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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Green coloured room with open doorway to right and in the middle a small yacht with a white flapping sail and around it discarded benches

Victor Willing’s 'Night': Does the Unconscious Self Over-rule or Determine Artist’s Intention?

Des Kilfeather

[ Artwork in Focus )

Gallery volunteer Des Kilfeather discusses Victor Willing’s Night in the context of the intention behind the artist’s work.

A large painting by anybody’s standard, Night, by Victor Willing was made using oil paint on canvas and stands some 2.3 meters high and 3 meters wide, almost enough to totally cover a wall in a small room. Night was completed in 1978 ten years before his sad passing on, in Hampstead, as a result of years of torment with multiple sclerosis. On his tragic death Victor Willing left his fellow artist, mentor and friend Paula Rego behind, as his widow.

This short interpretation of Victor’s Night explores the artist’s intention. Was Willing inspired by Carl Jung? Did his unconscious self over-rule his intention; perhaps via Carl Jung’s theoretical Collective Unconscious?

Green coloured room with open doorway to right and in the middle a small yacht with a white no sail and around it discarded benches

Victor Willing, Study for Night, Charcoal and pastel drawing on paper, Pallant House Gallery (Wilson Gift through Art Fund), 2006, © Estate of the Artist

The painting

Night was gifted to the Pallant House Gallery by Colin St John Wilson through Art Fund. Like most great paintings it is very easy to view the work in a superficial manner and still appreciate its wonder.

But the true beauty and greatness of the painting comes from a more considered approach, perhaps spending even just a few minutes exploring the detail within it and thinking about where it might have come from.

The painting Night is heavily orientated towards green tones created through the use of lemon yellow and blues with occasional interventions of reds. Situated in what appears to be a large cellar is a yacht caught up in a storm, with its mainsail loose and flapping in the wind. The surreal nature of the image is immediately apparent to the painting’s audience as the size of the yacht is disproportionate to the size of the entrance to the cellar through which can be seen suggestions of light.

The boat is listing only slightly to port, (the left hand side of a boat when facing forward). The angle of the listing perhaps is inviting the viewer to believe that the storm is not completely destabilizing it, but the sail, orange toned flag and what appears to be a fabric sunshade are flapping wildly.

On the green toned lemon yellow deck of the yacht is a dark blue foreboding entrance to its hidden lower recesses. On the port side, items of furniture are sinking into what apparently is a liquidized floor of the cellar. The whole scene is lit from an unidentified source from the top right of the painting with shadows of the boat and other objects being inconsistently represented.

Green coloured room with open doorway to right and in the middle a small yacht with a white flapping sail and around it discarded benches

Victor Willing, Night, 1978, Oil on canvas, Pallant House Gallery (Wilson Gift through Art Fund), 2006, © Estate of the Artist

Engaging with the intention behind Victor Willing’s work

As a full time student at West Dean College some years ago, Dr. Roger Bown introduced me to psychology in art and semiotics (the controversial science of signs and symbols). The study stirring in me a highly controversial, deep suspicion, that maybe ‘artist intention’ might not be all it is cut out to be.

Controversially, throughout history, artist intention, the actual thinking behind the art, has been the subject of many long academic and art-follower debates.  When discussing this with other academics the general feedback was that concepts, such as making ‘art from the heart’, are verging on fine art heresy. Many, including myself with some uncertainty, would argue that for fine art to be valid, it must be intentional with reason and cannot be centered on the auto-egotistical self or come from emotional auto-meanderings. With vast numbers of valid varying possibilities, such as perhaps narratives being (openly or not) intended to engage the audience through a painting, juxtaposed with, as a possible example, painting the same pretty image repeatedly, time and time again.

Victor Willing’s painting Night and volunteering with the Pallant House Gallery gave me an opportunity to explore those suspicions and undertake research on artist’s intention within a specific context. Both Victor Willing and Paula Rego are reported as having been influenced by Carl Jung and his psychological interpretation of dreams and the unconscious self. In Jung’s book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung reminisces upon a dispute he had with Sigmund Freud about how dreams should be interpreted. Perhaps the most significant of Jung’s dreams disputed with Freud included him descending stairs from the top floor of a house into a cellar. Jung and Freud, famously, took, forever, uncompromisingly opposing positions on the meaning of that dream. I wonder whether Victor Willing consciously or unconsciously was referring to Jung’s cellar in his painting, Night? Did Willing’s narrative come from his conscious or unconscious self? Was his artist’s intention determined or perhaps over-ruled by his unconscious self? We of course can never know for therein lies the answer to all humanity.

Room with green wall to back with open doorway to right and blue wall to left. In centre a mast with 4 ropes coming off it at each corner

Victor Willing, Sea Passage, 1978, Charcoal and pastel drawing, Wilson Loan (2006), © Estate of the Artist

My response to Victor Willing’s Night

That research project is ongoing and its philosophical principals form the underlying basis of all of my own art. Insisting that ‘all’ of my aesthetic thinking has very clear objectives with long term, vocationally thought through deliverables.  One of the most difficult issues to address has been how to establish boundaries. The exploration delves into and overlaps with aesthetics, semiotics, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and the philosophical search for the meaning of life from Aristotle through to today.


The volunteering invitation from Pallant House Gallery to undertake research on Pallant’s collection items, including preparing, Art Views and Creative Conversation, events has inspired the motivation to explore from many different perspectives, whether or not it might be possible for the unconscious self to over-rule artist’s intention. I know I will never be able to answer this question. I intend nevertheless to continue to research the theory and perhaps through my own visual artistic responses cause some new questions to perhaps have some validity.

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