In his seminal essay ‘The Uncanny’ (1919), Sigmund Freud attempts a description of a very peculiar terrifying feeling, known and yet elusive to most human beings, namely, the uncanny. According to many, however, not even the Viennese father of psychoanalysis succeeds in pinning it down exactly. The concept still maintains its protean identity, of which two seem to be its most suggestive characteristics.
First, Freud securely links the uncanny to “something long known to us, once very familiar”, perhaps from childhood, and thus introduces the question of the ‘double’. Successively, Unheimlich (uncanny in German) is described as “the name for everything that ought to have remained […] hidden and secret and has become visible” (Schelling).
On the very first page of ‘The Uncanny’, Freud determines aesthetics as being the main province of the feeling he is trying to describe. While he repeatedly uses art as a point of reference in his writings, especially when referring to personal experience, he never officially affiliated himself to any artistic movement. However, by virtue of his exploration of the unconscious and the realm of dreams, from the very start he was hailed as the “patron saint” (in Freud’s own words) of Surrealism – a movement which he actually strongly objected to.
Both Surrealist and Freud’s theories have had a long-lasting impact on the later generations of thinkers and artists. Given the richness of their legacy, every new reading adds texture and complexity to seemingly known concepts.
Such is the case of the German painter David Czupryn, for whom the uncanny is at the core of his artistic enquiry. His intriguing works invite the viewer into a world that is both unfamiliar and evocative, like a dream already dreamt. The painting ‘not born in the same nursery’ is emblematic of Czupryn’s exploration of the uncanny. Even at first glance, one has the distinct sensation that the painting is populated by bizarre anthropomorphic organisms. However, it proves more difficult to rationalise their features. This fact might make one question whether the character is there at all, leaving the viewer with a haunting feeling (see for instance ‘Iron Slab fig. #marxloh’).
Indeed, a potential trigger for the Unheimlich, one of which Freud however was uncertain, is the doubt whether an object supposed to be inanimate is actually alive. Czupryn’s characters do possess such ambiguous status: the viewer is unsure whether they are extravagant automata or chimerical beings, who evaded the world of fantasy to enter the picture-frame. Freud compares the uncanny feeling to the “sense of helplessness” one often experiences in dreams. At times, Czupryn’s characters seem to be trapped in their own dreams, unable to budge, unable to avoid the viewer’s gaze. It is precisely such identification (the viewer knows what it is like to feel helpless in a dream, to have one’s limbs act inconsistently), such subject-object merger, which creates an uncanny situation.
Interestingly, in ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (1900), Freud quotes a line by Schubert which reads: “The dream is the liberation of the spirit from the pressure of external nature, a detachment of the soul from the fetters of matter”. David Czupryn’s oneiric universes have their roots in reality, but the artist uses them like a springboard to conjure up fantastic microcosms. Indeed, the artist starts with an observation of nature: he studies plants and minerals, monitors their growth and metamorphosis. He then shifts his attention to synthetic materials, plastic plants and polymeric surfaces.
By imagining hybrid materials and organisms, Czupryn merges nature with science: they constitute the very fabric of these fictional worlds and by virtue of their hyperrealism, they deceive the viewer into believing they might exist in real life. But such confusion, after all, is comprehensible: we live surrounded by industrially produced materials that imitate nature, while more and more often nature itself is tweaked to resemble man-made perfection. Perhaps this is the reason why our encounter with David Czupryn’s paintings is so uncanny: they reproduce the creation mechanisms of contemporary reality and yet, we don’t recognise them.