A Psychological Take: In The Shadow of the Mother Complex / by Sam Abelow

"In the Shadow of the Mother Complex" -- Oil paint on (estimate, as it is un-stretched) 44x32 canvas. Completed outdoors, in mid-July.

This painting could have many interpretations. Of course, it does feature the heads of two characters, narrowing the possible associations in some proportion. My primary understanding of this painting was entirely personal and still mostly incomprehensible to my conscious mind.

A series of drawings, of which I selected from, were produced in a quarter of an hour on a bumpy train ride into New York City. There I saw an exhibit of Sandro Chia paintings. Like him, I paint as a Neo-Expressionist. My figures are reduced, cartooned, and the energetic brushstrokes in the background are reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionists. And as much as an interesting conversation could be had over the aesthetic principles and influences, I will focus on the psychological motifs.

Please enjoy this quick time lapse, capturing the process of making this painting:

Painting A Fascination

The series of drawings fluidly streamed onto the page. This is because the artistic inspiration stems from what Carl Jung describes as “the undifferentiated chaos of the magical mentality” [1]. However, I strive to understand the processes of creation and the drives behind the images I create.

Like many painters before me, both knowingly and unknowingly, I am influenced and fascinated by the image of the Great Mother. For example, the renowned Abstract Expressionist painter William De Kooning utilized his experiences in Jungian analysis [2], and drew inspiration from the archetype of the Great Mother [3]. For me, the study followed the fascination. It was a book by Erik Neumann titled, “The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype” that initially enhanced and encouraged my interest in the many-sided image of the feminine.

Professor Camille Paglia praises this book and the Jungian approach to understanding femininity. In her essay, she points out that in other writings, Neumann saw, “The creative man as ‘bisexual,’ even ‘feminine,’ because of his high ‘receptivity’ [4] These are figurative and not biological categories. Artists are like shamans, and travel to the underworld. Mythologically this is associated with feminine figures, like Persephone (in Greek mythology).

According to Jungian theory, the underworld, or unconscious psyche, holds universal patterns. This is why I believe my painting, “In The Shadow of the Mother Complex,” reflects not just personal dynamics, but also a collective meaning.

Separation and Evocation

My insight is that the figure on the top right is The Great Mother. As Neumann outlines, the source of all archetypes is Ouroboric, meaning that it is all-encompassing. It is the womb, the primordial soup. Think of an infant, completely dependent, carried blissfully within the mother.

Psychologically, this initial womb-state holds the potential for the entire plethora of archetypal patterns, including the Mother, Father and lover. That is why the character in my painting is somewhat androgynous.

Otto Rank describes birth as the first shock of separation. Each subsequent developmental stage in some way relates back to that initial and universal theme. My painting can be understood to represent one particular occurrence of this separation. In Carl Jung’s essay on “Four Archetypes,” within the section on the Mother, he says this:

“There is no consciousness without discrimination of opposites. This is the paternal principle, the Logos, which eternally struggles to extricate itself from the primal warmth and darkness of the maternal womb; in a word, from unconsciousness.”

Viewing my painting within this theme, the figure on the left can be seen as a representation of Logos. In accordance to Jung identifying Logos as masculine, my figure is male. Furthermore, he is bald, emphasizing the head — thinking, reasoning, mind. Jung describes the process of intellectual development, free from the ambiguity of the unconscious, as a struggle, which accounts for the man’s downtrodden appearance. The difficulty of this movement towards  consciousness and differentiation is also expressed by the long shadow the Great Mother casts on the male figure.

Therefore this painting expresses the perennial theme of separation from the Great Mother. It represents the struggle for mankind to distinguish itself from unconsciousness and develop higher reasoning, rationality and intellectual understanding. As our political and social world falls into upheaval and distressing chaos, this theme is as pertinent as ever.



[1] The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature, Carl Jung

[2] Unveiling the Unconscious: The Influence of Jungian Psychology on Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, by Amy Elizabeth Sedivi, http://publish.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1293&context=honorstheses

[3] MoMA description of William De Kooning’s “Woman I,” https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79810

[4] Erich Neumann:Theorist of the Great Mother, Camille Paglia https://www.bu.edu/arion/files/2010/03/Paglia-Great-Mother1.pdf

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