On Not Being Able to Paint

Review by John Houck

Of all my voicemails, my therapist leaves the lengthiest messages. He calls to change an appointment and brackets the proposed time change with a series of free associations about why we need to reschedule. I delight in the circular logic and meandering thoughts in these voicemails. It is a reversal of my position as analysand and I can freely analyze the recorded words of my analyst.
Marion Milner’s book, On Not Being Able to Paint, originally published in 1950, and now in its second edition, is also bracketed with a wealth of language; forwards, prefaces, and end notes bookend the original text. In the second edition there is a brilliant forward by Anna Freud and an incisive introduction by Janet Sayers. In addition, Milner added a thorough appendix that concisely reiterates each movement of the book in numbered sections. This appendix is the kind of text that should be revisited annually and proposes that analysis, painting, and looking at painting all provide a space for reverie.
Much of Milner’s work as an author explored transcendence in art and reverie, that is the merging of object and subject. Marion Milner was an author and  psychoanalyst, and one of the first to write extensively about journaling and the nature of creativity. She was a contemporary and friend of D.W. Winnicott.
The title of the book is a bit of a misnomer as it’s more focused on introspective drawing, or what Milner refers to as free drawing. There is little mention of painting and few examples; there is only a single color plate at the beginning of the book of one of Milner’s paintings. The rest of the drawings in the book are in black and white and the majority aren’t photographs of her original drawings, but rather, traced versions of the original drawings. As she points out in the forward, these traced drawings are more illustrative than the originals. There isn’t much subtly in the drawings in the book. The traced drawings function more as diagrams, leaving them readily open to interpretation, but more easily mapped to the concepts found in the text. Reading the list of titles for the drawings in the book I can’t help but feel nostalgic for her original drawings. On page 198 I read the title, “Blasting Witch, 4 in. by 3 in. Charcoal and wash (crimson sky, emerald and sea-green and black landscape, mauve witch).”
I often associate the medium of photography with psychoanalysis, as the invention of photography is temporally close to the development of psychoanalysis. The fragmentary nature of optics and the trace of the negative are evocative of many psychoanalytic concepts. Milner adds to the bridge between art and psychoanalysis her notion of free drawing, which opens both art and analysis to the tactile and corporeal. Ultimately this books calls into question the separation of self from other, of feelings from things, and the distance between inner and outer worlds, and explores art’s unique ability to transcend these divisions. No other book has given me such insight into the creative process and I’m happy to be hopelessly merged with Milner’s text and drawings.

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Marion Milner, On Not Being Able to Paint, (Tarcher; 2nd edition, 1983)
Images: Image from On Not Being Able to Paint.