Challenging traditional academicism and advocating advanced artistic ideas, Alfred Stieglitz and his circle at the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York played a major role in leading the New York avant-garde and modernist movement in early twentieth-century America. Adhering to the idea of art for the expression of the artist's subjective experience and perception, they asserted that the artist was to devise autonomous pictorial reality, either through subjective interpretation of external phenomena, or through projection of his or her emotions and psyche. In their pursuit of a radically new form and structure for the pictorial surface, they attempted to seek new theoretical principles from the latest philosophical, psychological and scientific ideas.
This article, through a close analysis of the artistic endeavors and the critical writings of 291, investigates the impact of psychological theories on how Stieglitz and his associates regarded the concept of the unconscious mind and its role in the process of artistic creativity. Reflecting the intellectual unrest of the era, the associates of 291 embraced not only metaphysical/non-empirical ideas, but also empirical/philosophical concepts as well as experimental psychology. Along with Stieglitz, key critics like Maurice Aisen, John Weichsel, Sadakichi Hartmann, Marius de Zayas, and Benjamin de Casseres discussed the nature of artistic creativity by repeatedly using psychological concepts in their activities and writings, especially those published in Camera Work (1903-1917), the circle's quarterly journal.
Pamela Colman Smith, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley, among others, also explored their unconscious mind for creative endeavors. Moreover, some major figures of the early modernist movement, including Gertrude and Leo Stein, Mabel Dodge, and Hutchins Hapgood, participated in 291's inquiries into psychological theories. Other activities at 291 that related to the circle's concern with the unconscious mind included examinations of "primitive" art and children's art.
The 291 associates' understanding of psychological theories and uses of the concept of the unconscious mind as creative source were deeper and broader than have generally been claimed. Their interests ranged widely from the ideas of those of metaphysical and philosophical psychology, to those of early dynamic psychology, functional psychology, and psychoanalysis. They examined, directly or indirectly, the ideas of William James, Henri Bergson, Jean Martin Charcot and his colleagues, and Sigmund Freud, among others.