Canticle of the Sun

Unpublished psychological drawings by Margaret Egloff, American student of Jung in 1930s Zurich, with an essay by Bob Nickas

Margaret Egloff, untitled work, 1931

  • Mar 17, 2023
  • Ursula: Issue 7

In our time, the pursuit of previously untold stories in art parallels the practice of archaeology, a sifting of the past, an excavation—as of pottery fragments—that allows us to piece together images and objects incrementally. Connections to others already known or similarly discovered may be revealed. In this there is the possibility of creating a larger view, adding pieces to a puzzle always tantalizingly incomplete. The archaeological process can also be related to delving into the unconscious, or, more widely, in the Jungian sense, the collective unconscious—which may be thought of as the foundation of an entire culture, since symbolic images are recurrent, archetypal and shared across time; in a word, ancestral. To paraphrase the founder of analytical psychology, we have always produced the symbols by which we may be redeemed. When Jung looked back on his life in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, a memoir published in German in 1962, the year after his death, he wrote, “I was intensely interested in everything Egyptian and Babylonian, and would have liked best to be an archaeologist.”

“To paraphrase the founder of analytical psychology, we have always produced the symbols by which we may be redeemed.”

Margaret Lillie in 1922, the year before her marriage to William Egloff. Photographer unknown

Carl Jung, untitled work (Zurich, April 1, 1931). The dedication reads, “To Mrs. Margrit [sic] Egloff in remembrance of a pipe, which cost only one franc, but which is beyond all price because ‘you’ touched it.”

The unearthing before us in these pages takes us back some ninety years, to seminars held by Jung at the Psychology Club Zurich, and to art, including his own, which only recently became known, by way of a 2009 facsimile edition of The Red Book: Liber Novus, the volume of text and images that he compiled between 1915 and 1930. The paintings and drawings made by Jung himself, as well as those of his patients and students, were never destined for gallery walls.* Rather, they functioned as a tool for accessing what Jung termed “active imagination,” the exploration of the inner self by way of the unconscious. And yet the paintings and drawings that comprise the picture archive of the Jung Institute have ultimately come to seem like works of art—just as the illustrations, lettering, calligraphy and mandalas that form the visual pulse of the Red Book make it no less than an illuminated manuscript of the 20th century—even if their creators, Jung first and foremost, neither saw themselves as nor wanted to be identified as artists.

“The fact that Egloff held onto the watercolors and drawings seems to be a clear indication that they were resonant for her, deeply so, although throughout her life she never spoke about them.”

In 1930, a twenty-seven-year-old woman, Margaret Egloff, accompanied by her two children, a boy, five, and a girl, six, left a marriage on the verge of collapse and traveled from Boston to Zurich to study with Jung.† Her intention was to become a psychiatrist, as well as to put needed distance between herself and divorce, which in that era was more strongly held against women, mothers in particular. It’s important to note that she was a student of Jung’s, not one of his patients. The picture archive of the Jung Institute contains around 4,500 drawings and paintings by his patients from the years 1919 to 1955, and an additional 6,500 from the patients of Jolande Jacobi, his student and colleague, made between the 1940s and the 1970s. The fact that Egloff held onto the watercolors and drawings she created while studying with Jung—“in the context of what must have been an emotional rollercoaster in 1931,” as her grandson notes—seems to be a clear indication that they were resonant for her, deeply so, although she never spoke about them during her life.

Margaret Egloff, untitled work (Arosa, Switzerland, June 7–8, 1931)

Margaret Egloff, The Canticle of the Sun (Zurich, July 6, 1931)

From late 1930 through 1931, Egloff was in Switzerland, attending Jung’s “Visions” seminars. She was introduced to the art therapy he advocated, for which patients were encouraged to paint and draw in order to bridge the unconscious and conscious mind. Art provided an unfiltered visible image that could be analyzed and discussed. The direct triangulation between patient, analyst and image—a dream rendered—offered a focused perimeter that the elasticity of language, itself a symbolic world, was not bound by. We are, after all, more honest with ourselves in dreams. Even if we can’t make sense of them or remember them clearly, we don’t easily discount or explain away what we have “seen,” unable to engage in self-deception as we are in waking life. A drawing can serve as a memory trace, a recording that is as close as we ever get to taking a photograph inside our heads.

Image-making was of significant importance to Jung himself, as his Red Book would reveal. The copious notes and illustrations comprising the book had been concluded in 1930, shortly before Egloff began her training. She would recall her attitude toward Jung as “worshipful.” A drawing of hers described as a “canticle”—a church hymn or chant—comes immediately to mind. It features a bearded man seated atop a mountain, his arms and legs folded, Buddha-like; certainly someone of knowledge. To the left is a golden sun, to the right a crescent moon and a star. A serpentine path leads up the mountain, at the bottom of which a young girl is about to ascend. (The image of a bearded man appears in the Red Book, and also in wood carvings and a limestone sculpture made by Jung in 1918/20.) An etching that Jung gave to his young student, dated April 1, 1931, shown opposite, bears the dedication “To Mrs. Margrit Egloff in remembrance of a pipe, which cost only one franc, but which is beyond all price because ‘you’ touched it,” attesting to the great affection that he had for her in turn. This was an exhilarating, liberating period in Egloff’s life but also a difficult one, as Jung was likely aware. The etching features an elongated black bird with its wings spread from one corner to another, east to west, as it were, against a dark sky through which it determinedly soars. It’s impossible not to imagine this as representing the young woman’s flight, particularly since her divorce began with a middle-of-the- night trip from Boston to New York, from where she and her children would continue on to Europe. Although the Great Depression had begun and the first stirrings of Nazism were being felt in Germany, Egloff describes Switzerland in her notes as having “the atmosphere of Shangri-la, or the Magic Mountain. It was high up and mysterious and somehow magical or mystical, otherworldly.”

Margaret Egloff, untitled work (Zurich, May 5, 1931)

Margaret Egloff, untitled work (Lugano, April 5, 1931)

The drawings, watercolors mostly, that Egloff made during this time reflect that heightened milieu, no doubt buoyed by her freedom from an emotionally troubled relationship and her anticipation of studies that would eventually lead her back to America to pursue a medical degree and become a psychiatrist. Having made her escape, she sought independence. In one of her watercolors, we see a woman from behind, wearing a long white gown, peering over an indeterminate black space, not a wall exactly, toward rolling green hills and a bright sky. In another, a nearly transparent woman, also gowned, holds back with the palm of her hand an ominous dark form that seems about to rise up against her. An especially beguiling image, clearly made during the same “session,” as we can see from the similar figures and overall brown wash, features two women, nearly apparitions, sisters or maybe twins, who wield large scissors as they cut into an ectoplasmic form in which a formidable S-shaped snake undulates. Among forty-some works on paper, only one is purely nonrepresentational: a black rhombus leaning to the right, held in place by a slender, inverted green L. Though made in 1931, it has the feel of a Blinky Palermo gouache from the early 1970s, and corre- sponds to Swiss geometric abstraction from the 1980s. One of Egloff’s seemingly simplest watercolors may be one of the more complex, with a large gray wave about to break into a white wave, creating a wide elliptical vortex at the center. Two very small forms to the right might be figures imper- iled, about to be swallowed within.

Egloff also created a number of vibrant mandalas, not unlike those we associate with Jung’s in the Red Book. A few of these works on paper were made with metallic gold color, suggesting, also by way of the imagery, alchemical/Tantric connections. Two, obviously from the same session, place elongated melon shapes on jet-black grounds, each featuring stick figures. One, with the figures sketched in pencil to the right of the centered image, appears preparatory. The figures are drawn as if they are stepping forward, walking, striding, and dashing ahead. In the image that must have followed, they form four orderly lines, two at the top, two below, walking from right to left. Gold was used in a drawing dated February 1931, a double image. To the left is a gold treelike structure, each branch bending upward and outward with an arrow at the end. Under the “tree,” deciding upon her direction, stands a gray, shrouded woman. To the right an aerial view of a path leads to a fork in the road. The path is completely filled in with small golden arrows, some proceeding ahead, other turning to the right-hand curve. The works with metallic color, this last in particular, raise the age-old question: Does one follow others along an expected route, or decide on a path for oneself?

Margaret Egloff, untitled work (Zurich, February 1931)

Margaret Egloff, untitled work (Zurich, June 16, 1931)

“A drawing can serve as a memory trace, a recording that is as close as we ever get to taking a photograph inside our heads.”

Margaret Egloff, untitled work (Zurich, October 26, 1931)

One of the most beautiful of Egloff’s images has at its center an eight-pointed star, a symbol of fertility and life, also meant to ward off evil. For Buddhists—and Jung, who studied their philosophy, understood that, as he said, “the goal in psychotherapy is exactly the same as in Buddhism”—the eight-spoked wheel represents a means of escape from suffering, for which one must first break free of attachments. Egloff’s mandala has four pale blue birds, arched wings spread, flying off from the eight-pointed star, with small, banded rings behind them. Four other creatures have already left the circle, although they seem to be swimming away. (In a pencil drawing identified as Portrait of the Artist and Children, Egloff represented herself as a seal perched on a rock above the sea. In another playful image, she is a seal with the world balanced on the tip of her nose: Portrait of the Artist as ATLAS.)

None of these works were ever framed or displayed, remaining for decades in a cardboard portfolio which Egloff brought back with her to the States. Recalling Jung’s method in notes dated September 20, 1979, nearly fifty years after studying with him, she recalled:

The material under discussion that year was the . . . journal of an American woman, well-educated and intellectual. She had recorded a long series of dreams, hypnogogic fantasies and images. Her material was a lively example of “Active Imagination.” She had illustrated it with pen and pencil, water colors, and crayon. Jung himself often drew symbols and diagrams on the board.

His method was to use each theme, sequence or symbol as a springboard from which to launch into an exposition of his theories, speculation and vast erudition. He ranged over present day social and political matters, as well as historical and mythological material. He covered philosophy, psychology, medicine, economics, and folk lore. . . .

This method of instruction he later came to call “amplification.” It is central to the technique of Jungian therapy today, as it was then. One purpose of this method is to offer the patient a way to stand back a little from his problems and see them as a little less personal, projected onto a screen, more universal and more human. Ideas about the stream and continuity of human life flowed through all of his teaching.

Egloff may have been engaged and captivated by Jungian training, considering in his seminars the traumas and troubles of others, but she was still a young woman with two small children, in a vulnerable position. We may see her as a student of Jung’s who, in a sense, was compelled to confront herself. In this circumstance, she was not alone. Shortly before beginning her studies in Zurich, she took her children to the Alpine resort of Gstaad for the holidays. There, in December 1930, she met another single parent, accompanied by a daughter who was a few years older than hers. The man was temporarily separated from his wife, who was then in a sanitarium near Lausanne being treated for schizophrenia. He and Egloff connected through a mutual interest in psychology, possibly also through their shared circumstances and solitude. The man was F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the biography Fool for Love (1983), Scott Donaldson examines Fitzgerald by way of the women who occupied central and at times difficult positions in his life, particularly his mother, with whom he had an anxious relationship into adulthood, and his wife Zelda, whose breakdown would come to haunt their marriage and upon whom the character of Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (1925) was based.

Margaret Egloff, Portrait of the Artist as ATLAS (Zurich, February 1931)

Donaldson writes that after Egloff and Fitzgerald’s initial encounter “there were frequent meetings during the next six months when they spent long hours talking about literature and psychology and she came to know him ‘very intimately.’ The two of them also took trips together to the Italian lakes and to France.” Donaldson makes note of a significant dream Fitzgerald had had, which he transcribed and shared with Egloff, who helped him navigate it. In the dream he had been embarrassed by his mother, whose ambitions for him were inseparable from his social insecurities. He stumbles into a party to which he had not been invited, an arena for his feelings of inferiority and fear of rejection, which endured even amid his great success. Egloff referred to it as his “Big Dream.” Donaldson concludes his account of Fitzgerald and Egloff with a scene the author himself might have written: “Then they went their separate ways, Margaret to remarry, and met only once more, surreptitiously, in the Washington train station in the mid-1930s.”

When we consider the brief relationship between Fitzgerald and Egloff, how they had been brought together in a moment fraught for each of them, against the backdrop of her divorce and rebirth with Jung, one of the epigrams included in his The Crack-Up (1936) resounds: “Switzerland is a country where very few things begin, but many things end.” Egloff would later burn the letters Fitzgerald wrote to her, but she held onto these drawings, as well as to Jung’s etching, with its touching dedication, for the rest of her life. Switzerland was to be, for her, the moment in time where everything began again.

* For my commentary on Jung’s artwork, I am indebted to Ulrich Hoerni’s essay “Images From the Unconscious: An Introduction to the Visual Works of C. G. Jung,” in The Art of C. G. Jung (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019).

† I am grateful to her grandson, Frank Egloff, for his insights into this period, drawn from the recollections of his father.

Bob Nickas is a writer and curator based in New York, who has organized more than 120 exhibitions since 1984. His books include Painting Abstraction: New Elements in Abstract Painting and four collections of writing and interviews: Live Free or Die, Theft Is Vision, The Dept. of Corrections and Komplaint Dept. Yesterworld, Nickas’s daily writing diary from 2019, has just been published by Karma, and a monograph on the Italian painter Salvo is forthcoming from Nero, Rome.