The emergence of Liber Novus, Carl G. Jung’s private repository of dreams, thoughts, and theories, has prompted re-evaluations and reformulations among the psychologist’s historians and acolytes. Jung’s theories have influenced artistic discourse for decades, not least because they are so vivid in their literary and visual constructs. It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that Jung was prompted to give dramatic visual as well as written form to his perceptions.
Jung’s Liber Novus is not simply a compendium of dream descriptions and derivations of archetypal roles and functions; it is a book that itself draws on an inter-cultural archetype, the illuminated manuscript. It could pass for a Bible rendered by a medieval monk, especially for the care with which Jung entered his writing as ornate Gothic script. He also took on the similarly stylized and beautiful manners of non-western word-image conflation, including Persian miniature painting and east Asian calligraphy. Jung was trying to embrace the aesthetic entirety of civilization in the intimate context of his own personal vision.
Jung maintained a lifelong interest in visual art. He closely studied both the art of his time and the art (including non-western art) that influenced it. He tried his hand, quite diligently, at painting, with credible results. Whether or not he ever took formal training, Jung had gained technical understanding of various pictorial media by time he committed himself to a whole other profession. He knew what constitutes a workable image – and knew how to render one.
Jung’s vision and theories are artistic at their essence, and – although he refused to think of himself as an “artist” – he knew it. It’s no accident the Liber Novus has been exhibited in museums, or functioned as the nucleus of “Encyclopedic Palace,” the survey of visionary art in the 2013 Venice Biennale. We now see that Jung was every bit the artist the medieval monk or Persian courtier was; his art happened to be dedicated not to the glory of God or king, but to that of the human race.
Jung began the Liber Novus in early 1913, maintained it continually until 1930, and added to it sporadically almost up to his death in 1961. The book never left Jung’s house, he showed it to few others, and his family maintained that sense of privacy after his death. Several years ago, however, the family and the Jung Foundation agreed to release the book. As a result, the world has come to realize that the Liber Novusis a major document, one central to Jung’s own principles and one that exemplifies their fervency and depth. We now recognize that Jung was an artist, but that Jung the artist emerged from and served Jung the thinker. Any page of the Liber Novus can stand alone artistically, but conceptually bespeaks the entire Jungian project. Thus, the book itself was displayed in Venice surrounded by forty state-of-the-art reproductions of its pages, every one of them demonstrating that Carl Jung’s vision expertly drove his hand.