in “Death and Literary Authority” that the version of sublimation Klein presents in “Early Analysis” runs counter to her later work. After 1923, he suggests that Klein’s notion of sublimation too easily subscribes to a redemptive notion of art as an act of symbolic reparation that merely repeats normative social and familial structures. Bersani prefers the notion of sublimation as a cathexis of “superfluous libido” because it allows him to imagine a “floating signifier of sexual energy,” thereby suggesting that an “individual’s sexuality included a moment of significant uncertainty about the fate of sexual energy” (233). I agree with Bersani that Klein offers us a much more liberated form of sexual energy here that is not tied to a desire for any one object; however, I disagree with his suggestion that the definition of sublimation in Klein’s later work loses the degree of “significant uncertainty” he is privileging in “Early Analysis.” Instead, I would argue that art is never merely a substitute for the mother’s body even in Klein’s later work; rather, art captures the creative libidinal energy first experienced in a sentient relationship to that body.  Although Klein’s work is frequently reduced to art as equal to a redemptive repair of mother’s body, the affect generated by the initial contact with the mother’s body is much more complex than such an equation seems to suggest.

24Similarly, Paul Ricoeur argues that works of art “are not simply projections of the artist’s conflicts, but the sketch of their solution. Dreams look backward, toward infancy, the past; the work of art goes ahead of the artist; it is a prospective symbol of his personal synthesis and of man’s future, rather than a regressive symbol of unresolved conflicts” (175).

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Kimberly Coates "Finding Fantasia: Leonardo da Vinci, Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, and the Aesthetic Subject". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available May 23, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: November 19, 2010, Published: November 21, 2010. Copyright © 2010 Kimberly Coates