Margaret Hunter: a Jungian Analysis

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


This dissertation will provide an analysis of the work of Scottish artist Margaret Hunter (b.1948) through the theories of the psychoanalist Carl Jung (1875-1961). It will trace the development of Hunter’s artistic style from 1981 when she started at the Glasgow School of Art to her Lines of Continuity exhibition in 2002. By examining these changes through Jungian theory, I will propose that it is possible to read them in light of Jung’s theories concerning the “process of individuation”. By examining the repercussions of this proposal, I will conclude that a Jungian analysis may divine another layer of understanding to the conceptually dense and in many ways enigmatic art of Margaret Hunter.


Out of the paint-scrubbed, scratched and scraped-into surface, two heads rise from a shared base. Their mask-like faces are similar but different: one longer and thinner, the other shorter and round. Encircled by an arc of red chalk, it feels as though they should come together to meet, mend and merge, to become whole. But they cannot. They are cleaved apart by a triangular, funnel-like shadow – painted in such a way that it is unclear whether it is looming out at us or sinking back into an abyss. It is a curious shape, and one that seems to be actively forcing a fissure between these two halves. Yet at the foot of that split is a bridge, scored into the paint, joining them together. Although forced apart, each side is trying to bridge the gap, but for now they must be content to converse in whispers.

Figure 1 Margaret Hunter, Whisper, 1988
I believe Whisper (1988) [1] is a key work for Margaret Hunter (b.1948). Since she joined the Glasgow School of Art in 1981, her work has always dealt in dualities, whether these have involved her split identity as a mother and an artist, the separation between her real and adopted homelands of Scotland and Germany, or the frightening political and social division of Berlin that she witnessed after moving there in 1985. Her life as an artist has been riven by social, geographical and personal conflict. Yet, as Whisper suggests, Hunter has been preoccupied with bridging those gaps. Although she does not shy away from the pain of division, Hunter’s paintings speak of transformation and renewal and of the hurt and joy within the course of reunification.

But Whisper also hints at the multiple levels of meaning that layer the work of Margaret Hunter. Hers is an oblique and abstracted visual language, accented by motifs and symbols that are apparently of profound significance but also, as critics have noted, perplexingly enigmatic.1 Hunter’s art at once holds us at a distance, yet provokes and intrigues us into looking for ways to understand. In this dissertation I will argue that one way of understanding Margaret Hunter can be found in the theory of a Swiss psychologist working in the first half of the 20th century, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). As far as I am aware, this is an original proposition – certainly among English-speaking art critics. 2 This dissertation will explore in depth the ways in which the theories of one of the founders of analytical psychology – the man who revolutionised modern thinking on art, the unconscious and the interplay between these related worlds – can throw light on the work of Margaret Hunter.

By drawing on Jung’s theories, I will argue that a further process of division and healing can be traced in Hunter’s paintings, including Whisper – one that is complex and not immediately obvious. I believe that these works record the mending of a split within the most elemental forces of Hunter’s own psyche. I will argue that after starting at art school in Glasgow as a mature student and single parent in 1981, Margaret Hunter had to suppress her identity as a mother, and to some extent as a woman, in order to overcome the practical difficulties and prejudices she faced as a female artist in Scotland in the 1980s. The tearing effect of this on her psyche was intensified, I will contend, when the need to find authentic artistic expression made her decide to leave her home, her children and everything that had shaped her life in Scotland in order to pursue her creative autonomy in Berlin in 1985. Jung’s theories on the “process of individuation” provide a helpful framework for this psychological paradigm, and by drawing on them I will assert that the art that she produced from then on evidences that psychological split, its healing, and its transformed state once healed. By looking at Hunter’s work though the lens of Jungian theory, I will suggest that it is possible not only to shine a radical new light on the whole of Margaret Hunter’s art, but to put names to some of the shadows that have cloaked parts of her work in mystery.

Throughout this thesis I will refer in some detail to specific ideas posited by Carl Jung and his associates. Jung proposed the idea that the unconscious is not individual but collective and shared by all humanity. Specifically, he based his theories around the existence of archetypes – innate and instinctive psychic dispositions that are universal representations of unconscious experience. Among the most important archetypes are what he termed the “animus” and the “anima”. Jung theorised that each man has an unconscious female side (anima) and each woman an unconscious male side (animus). For Jung the anima personifies traditionally “feminine” traits, such as the capacity for sensitivity, greater depth of feeling and the ability to relate emotionally to others, while to the animus is assigned what he described as “masculine” attributes, such as initiative, bravery and independence. 3

Furthermore, and most crucial to the argument of this dissertation, Jung theorised that embracing the archetype opposite to one’s gender often causes a “wounding” of the Self, as the individual is forced to push aside those principles native to, and most valued by, their consciousness. 4 He refers to this as a “split in the psyche”. 5 The gradual harmonisation of these two principles within the Self, the psychological healing of that split, is called “the process of individuation.” 6 Jung concluded that if a woman were successfully to incorporate the animus into her Self through the process of individuation, she would not become more “manly”; rather, the animus would work as an “inexorable power” within her feminine Self, making her more internally aware of what she believes and feels, and more capable of expressing these beliefs and feelings. 7

The aim of this thesis is not to validate Jung’s theories as such, but rather to utilise them to extricate a deeper layer of understanding from the already conceptually dense art of Margaret Hunter. The thesis will focus on the work Hunter produced from 1981 to 2002 and argue that it can be largely defined in three formal stages. The first stage is the conventional and inauthentic work she produced as a student at art school. The second is the revival in her art when she moved to Berlin, a stage during which she produced energetic and palpably authentic work that was nevertheless preoccupied with half-realised forms and figures and compositions split in two. And finally by 1998, Margaret Hunter’s art metamorphosed once again into a resolved and distinctively feminine style – stage three. The application of Jung’s ideas will enable us to delve beneath the surface of each stage of this artistic progression. I will also assert that as well as the social, political and personal tensions that so obviously infused Hunter’s work, it is also concerned with the Jungian concept of the Self.

Figure 2 Margaret Hunter, Only Just, 2002
By grounding this thesis in Jungian theory I will provide a fresh and meaningful alternative to the common tropes of thinking and discussion on Scottish art. Scottish female artists in general have received far less critical attention than that of their male counterparts, and that which exists tends to be celebratory and descriptive. The two landmark publications of contemporary Scottish art criticism, Duncan MacMillan’s Scottish Art in the 20th Century (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1994, 2001) and Contemporary Painting in Scotland by Bill Hare (Tortola: Craftman House, 1992) do touch on Scottish women’s painting in the 1980s in general, but both are general surveys and the analysis is accordingly shallow. Neil Mulholland’s The Cultural Devolution: Art in Britain in the Late Twentieth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003) and Christopher White’s Gendering the Nation: Studies in Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995) are conceptually deeper and stronger and, jointly, have proved a useful bedrock upon which to construct an evaluation of the psychological influence of Scotland’s cultural landscape upon the artists (namely Margaret Hunter) working there in the early 1980s.

Current published critiques of Margaret Hunter’s art have been largely limited to newspaper articles and insightful, yet inevitably celebratory, commentaries in exhibition catalogues. I would argue that the lack of available literature on Margaret Hunter is not a reflection of her merit as artist; rather it is a measure of the rudimentary state of Scotland’s art historical canon, which is still in its adolescence. This dissertation will add to it in two main ways: first, by providing a detailed analysis that spans Hunter’s career from art school onwards (much of the early work has rarely been seen outside the artist’s private collection); and, secondly, by looking at her work through the theories of Carl Jung. It is important to offer a note of caution, however. Jung was a psychologist and a psychoanalyst, basing his research primarily on dreams and their impact on human behaviour; sometimes the wording of his theories does not assimilate easily into the language of the art historian. However, his ideas have long been recognised as a valuable means of artistic analysis,8 and in reference to Margaret Hunter this thesis will show why. The key concepts of Jungian theory referred to are largely taken from two of his publications, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1959) and Man and His Symbols (New York: Dell, 1959).

In Chapter One I will examine the conditions under which Margaret Hunter began her career as an artist when she joined the GSA in 1981. I will consider the pragmatic difficulties she faced as a single mother trying to make her way through art school in Scotland, and the cultural environment of that period – which I will argue to be pervasively, if not oppressively, masculine. By sampling some paintings she produced at the time, I will posit that both these scenarios seemed to complicate her ability to express herself authentically on the canvas, particularly in compositions concerning female experience. By continuing to draw on Jung’s theories, I will go on to assert that the need to clear this “psychological blockage” drove her to leave both Scotland and her children, in order to pursue her creative autonomy under Baselitz in Berlin. However, I will suggest that this wrench from home and her primary identity as a mother caused a split in Hunter’s internal psyche, the healing of which was to characterise the art she produced from then on in a life divided between Scotland and Berlin.
Chapter Two will focus on the time Hunter spent in Berlin during the years surrounding the fall of the Wall at the end of 1989. It will assert that the key reasons for the dramatic change in Hunter’s formal style were a free and deepening engagement with her unconscious, liberated through temporarily leaving Scotland, lessons from her tutor Baselitz and, most crucially, the experience of being a stranger in a foreign city unable to speak the language. The first half of the chapter will examine the formal evidence that supports this claim: primarily Hunter’s use of animal symbols, her “scumbling” painting method and a turn to primitivism. In the second half of the chapter I will consider those of Hunter’s works that particularly address the notion of division and, again through reference to Jung, assert that as well as the political, social and personal schisms these images address, it is also possible to trace the identification, and mending, of a psychological one.

In my final chapter I will look at Hunter’s more recent work from late 1998 to 2002, which evidences a further transformation of content, mood and technique. I will consider the various reasons that may lie behind this latest development, but argue that Jungian theory enables a deeper, less obvious, analysis of these works and their psychological genesis. By drawing from Jung’s theories of the individuated Self which, he suggests, presents itself in a “new symbolic form”,9 I will identify the key symbol of Hunter’s Self. By reflecting back on some of the defining paintings of her career, I will conclude by proposing an answer to the mystery of the funnel-like shadow that has long puzzled both artist and art historians alike.

By submitting Margaret Hunter’s art to this Jungian analysis I do not intend to claim that Jung’s ideas are the only, or even the definitive, means through which to read her work. Rather, I will prove that Jung’s theories can be employed as tools to tease out extra threads of understanding from this emotionally complex and intellectually challenging artist.


1 Angela Weight, Margaret Hunter: Bunch of Person (London: Art First, 2006), 2.; Dr Gunter Nimmich, Margaret Hunter: Changing Places (Glasgow: University of Strathclyde, 1992), 5.
2 In my extensive research into the available published literature on Hunter in English, I have not come across any such analysis.
3 M.-L. von Franz, ‘The Process of Individuation’, Man and His Symbols (ed.) Carl G. Jung (London: Dell, 1968), 205-208
4 C. Jung, Ibid, 169
5 Carl Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, (London: Routledge, 1925; 1999), 169
6 Ibid, 159
7 von Franz, 208
8 Anne D’Alleva, Methods and Theories of Art History (London: Laurence and King, 2005), 93
9 von Franz, 208

Copyright © Anna Lisa Stone 2011