Lode Laperre


A Jungian interpretation of Naos Mandala by Lode Laperre

Psychology only emerged relatively late as a scientific discipline. Before the insights of Freud or Jung enjoyed greater interest, human beings were seen as objects moving in a vacuum. Although they could respond to mystical aspirations, they were rather meaningless themselves. For the precise functioning of human existence, we could turn to religion or speculative philosophy.

Freud was not the first to study humankind as a complex and layered entity, but he was certainly the first to provide this image with a general, conclusive theory. His undisputed successor, Carl Gustav Jung, also did this, but soon came to very different conclusions than his teacher, which left both men with a trauma.

Freud saw the subconscious as a place where all repressed urges and traumas were dumped. Leave them unchecked and they will grow into a kind of poison that can cause mental and physical damage. Jung, on the other hand, sees the unconscious as a separate, rich world with its own laws and unparalleled possibilities. An area to discover and exploit with the aim of finding a mental balance, completely falling apart with oneself.

According to Jung, this unconscious also has its own language. It expresses itself in archetypes and symbols, in images and myths. Never in words or formulas, which belong to the realm of rational consciousness. By making this language of the unconscious explicit, you build a bridge between the unconscious and the conscious, and you are one step closer to mental equilibrium, an ideal state of undisguised self-knowledge. A state he named "individuation".

Both men sporadically wrote about art. Even here, they had two diametrically different views. In essence, Freud saw art as an outlet for inner tensions and conflicts, mainly associated with sexuality, while Jung saw art as a powerful means for exploring deeper layers of human experience, linked to the collective unconscious and symbolism.

Repressed unwanted emotions compared to surfacing unknown worlds and unreachable beings. When engaging with art, you might find Jung's view more appealing since it aligns with relying on your imagination to understand it. But where Freud's interpretation has become common and has even been used in some proverbs, Jung's vision remains alive only in the minds of a relatively small number of fans. Unjustified. It offers many approaches and insights that make you look at art differently.

Man as a creator
Although he never made a specific study of art, Jung regularly talked about artists and scientists in his lectures. He mentioned both in the same breath because, according to him, the source of their practice is at least common, if not equal: in their development, both build a bridge between the subconscious and the conscious.

Everyone knows the image of Isaac Newton realising the effect of gravity when an apple falls from the tree onto his head. The anecdote is of course exaggerated (although he was staying with family in the countryside at the time), but it is a striking example of how scientists sometimes suddenly, "out of nowhere", come to completely new insights. What is often forgotten with such anecdotes is that insight is a natural endpoint of accumulated prior knowledge. Time was ripening for a long time before Newton’s "sudden" insight.

It is often not easy to demonstrate which causal path led to this insight. There is a jump somewhere, as if someone unintentionally skips a step while others are still stumbling up the stairs. The mystery lies in why and how someone suddenly skips a step. What drove him to abandon the common paradigm and move in a new direction?
You would think that scientists and artists differ profoundly, given that one works purely with rational processes while the other relies on emotions and creative impulses. Nevertheless, numerous unconscious and conscious processes play in the same way to arrive at new insights. This applies to both rational science and creative minds.

Take the state of supreme concentration for example, in which both scientists and artists can often work for days at a time, falling prey to a rush of inspiration. The Dutch psychologist Ap Dijsterhuis says that during this process they remain in a trance for a long time and the unconscious takes control. They act on autopilot for a while. Not infrequently, they watch in amazement as they take a few steps back to view what they have just created (and the resulting insight), as if discovering it for the first time. This is often also the case for their consciousness.

This interaction between conscious and unconscious processes was the research domain of the first practitioners of psychology as a scientific discipline. Freud provided it with a coherent theoretical framework. In comparison, C.G. Jung's approach feels rather strange and speculative, arising more from pure intuition than from scientific research. But because of this, he offers an interesting vision on art. Just like artists, Jung offers an alternative way to approach reality.

A Jungian understanding of art 
Jung did not have a clear vision on art. He only wrote about it sporadically, but the study of the Dutch theologian Tjeu van den Berk clearly shows that these scattered insights about art fully fit Jung's picture of human psychological functioning.

To understand this vision, it is important to know what Jung calls the autonomy of the work of art. A work of art must be seen as separate from its creator. But even more so, in the words of Van den Berk: “Jung will never reduce this to a moral, political or religious product – not even a sublimated expression of instinct, not a social neurosis”.

To explain this, you have to go back to the origins of the work of art: unconscious complexes understood as “a collection of ideas and images that are clustered by unconscious drive”. Not complexes in the Freudian sense, but autonomous organs in the subconscious, “characteristic life forms of the human psyche”. They in themselves provide unconscious creative impulses, but that is not all, according to Jung.
These creative impulses draw their ideas and images from the participation mystique, a kind of numinous undercurrent that connects everything and lies at the basis of the collective subconscious. Art is said to arise from the tendency of this symbiotic unity to impose itself on the conscious through symbols, dreams and art (which often also acquires a symbolic value).

“That is why the great work of art is neutral and impersonal and yet moves us very deeply”, concludes Van den Berk. The artist may perhaps add his own views on society, experiences or traumas, but in essence, according to Jung, good works of art are those that arise at the intersection of the collective unconscious, which tends towards the conscious, and the conscious, which tends towards the collective. As stated by Jung, not all art achieves this subtle balance. It requires a very delicate interaction between control and letting go. If one takes the upper hand, the magical effect that art can have as a symbol (in the Jungian sense) fails.

The (collective) unconscious world, populated with shadows and archetypes, each with their own independent consciousness, has the urge to manifest itself in the conscious. The unknown entities lying within must be allowed into the consciousness without allowing them to dominate it. However, you should not push them back through rational consciousness either since they are a full part of your "self". Hence the fine balance that takes shape in a work of art. This also explains the mysterious effect that a work of art can have on the viewer: as a symbol, it can also help him in the process of individuation. It "awakens something" deep within by giving voice to the numerous autonomous beings that live within us. According to Jung, that is precisely where the therapeutic power of art lies - as a symbol.

Naos Mandala 
There are numerous works of art – and artists – in which I recognise the processes described by Jung. Many of the standard phrases such as "it is up to the viewer to interpret the work" or "I create without a precise intention or message" take on a richer meaning and a lot more depth through Jung’s view. He certainly taught me to see art as a valuable gateway to previously unknown worlds.

Let me try to clarify this with the help of a work of art that left a deep impression on me: the painting Naos Mandala by Lode Laperre.

In Lode's work, both conscious and unconscious processes have free rein. This is partly due to the process that precedes it. At the start, Lode applies numerous layers of paint to the canvas, in different colours on specific and carefully selected places on the canvas. He chooses the colours depending on the atmosphere he wants to create or the state of mind he is in. It is a semi-conscious process: unconscious, since he does not have an exact end result in mind at that moment; conscious, because thanks to his accumulated experience, he knows approximately which colours will ultimately have a certain effect.

Nevertheless, he also leaves things to chance at this stage, sometimes reluctantly. His supplier once delivered the wrong colour, a bright pink. The artist initially wanted to return the paint but ultimately decided to give the pink colour a chance. An expensive risk, if it fails. But the new colour had a cathartic effect. The effect surprised him and possibly led him to unexpected insights. In any case, it influenced his future works in a subtle way, as if his "accidental decision" granted him access to new possibilities.

The thick layers of paint take a long time to dry, sometimes months. Once dry, the scraping begins and reveals the hidden colours in the different layers. Colours appear randomly, in a mating dance between the conscious gesture and the erratic paint, between the experienced action and the unknown areas in matter. He regularly takes a few steps back to examine the composition. He thinks about the balance and intervenes sporadically until it is a match. But a match with what? In Jung's interpretation: it is a match when the autonomous complexes from the subconscious have conveyed their message to consciousness.

When Lode finished his work Asterom in 2022, the overall picture seemed strangely familiar to him. He dug into his memory, looking for where he had seen the image he just created. He never works with existing images. Nevertheless, he was firmly convinced that his Asterom already existed somewhere.

Suddenly he knew. He found an Asian landscape carved from animal bone in his extensive collection of traditional Asian iconography. He was shocked for a moment. The strange curves of the water surface, the five pine trees on the shore, the steep boulders on the left, the suggestive depth of the valley below. His Asterom was an exact replica!

How was this possible? Given the lack of intention and the importance of chance, wasn’t his work essentially "imageless"? There was a purpose behind it, he realised that. But it was never expressed, never explicit. What origin did this image have that he did not even have in mind when "recreating" it? Could it be that it had remained dormant in the process for months, only to emerge after completion? Why did exactly this image linger? An image that in itself had no special significance compared to the numerous others he had viewed since.

Lode does not have an exact answer to these questions. But undoubtedly, the churning in his memory had unleashed a wealth of emotions and insights.

Something similar happened to me when I saw the work Naos Mandala for the first time. Of course, I did not work on it for months myself but nevertheless, it is as if the laborious process leading up to the result took place within me, transferred in a simple glance. The entire process is concentrated in the image and reveals itself in a flash of light, where the process unrolls back into the viewer like a funnel. But does this also give a voice to the viewer's deeper unconscious complexes?
It requires effort from the viewer. You have to break free from the limiting need to find meaning in what you observe. That is not easy. What we are as human beings, what holds us together as a "self", is nothing other than the urge to form a coherent, meaningful whole that drifts in a certain direction. Didn't Jung write: man is a drop of meaning in a sea of being?

In our experience, we become aware of nothing other than the unity that we are, although we realise that this cannot be without distinction from the events "outside" us. But where is that limit? Not in our skin, which is merely a channel for all kinds of invisible micro-organisms. Not in our brain, which is extremely flexible and continuously adapts to external impulses. And not in our soul. As far as human beings possess a soul, there is no indication of a distinction with that of other souls, nor from a broader, universal reality. Is the "self" an illusion, as Eastern tradition seems to have been indicating for centuries?

“Looking at art is complete surrender”, someone told me at Lode's vernissage. “You have to experience it without a brain.”

Without a brain? Is that even possible? I look at the work Naos Mandala somewhat strangely. A good set of brains surrounded by what appears to be a complex neural network. It is the look of a rationally thinking person, I conclude. Can't my trained eye help but see a subject in everything? Can't I tear myself away from recognition points and meanings? What would I see if I succeeded? Perhaps Jung's autonomous complexes: the voices that keep me alert and fuel my passion for life. In the veins of the brain paint, all kinds of figures emerge. New thoughts are fed with wild, irrational voices. I suddenly realise that brains are not boundaries, although there is nothing behind the thoughts they produce. And that is not necessary. It is in this "not having to" that Jung's complexes lie, the unconscious world that nestles in the void between the nerves. The Naos Mandala offers me a gateway to the new, non-real world, nevertheless as real as the one we know.

Whether this insight really comes from Jung's complexes is impossible to determine. But again: why would I want to find out? It is the need for it that I have to let go. To leave room for the unconscious and the unknowable. It happened in an instant while I was looking at the work. The image will stay with me, just like the insight it gave me at that precise moment.

(published in the yearbook of TheArtCouch magazine  -  English translation: Maarten D'hoop)

Frederic De Meyer