Trees and Their Meaning
Psychiatric Art: an illustrated talk by Dr Eric Cunningham Dax; introduced by David J. de L. Horne, 1982
audio file extract from video
Dr David J de L Horne
Dr Eric Cunningham Dax
Professor Emeritus Brian Davies
Mr Ray Marginson
The Dax Centre
The Cunningham Dax Collection
Audio is provided for research purposes only and must not be reproduced without the prior permission of the copyright holder.Copyright
Image Copyright: The Dax Centre; Audio Copyright: Dr David J de L Horne
When Dr Dax arrived in Victoria after being appointed Chairman of the Mental Hygiene Authority in 1952, it was into a society where links between psychiatry and art already existed.
Psychoanalysts such as Guy Reynolds, Ainslie Meares, Reginald Ellery and Paul Dane were fascinated by the notion that using art in a therapeutic context could assist the patient in expressing their emotions and ideas about the world around them and their inner world.
While Dax didn’t practice psychoanalysis himself, psychoanalytic theories were of interest to him, and partly influenced his decision to introduce art-making programs into Victoria’s institutions. Of equal importance to Dax however, was a belief that symbols within art produced by people experiencing mental ill health, could reveal to the psychiatrist the nature or progress of an illness.
Over the decades, Dax noted a number of key symbols that he saw within many of the artworks collected from patients of Victorian institutions. Mountains, cliff faces, heads and empty landscapes were but some of the symbols Dax felt were symbolic of different states of being. Other artworks expressed what Dax believed the patient was unable to express using words. A symbol noted on numerous occasions was the hidden meaning within trees:
‘Drawings of tree have many meanings, the downcast, drooping, black, leafless tree with broken branches represents depression. The windswept bent tree with leaves blowing away in the face of an approaching storm is associated with anxiety, whilst opposing forces show conflict, blocked roads demonstrate frustration, and cliffs insecurity.’ (Dax, 1992, p.4.)
Whilst Dax’s interpretations of the symbols within these works is a practice that subsequently became cautioned, his decision to introduce art-making programs within Victorian institutions also signposted the beginnings of dedicated art therapy practices in Victoria as a method of assisting recovery for the patient.
Now the other most frequent vehicle, is trees, it's very difficult for, the ordinary person to be able to paint, a tree. I'm sorry, paint a face or paint uh, a, a figure. But, they, it's very easy for them to paint trees and so you get anxious trees. Here is a typical anxious tree, um, which is bending in the wind with it's leaves blown off, and, you can feel, the anxiety and tension in the particular painting. Then you get depressed trees, and here is a poor little tree without any roots. It's got no leaves at all and it's got broken off branches, and it's all on it's own, in the middle, of the picture. And then, sometimes, the trees tell a story, and in this ca-case, you see, the, uh, ugly, male, presumably, um on the one side, who, uh, feels so inferior to the beautiful lady, with all her, uh, blossoms on. And often enough you get a whole story told in this sort of way, you may get one tree as the father another as the mother, and others as the children and you can see family jealousies and all sorts of things shown in them.
What is The Dax Centre
History of The Dax Centre
The Art of Psychiatry
Trees and Their Meaning
The Art of Ekphrasis
The Stigma of Mental Illness - Donna Lawrence
The Artist as Outsider
The Art of Reflection
Art in a Therapeutic Context Today
Story education resources
Education Making Sense: Art and Mental Health Education Kit
This Education Resource links to relevant learning outcomes for:
- VCE Psychology (Units 1 – 4),
- VCE Health and Human Development (Units 1-2),
- Health and Physical Education: Health and Promotion, AusVELS levels 8 – 10.
- Other areas that may be relevant are: VCE Art, VCE Studio Arts, Visual Arts AusVELS levels 8 – 10, Humanities (History) AusVELS level 10.