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Drawing from the Unconscious – the Exquisite Corpse

31 Aug 2015

Have you ever done something without knowing why?

Psychologist Sigmund Freud, in his 1915 paper ‘The Unconscious’, introduced the notion of a dynamic unconscious that works in a different way from consciousness, with its own kind of logic. The Freud Museum of London marked the centenary of this revolutionary idea by staging a Festival of the Unconscious – the Unconscious Revisited – throughout the summer, from late June till early October.

On 25 August it was the turn of Art Macabre to revisit the Freud Museum and host another unique drawing salon, specially tailored to the festival’s theme. I’d posed in February for Eros and Death – their previous salon at the museum – and I was the happiest model in town to be invited back for their all-new event. Artists shared my enthusiasm for this exceptional opportunity:

Sketch scenes pulled directly from the depths of your own dark unconscious and imagination. Illustrate your darkest dreams and the mysteries of the mind, inspired by the Art Macabre live model characters and scenes. How do we represent and reveal the unconscious in art? Can drawing unlock our unconscious? Explore Freud’s theories of the unconscious and how artists since have engaged with them, from Surrealism to contemporary artists. An interactive creative workshop exploring how drawing connects the hand, mind and heart. Draw from your inner psyche and explore representing the unseen and unknown through drawing.

Art Macabre invite you to participate in drawing exercises and games that will help you sketch from both sides of your brain and go into a flow state of consciousness. From sketching scenes featuring nude figures depicting nightmares and symbolism in dreams, to Surrealist automatism sketching exercises to create your own ‘Exquisite Corpse’ artworks.

The players

Maybe it’s a good habit. maybe bad, but I arrived earlier than our early gathering time and was first on the scene. As good fortune had it, I was recognised loitering outside by Lili, the museum’s event manager, and invited in for a cup of tea. I’d barely started my Freudian sips when I was joined upstairs by fellow models Linsay and Gee.


We had worked together a few times before. I’d last posed with Gee at The Dying Art exhibition in May, whilst all three of us had modelled for The Blizzard of Oz panto in 2013. Our muse quartet was completed by Bella: a newcomer to Art Macabre but an experienced artist, model, and life group organiser in her own right. With the arrival of Art Macabre’s director and fabulist-in-chief, Nikki, we were all set to go.

The exquisite corpse

The event was fully booked, which meant up to 50 artists were expected. They began arriving almost immediately and, whilst Lili provided each one with a welcoming glass of wine, Nikki and Linsay readied the main exhibition room for art. The three of us left behind the scenes chatted away to pass the time; I sipped tea, Gee stripped naked, and Bella stitched together odd halves of leggings.

When at last the artists were assembled in one room, Nikki got them warmed up with a selection of exercises in unconscious drawing. These included inviting everybody to draw their passive hand: first blind line drawing with eyes closed, then continuous line drawing with eyes open and free association images superimposed afterwards.

Collaborative practice was introduced to the session in the form of exquisite corpse drawings.

© Alison Jane

Lines continued to flow from the depths of the unconscious with automatic drawing, once more over-drawn with associated images.

© Shelly Wyn-De-Bank

Psyche and surreal

As these activities neared an end, it was time for models to take up their positions on the first floor. Bella would be in the exhibition room, Gee occupied Anna Freud’s room and I was to stand on the landing. We had props but were otherwise nude and without body paint. My role was to recreate the surrealist paintings of René Magritte. I began with The Son of Man.

© René Magritte – The Son of Man, 1946

I had a vintage bowler hat perched on my head, and held a small plastic apple in front of my face. Deviating from the original painting, I crooked my right arm and looped the index finger and thumb. This gesture was intended to give the artists something extra upon which to apply their automatic drawing embellishments, if the mood took them.

© Frances Jones

Artists were free to roam wherever they pleased, without time constraints. Through the doorway to my left they would find Gee posing with two empty picture frames that she positioned over various parts of her body. Freud’s theory of psychosexual development postulated that children focus on different parts of their bodies; now Gee’s artists were invited to do the same.

© Gemma Beynon

© Shelly Wyn-De-Bank

Beyond my sight through the doorway that I faced, Bella lay upon a replica of Freud’s famous couch… perchance to dream. Freud considered dreams to be “the royal road to the unconscious”, serving as valuable clues to how the unconscious mind operates. Yet while Freud would have made profound observations of Bella’s dreams, our artists made their own keen observations of Bella herself.

© Alison Jane

© S. Rizvi

There were no time limits to our poses; we could alter positions at our own discretion. Nikki’s playlist helped me gauge minutes by counting off individual tracks. When I felt I had been still for around a quarter of an hour, I gave my artists notice that I would be changing pose in 30 seconds. My next pose would be an approximation of Magritte’s Man in a Bowler Hat.

© René Magritte – Man in a Bowler Hat, 1964

I put down the apple and rummaged in my suitcase of props. In the absence of a dove I picked out the Art Macabre raven and held it in front of my face. For added variety, in my free right hand I raised aloft a red flower. Naturally I retained the vintage bowler hat, and once more I reckoned to stay in pose for around 15 to 20 minutes.

© Shelly Wyn-De-Bank

Lovers and horses

I’ll be changing pose in one minute.” When I had silently counted 60 seconds, Nikki appeared and took me aside to prepare for something different. My final poses would be duo tableaux with Bella, taking inspiration from Magritte’s The Lovers. Nikki had asked tentatively beforehand if anyone would mind and, after a little hesitation, Bella spiritedly accepted having a “new best friend” for the duration.

© René Magritte – The Lovers, 1928

Of course, for naked strangers who had met only two hours earlier, our pose was not quite so intimate. We placed our individually shrouded heads close enough together, cheek by cheek, to appear as if kissing. Nikki positioned hands on arms or hips, but otherwise we maintained a small respectful space between our standing bodies. This pose would last for 15 minutes.

© Gemma Beynon

© Frances Jones

Away in Anna Freud’s room, Linsay was taking her turn to model. She was given the pleasure of posing entirely nude save for leather horse harnesses, thereby recreating ‘the terror of tiny Hans’. Sigmund Freud maintained correspondence with the father of Hans to explore the 5 year-old’s phobia of horses. We can only speculate as to what effect the majestic sight of Linsay in all her glory might have wrought upon the lad.

© Clarissa May Lovett

When Bella and I completed our standing Surrealist smooch we shifted across to the Freudian couch, feigning a similar scene in greater comfort. Shortly after we’d settled, however, I found myself very short of air behind my facial shroud. Trying not to appear as if indulging in unseemly panting, I eventually regained my composure by breathing solely through my nose. Such occupational hazards…

© Alison Jane


Return to consciousness

Come 9pm, we were free to unravel and dress ourselves. We then dashed downstairs in the hope of seeing some of the artworks produced but, just like my last time at the Freud Museum, we were too late; artists had packed away and most had left already. We could only hope some artists works would share their work on social media – I’m very grateful to those named above for kindly doing so.

It had been a remarkable Art Macabre drawing salon, in a singular historic building. I have nothing but admiration for Lili and the museum hierarchy for having the vision to stage such an imaginative, popular and fitting event in the last home Sigmund Freud. The unconscious had found new physical form, and much joy had been shared in its exploration. It is the stuff of dreams.

From → Art

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