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A Walk to See Carl Jung's Red Book: A Journey Into the Psyche

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (July 1875 – June 1961) embarked on an extraordinary journey in the years before World War I, a dangerous adventure that took him inward to the deepest recesses of his psyche. At the time he began the journey, he had broken his close relationship with his mentor, Sigmund Freud. His subsequent six-year long breakdown, largely self-induced, manifested itself in intensive journal writing with the recording of his dream states and visualizations, especially of mandalas. He made notes in black journals, later meticulously recording his images and interpretive text in chronological order all in gorgeous calligraphy in a voluptuous Red Book. Anyone interested in artists’ books needs to see this work with their own eyes.

The exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Art, The Red Book of C.G. Jung: Creation of a New Cosmology, on display through January 25, 2010, explores the visual manifestation of the journal, the diary of Jung's voyage into his own psyche that he recorded between 1914 and 1930. Never before seen in public, the book expresses an almost overwhelming commitment to self-knowledge that's artistically masterful, mystical, and unparalleled. Anyone's bedside dream book fails by comparison. It's a visual tour-de-force. When he came up from the crisis, Jung pulled the strands of knowledge together to formulate the foundations of analytical psychology.

Jung believed mandalas must have originated in dreams and visions and were not the human invention of a church father. He drew his first one in 1916. Furthermore, the images were among the oldest symbols of humanity and could be found all over the world. The squaring of the circle represents the archetype of wholeness. Outside of Tibet, healing circles can be found in Native American sand paintings, in the geometry of the Kabbalah, and even in the stained glass rose windows of Gothic cathedrals. Mandalas formed the core of Jung's philosophies of the self. He writes in Concerning Mandala Symbolism (Zurich, 1950), "Their basic motif is the premonition of a centre of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy."
The Rubin Museum of Art, with its collection of Himalayan art and specifically the mandalas important to the cultures of the region, is a logical setting for Jung's book. It's worth a journey to see the Jung exhibit as well as the rest of the museum. The long running exhibit, What Is It? Himalayan Art, is a good place to start an exploration of the museum's collections. Visitors will soon see the common threads yet also distinctions in the work from Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, and Bhutan. Extending the Himalayan culture to India, Pakistan, China, and parts of Asia further diversifies the collection. The exhibit Mandala: The Perfect Circle (through January 11, 2010) shows the variety of the symbols, with representative mandalas from other collections. I also recommend a stop at the museum's spacious cafe (top image, detail) for a cup of tea and pastry or to sample Himalayan food.


View Rubin Museum of Art and Surrounding Area in a larger map

Located on W. 17th Street just off 7th Ave., the museum is set in an older section of Chelsea that's worth exploring. The day I visited the Rubin Museum, I walked from Washington Square to 7th Avenue via Greenwich Avenue and then north to W. 17th. From there I walked up to W. 19th Street, stopping in at Idlewild Books at 12 W. 19th, a store specializing in travel books. Journeys within and without were a topic on my mind. From there it's a short trip to the Flatiron Building and Madison Square. Or walk back around to City Bakery at 3 W. 18th Street for some hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows. Jung, being a native of Zurich, would have had a good choice of chocolates himself.

The museum is hosting special lectures about the Red Book, "The Red Book Dialogues," with well-known figures from different walks of life. Recent participants have included Sarah Silverman (shows the power of creative programming), Charlie Kaufman, Alice Walker, John Boorman, and Gloria Vanderbilt. Upcoming talks will feature Andre Gregory, David Byrne, Cornel West, Jonathan Demme and many others. Visit the museum website for more information.

"The Holy Grail of the Unconscious" by Sara Corbett in the September 20, 2009 The New York Times Magazine is a fascinating look at the circumstances behind the Red Book and the efforts to make it public. The article also describes the importance of the book among Jungian scholars, a few of whom you'll likely encounter visiting the museum's exhibit. A facsimile has now been published.

Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, New York 10011

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple. I've represented the location of the museum in Google maps as a blank mandala on which you can inscribe your own journey.





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