In his memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Gustav Jung recalls a hallucination that would spark a monumental shift in his approach to the human psyche:
In October , while I was alone on a journey, I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps… I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood…On 1st August the world war broke out. Now my task was clear: I had to try to understand what had happened and to what extent my own experience coincided with that of mankind in general. Therefore my first obligation was to probe the depths of my own psyche.
Thus began Jung’s 16-year inner odyssey, during which he actively induced waking visions and documented dreams, to explore what he initially feared to be a psychotic break, and later believed to be a path that wove his inner world with powerful forces of both the living universe and the dead. He transcribed his spiritual travels in over 1,000 pages of drawings and words, which he subsequently condensed and revised into 200 calligraphy-adorned leaves of parchment. The Red Book — initially titled Liber Novus – is a modern illuminated manuscript, containing 60-odd psychedelic paintings of Jung’s visions of demons, mysterious figures, and strange landscapes.
While the work itself involves no analysis, Jung has stated that all of his ideas, concepts, and methods were simply elaborations on that period of internal exploration, between 1914 and 1930. Still, Jung never published the work or left any instructions for what to do with the manuscript, which he kept unceremoniously in a cupboard of the family’s home. For decades following his death, Jung’s descendants were unsure what do and eventually stashed the book where anyone would stash something they wish to hide from the world—in a Swiss bank. The red leather-bound book remained in the Zurich safe for twenty-five years, until Jungian scholar Sonu Shamdasani convinced Jung’s grandchildren to release the work to the public.
The exhibition at the Hammer Museum in L.A. marks The Red Book’s second stop in the manuscript’s three-city U.S. tour, which began at New York’s Rubin Museum–an institution devoted to Himalayan art–and will end at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. before returning to Switzerland. In addition to serving as the sole West Coast site for the book, the Hammer Museum is the only venue that displays The Red Book within the context of contemporary art.
The original red-leather-bound book rests inside a vitrine at the center of a small exhibition space in the Museum. Glass cases along the periphery display Jung’s Black Books, which include drawings and notes he made during his year as a psychiatrist in the Swiss military. While treating prisoners of war, Jung began to make intricate circular drawings. Intriguingly, the images bear a strong resemblance to Tibetan mandalas – of which Jung had no knowledge until years later. The true gems of the exhibition, however, are Jung’s small and luminous landscape paintings that adorn the deep burgundy walls. Though tame compared to his fantastical illuminations in The Red Book, the latter paintings of serpents, spirits, and hallucinatory scenes feel more calculated and bound to a tradition that is pre-modern, and more alien. The landscapes, meanwhile, are fresh, raw, gestural, and masterful.
Still, the entire exhibition is wholly captivating, and stands in contrast to the Hammer’s previous exhibition of another theologically-inspired book–R. Crumb’s Genesis. The exhibition, which it mounted late last year, displayed each of Crumb’s drawings for his illustrated bible story in individual glass frames around a spiraling gallery wall. The Crumb drawings, though original, ultimately had the aura of preparatory sketches. Crumb made the images with the intention that they should be replicated and viewed primarily in their facsimile form. There was no excitement in seeing his hand; walking through the exhibition, I could not shake the feeling that I would be much more satisfied simply sitting on a couch reading a copy of the book. (This theory was subsequently proven after I purchased the book from the Museum book store.) Meanwhile, though Jung may have intended to reproduce his book at some point, the richly colored gouache paintings, painstaking calligraphy, and parchment ground cannot truly be replicated. Thus, looking the original book, even beneath glass, feels like experiencing a truly singular work of art.
Meanwhile, the Hammer has continued the Rubin Museum’s program of Red Book Dialogues, which pair Jungian analysts with artists, theologians, scholars, and entertainers (who have displayed varying degrees of familiarity with Jung). A roster that includes both Helen Hunt and Bill Viola (not to mention Sarah Silverman, Leonard Nimoy, David Byrne, Miranda July) might seem dubious. But then again, the concept of dialogues bringing together multiple perspectives feels apropos to the nature of Jung’s work. Firstly, The Red Book itself is essentially composed of a series of dialogues. Secondly, one of Jung’s driving principles was the recognition and synthesis of uniting opposing forces, both internally and externally.
Moreover, it makes perfect sense that Jung should find his way into an art museum. In a sense, Jung’s own odyssey mirrors the development of art over the past century. The year before embarking on The Red Book, Jung broke with his one-time-mentor Sigmund Freud, considering Freud’s approach to be overly scientific, analytical, and atheistic. Jung’s subsequent psychedelic adventure involved isolating himself from the greater scientific community to pursue intuition-based self-exploration. Eventually, Jung reined in his experiences by creating more analytical concepts and integrating his ideas once again into the scientific community. At the same moment that the Great War began, and Jung embarked on his inner quest, the 19th century’s structured academic efforts to describe the tangible world gave way to modernism’s journey toward privileging the inner self. And, as with Jung’s ultimate efforts to link his personal experiences to universal forces through deconstruction, categorization, and classification, art after expressionism has struggled to balance self-expression with analytical concerns. Indeed, contemporary art practices have become increasingly research-based, self-aware, and interdisciplinary, while maintaining a sense of individuality, interiority, and authenticity. Like Jung, we are constantly seeking to tap into external universal forces by mining our own inner worlds.