Modern Consciousness Research and the Understanding of Art; including the Visionary World of H. R. Giger by Stanislav Grof, M.D., is available for purchase at maps.org/store.
Stanislav Grof begins this fascinating and sumptuous book by reviewing the attempts of 20th-century depth psychologists to understand great art, including Freud’s analyses of Dostoevsky, Leonardo, and Shakespeare and Marie Bonaparte’s work on the tales of Edgar Allen Poe. While interesting from a historical perspective, Grof shows how the Freudian model of the psyche is inadequate for a deeper understanding of the artistic world.
He introduces some of the early studies of creativity and psychedelics which revealed clear similarities between the art of LSD subjects and the paintings of major figures in the movements of Abstractionism, Impressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Fantastic Realism. Many professional painters who participated in this research found that after the LSD session, their imaginations became richer, their colors more vivid, and their styles considerably freer. “On occasion, people who had never painted before were able to produce extraordinary drawings and paintings. The power of the deep unconscious material that had surfaced in their sessions somehow took over the process and used the subject as a channel for artistic expression.”
The impact of psychedelics on the history of art was not limited to scientific experiments, however. A whole generation of avant-garde young artists was able to portray “with extraordinary artistic power a rich array of experiences originating in these deep and ordinarily hidden recesses of the human psyche.” This gorgeously produced anthology is replete with striking color prints by figures such as Marcel Duchamp, Edvard Munch, Mati Klarwein, Ernest Fuchs, Roberto Venosa, Martina Hoffman, Maura Holden, and Alex Grey. It also showcases evocative paintings by individuals who have undergone psychedelic therapy and Holotropic Breathwork.
Figure 1: The Oceanic Womb (Stanislav Grof). An experience of melted or oceanic ecstasy in a psychedelic session. The artist was reliving the intrauterine state while simultaneously identifying with the serene consciousness of whales and jellyfish.
At the heart of the book, Grof applies his expanded understanding of the human unconscious to the contributions of the Swiss artist, Hansreudi Giger. He refers to a comment shared by the filmmaker Oliver Stone: “I do not know anyone else who has so accurately portrayed the soul of modern humanity. A few decades from now when people talk about the twentieth century, they will think of Giger”—an assessment which many now share. As Grof describes, “There is no other artist who has captured with equal power the ills plaguing modern society: the rampaging technology taking over human life, suicidal destruction of the ecosystems of the earth, violence reaching apocalyptic proportions, sexual excesses, insanity of life driving people to mass consumption of tranquilizers and narcotic drugs, and the alienation individuals experience in relation to their bodies, to each other, and to nature.”
Giger designed the unforgettable alien in Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi movie Alien, for which he was honored with an Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 1979. His art, both widely admired and controversial, is often characterized by a fusion of machine-like and human elements, an amalgam often referred to as “biomechanoid.” Head-crushing steel vices, compressing pistons, and mechanical cogwheels are featured abundantly in his paintings. On one level, these may be seen as reflecting the dangerous and oppressive intrusion of technology into human life. “The archetypal stories of Faust, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Golem, and Frankenstein have become the leading mythologies of our times,” Grof writes. “Materialistic science, in its effort to understand control the world of matter, has engendered a monster that threatens the very survival of life on our planet.”
Giger’s intense paintings are suffused with scatological and demonic motifs, sexual organs and appendages, laboring mothers, and stricken angry fetuses. Grof suggests that these combinations of themes in Giger’s work are, rather than a random juxtaposition of images such as those found in surrealism, reflections of a deep and consistent experiential pattern. His art depicts the kind of death-rebirth or “dark night of the soul” scenes that routinely occur during the journey of inner psychological transformation. People engaged in psychedelic therapy or holotropic breathwork often encounter the same elements portrayed in Giger’s paintings, at certain points in their inner process.
Grof termed this layer of the psyche perinatal (literally “surrounding birth”), a layer that has not yet been integrated in mainstream psychology, which tends to focus only on postnatal events. Attempts to explain Giger’s work in terms of his post-natal biography, however, have been less than convincing. He enjoyed a relatively peaceful childhood free of major traumas, including a warm and loving relationship with his mother and a satisfactory one with his father. Yet from an early age he displayed a highly engaged imagination and dream life, with both an attraction to and fear of passages, tunnels, trap doors and cellars—themes which are logically related to the passage through the birth canal. Like many artists, Giger was deeply introspective and was aware of the birth process as an inspiration for his work. For example, one of his paintings, Homage to Samuel Beckett III (1969), depicts a suffering fetus in a narrow channel, squashed by a hydraulic piston. Grof points out that the intensity of the contracting uterine walls, which press the frail head of the fetus down the narrow birth canal with 50 to 100 pounds of force, have for the fetus an overpowering, machinelike quality. Giger admired Grof and was proud of their friendship, feeling that Grof was able to understand the depths of his art more than anyone else.
In a similar way, many of the disturbing themes in Edgar Allen Poe’s stories remain incomprehensible in terms of his personal biography, but become clear when seen as expressions of perinatal experiences. Such images as the engulfing whirlpool (“Descent in the Maelstrom”), diabolical tortures and fiery walls (“The Pit and the Pendulum”) and being buried alive (“The Premature Burial”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”) are common and understandable motifs in the sessions of people who are reliving their births in deep self-exploration.
Grof’s research also suggests that the perinatal layer of the psyche, so evocatively portrayed in Giger’s art is responsible for many emotional and psychosomatic problems in human life. “Our self-definition and attitudes toward the world in our postnatal life are heavily contaminated by this constant reminder of the vulnerability, inadequacy, and weakness that we experienced at birth. In a sens
e, although we have been born anatomically, we have not caught up with this fact emotionally.”
These leftover energies, however, do not create problems only for individuals. Clinical research suggests that material from the dynamic stage of labor—intense driving forces, life-threatening suffocation, and activation of biological energies reaching an instinctual inferno—is a deep source of many extreme forms of collective psychopathology, including wars, bloody revolutions, concentration camps, genocide, and terrorism. There is ample evidence that such societal scourges as Nazism, Communism, and religious fundamentalism also have deep roots in this powerful inner material. The perinatal layer of the psyche, though still beyond the range of traditional psychotherapy, however, is not the deepest realm that emerges in self-exploration. Grof coined the term transpersonal to describe experiences in which people gain access to ancestral and racial memories from Jung’s historical unconscious, to archetypal and mythological realms, an identification with specific animal or plant species, past-life experiences, or cosmic consciousness.
While unresolved perinatal and transpersonal material is responsible for many problems in modern society, facing these leftovers in supported self-exploration can result in profound emotional and physical healing, creative breakthroughs, and spiritual awakening—transcendent states which Giger was able to touch on in his most sublime creations. In a sense, he has given to the world of art, a portion of what Grof has offered to the realm of psychology and psychiatry. Giger’s rich and evocative portfolio, so gracefully illumined by Grof, can be seen as alluring invitations for a deeper self-knowledge, calling us to face our disowned shadow material and reopen to the spiritual layers of existence. As Alex Grey writes in the book’s foreword, “[Grof’s discovery] of universal spirituality hardwired in the brain and unlocked during the mystical psychedelic state should be front page news.” This foundational book is a must-read for all serious students of art and the creative process, depth psychology, psychedelic therapy, history, and spirituality.
Renn Butler has a B.A. in English and Religious Studies and lived at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California for two years, where he studied with Stanislav Grof and Richard Tarnas and began thirty-five years of research into transpersonal psychology and archetypal astrology. He certified as a Holotropic Breathwork™ facilitator in 1989 and offers workshops in Victoria, B.C. as well as doing archetypal and holotropic astrology consultations with clients around the world. His first book, Pathways to Wholeness, a detailed exploration of the correlation of planetary alignments with psychedelic experiences, was published in England in 2014. His work can be found at rennbutler.com, and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.