Margaret Hunter: a Jungian Analysis

By Anna Lisa Stone | University of St Andrews | School of Art History

Chapter 3: Vital Patterns, Elemental Traces and Lines of Continuity: 1998-2002

The work Margaret Hunter produced for her exhibitions Vital Patterns (1998), Elemental Traces (2000) and Lines of Continuity (2002) mark a dramatic change in the style, subject matter and feel of her art. The half-formed, shadowy figures of the early 90s, tossed and torn by uncertainties and opposing forces, have been replaced by rounder, softer and indisputably more feminine figures and forms. The names of her work have changed from connoting progression and transition – Changing Places, Two Paths, Moving Rooms (all 1992) – to titles of introverted contemplation: Integration, Inner Listening, Self Reflection, Something Going On.1 The titles of the exhibitions likewise suggest the vital, the elemental, the essence of self. In the introduction to the Elemental Traces exhibition catalogue, Alexander Moffat observes that Hunter is preoccupied with “re-invention and re-generation”, that her paintings seem to have taken on “an added richness and intensity” and now appear to carry “extra insights and allusions.”2 It seems fair to describe this change as a kind of rebirth.

Figure 29 Margaret Hunter, Dreamings,

Figure 30 Margaret Hunter, Distant Intimations,

Dreamings and Distant Intimations (Elemental Traces, 1999/2000) is typical of this new style: the colours are rich and sensuous, the mood is calm. In Dreamings a woman sleeps at the foot of a fleshy dream world, the path of her thoughts floating up to an image of an inner woman, reclining in a womb-like leaf. The woman in Distant Intimations is also lying down, this time supported by a puce triangular-shaped shadow, following the contours of her body and distinguishing her from the ruby background. They are private, introspective and pervasively feminine paintings.

It would be reductive to try and account for these changes exclusively through Jungian analysis. Jung’s theories equip us with an analytical tool that can help us to divine an extra level of meaning in the work of an artist like Margaret Hunter; they prise open a window into a psychological reading of her art that may have otherwise remained shut. But just as her earlier paintings were influenced by the social and political situation of Berlin in the late 80s and early 90s, so too these recent images are grounded in important external developments. By the Vital Patterns exhibition in 1998, many of the schisms that once splintered Hunter’s life, and consequently her art, had healed over.

In Berlin by the end of the 90s the psychological wounds of the Wall were healing; the city was a hub of renovation and renewal, deemed by Wired Magazine in 1998 to be “the largest construction site in Europe”; 3and there was increasing movement of people into and within the city.4 The divisions that had once torn Hunter’s personal life were also beginning to mend: in 1996 she married Joachim Gross, her landlord since moving to Berlin and partner for eleven years; her children were grown up and starting families of their own. As a result, the gap between home (Scotland) and Berlin closed. As Hunter says herself, “I began to feel I belonged in Berlin.”5 The serene mood and relaxed poses of her figures in Dreamings and Distant Imitation undoubtedly reflect this calmer, more collected period in Hunter’s life.

However, what Carl Jung’s theories of the unconscious can undoubtedly do is to unlock the imagery of the pictures and offer a deeper insight into how Margaret Hunter was affected by and responded to these altered circumstances in her life.

In Jungian terms, the harmonisation of Hunter’s joint roles as artist and mother, her successful and supportive relationship with Joachim Gross, and her feelings of belonging in the previously intimidating Berlin, all constitute the successful integration of the animus into the feminine Self.6 Jung theorised that the result of this harmony would be a change in the dominant character of the unconscious, which appears in “a new symbolic form, representing the Self, the innermost nucleus of the psyche.”7

This theoretical paradigm provides a framework from which to question whether Hunter’s expression of a “fully individuated Self”8 does not in fact go beyond sumptuous colours and more distinctly “feminine” figures. For instance, in the dreams of a woman, which are the primary currency of Jungian psychoanalysis, the individuated Self generally appears as a personification of “a superior female figure – a priestess … earth mother, or goddess of nature or love.”9 This idea opens up intriguing new ways of reading Hunter’s paintings. In Only Just (2002) and Leaves (2000/1999), the compositions are characterised by a Wordsworthian wedding of nature and man (or, rather, woman) – they are organic and Edenic. But if we concede that Hunter may be psychologically predisposed to exploring this intensified idea of Self, what it is “to be truly a woman in the higher sense,”10 the symbolism of the imagery is given new significance. For instance, Only Just becomes a painting about essentialism and renewal: Hunter’s woman abandons the ephemeral trappings of femininity, represented by the high-heeled shoes, as she is helped by nature – the leaf – to climb to a purer and more essential existence. In Leaves, too, the Eden-like relationship between nature and the naked woman seems to intensify the painting’s sense of the “feminine”. It seems Hunter has created a garden of Demeters and Dianas.

Figure 31 Margaret Hunter, Only Just, 2002

Figure 32 Margaret Hunter, Leaves, 1999/2000

Further, I would argue that by sharing those quintessentially feminine principles of growth, birth and regeneration, the symbiosis of woman and nature runs so deep in Hunter’s paintings that they have become synonymous. Hunter’s figures are made up of ovular, leaf-like contours; and the leaves themselves connote the most essential shapes and “vital patterns” of femininity – the female reproductive organs.

Unfortunately, after the militant “vulvic-power” and “cunt-art” movements that took place mostly in America during the 1960s and 70s,11 it is difficult to make such an observation without sparking sexualist or feminist-activist associations. But it is not my intention to align Margaret Hunter with this tradition. Rather, I wish merely to highlight the intense symbiosis of female and plant forms, which in Jungian theory is regarded as the anticipated symbolic response of a fully individuated female Self.12 Indeed, Hunter insists that she works instinctively and intuitively,13 and Carl Jung himself argues that it would be a contradiction in terms to assume that a person could have any control over conditioning impulses from her unconscious:

One is inclined to think that the ego-conscious is capable of assimilating the unconscious… But unfortunately the unconscious really is the unconscious; in other words, it is unknown. And how can you assimilate something unknown?14

Figure 33 Margaret Hunter, Girls With Golden Threads, 2002

It is particularly important to remember that Hunter works intuitively when one analyses a painting like Girls With Golden Threads (Lines of Continuity, 2002). On the surface it might seem a purely whimsical painting: three girls in dresses standing in front of a dreamlike sky. Yet when one begins to scratch below the surface by thinking about the intuitive and subliminal, it becomes a layered and complex work of art – particularly when considered in relation to Jungian theories about the intensified female Self. As in Only Just, the elemental is juxtaposed with the superficial and transitory: the girls are wearing dresses, but inscribed into them are prehistoric patterns of essential femininity. It is as though Hunter is subconsciously trying to expose the shallowness of “surface” femininity, indicating that her own understanding of the “feminine” has been deepened and intensified. Indeed, I would suggest that Girls With Golden Dresses is an unconscious exploration of the core of “womanhood”. This idea is continued by the cotton clouds, which seem at first simply to provide a dreamlike backdrop, yet through their position in relation to the triangular formation of the figures, the illusory is underscored by the essential through a subliminal suggestion of the female pubic area.


Figure 34a Pre-historic Paleolithic vulva engraving

Figure 34b Pre-historic Paleolithic vulva engraving

Figure 34c Pre-historic Paleolithic vulva

Indeed, it is Jungian theory that encourages us to think about these “vital patterns” not as eroticised vulvas, but as symbols of fertility, rebirth and regeneration. I would argue that these shapes, which became so prevalent in Hunter’s art, in fact signify the essence of femininity or, more specifically, motherhood – and, moreover, that it is helpful to regard them in the light of what Jung describes as the “mother archetype”.

Jung theorises that, as with the animus, the mother archetype dwells in the human unconscious and is natural to us all, although its associations are not masculine but maternal: “there is a prototype or primordial image of the mother that is pre-existent and supraordinate to all phenomena in which the ‘maternal’ … is manifest.”15 Although it can appear under an almost infinite variety of aspects, Jung suggests that the mother archetype is often associated with things and places standing for fertility and fruitfulness: the cornucopia, a ploughed field, a garden; it can be attached to a cave, a tree, a spring, a deep well, or to vessel-shaped flowers like the rose of the lotus, to name but a few.16 It seems reasonable to postulate, then, that the synergy of plants and women in Hunter’s later paintings identifies them as being under the influence of the mother archetype.

Figure 35 Margaret Hunter, Bunch of Person, 1999/2000
However, perhaps the painting in which Jung’s definition of the mother archetype becomes most helpful is Bunch of Person (Elemental Traces, 1999/2000). It is an attractive and strong image, stylised and geometric without becoming decorative, and from it emanates a barely contained energy. But it might not strike one immediately as a painting about motherhood. However, an extra layer of understanding can be unlocked by applying Jung’s description of mother archetypal imagery: “Hollow objects such as … cooking vessels are associated with the mother archetype, and of course, the uterus, yoni, and anything of a like shape.”17 The hollow object is found as a belly-pot vase, held by the figure over her womb as if to make its maternal associations more obvious. Out of it spring “vessel-shaped flowers”, stylised roses. The deeply incised V shape and the thickly painted crimson walls strongly evoke the uterus. Collectively, it is a painting about rebirth: of person, of nature, of Self – and that self seems incapable of being divorced from the concept of “mother”.

And here we come to a question that has long puzzled both art historians18 and Hunter herself19 – one to which I believe Jung’s theories offer a convincing answer. Based on a more thorough analysis of Margaret Hunter’s paintings in relation to Jungian theories than has been attempted before, I would suggest that this key shape, the V form, the inverted triangular uterus, or womb, germs from the same seed as the funnel-like shadow which is emblazoned on a yellow background in Changing Places [36], hovers over her self-portrait in In Between and drives the two faces of Whisper apart.

At one stage Hunter herself cautiously identified this shape as the Nuremberger Trichter, which funnelled knowledge into her figures’ heads; however she now admits that this shape had in fact been important to her several years before she even heard about the 16th century German concept.20 I would submit that this triangular, funnel-like form is the manifestation of the mother archetype and simultaneously the symbol of Hunter’s Self.21 It is revitalised, reincarnated and reborn in Bunch of Person but was arguably there long before that, forcing its way on to Hunter’s canvas from the time she first pushed her identity as a mother aside to make way for the animus, in leaving Scotland for Berlin in 1985, and seen most prominently in Whisper (1988). Jung theorises that symbols of the Self, also called “uniting symbols”, erupt into a person’s consciousness during the process of individuation and mark the union of the opposing sides of the psyche like milestones.22 They are often characterised by a purely abstract, geometric form.23

Crucially, Hunter’s symbol of Self is synonymous with the mother archetype. Thus it reveals itself not as the mysterious alien symbol it first appeared to be, but as a universally recognisable one, like the snail’s spiral, representing regeneration, feelings of home and motherhood. As a symbol of motherhood it unites the feelings with which Hunter was struggling when she left Scotland for Berlin, and adds another layer of understanding to some of the defining paintings of her career. In Changing Places it unites political predicaments with her personal one. In In Between it presides over her self-portrait. It erupts into Whisper as a dividing force that prevents the two sides uniting, because it opposes the animus that she had been forced to prioritise in moving to Berlin. Only once that masculine side had been harmoniously integrated – only once the splits in Hunter’s psyche, social landscape and personal life had healed – could the symbol be reborn, triumphantly, in paintings like Bunch of Person, Distant Imitation and Girls With Golden Threads. No longer is the symbol disrupting or merely ornamenting; it is enclosing the central figures and uniting composition, subject matter and meaning into a synthesis of motherhood and woman.

Figure 37 Margaret Hunter, Whisper (1988)

Figure 36 Margaret Hunter, Changing Places (1992)

Figure 38 Margaret Hunter,
In Between detail (1993)


1 From Vital Patterns exhibition, 1998.
2 Moffat, Elemental Traces, 2, 4.
3 Gary Wolf, ‘View from Berlin, 1998 – Venture Kapital’, Wired, Issue 6.06 (June 1998, accessed 10 April 2011); available from http://aether.com/archives/view_from_berlin_1998.html; Internet.
4 Alexander Moffat, Margaret Hunter: Elemental Traces (London: Art First, 2000), 2.
5 Hunter, AHM, 4.
6 von Franz, 207-208.
7 Ibid (emphasis my own).
8 Ibid.
9 von Franz, 208.
10 E. Jung, 42.
11 Alyce Mahon, Eroticism & Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005), 212.
12 von Franz, 208.
13 Appendix.
14 C. Jung, 287.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid, 81.
17 Ibid.
18 For example, Dr Gunter Nimmich, Changing Places, 1992, describes her “funnel-pictures” as “enigmatic”.
19 Appendix.
20 Appendix.
21 Jacobi, 114.
22 Ibid, 113.
23 Ibid, 115.

Copyright © Anna Lisa Stone 2011