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BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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Art, Counselling & Interpretation

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Edward Hopper was a remarkable artist who can evoke challenging emotions. His work has certainly had a continuing impact on me. Nowadays his paintings are often seen by way of representation on some form of poster or calendar but I was recently able to see an exhibition of some of his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan.

In case his name sounds familiar but nothing specific comes to mind, Hopper’s most famous work is a painting entitled Nighthawks. This features three people, a solitary man and a couple seated around an otherwise deserted bar in an anonymous American town. The bar is surrounded by empty streets and the painting provides much contrast between light and dark. There is life at the bar but on reflection each character seems very contained and isolated within their individual world. That specific picture was not on display at the Whitney and I believe the work is normally seen in Chicago but the sense of contrast and emptiness contained within the Nighthawks is a theme reflected in many of Hopper’s other works. 

As we looked together at the paintings at the Whitney my colleague mentioned seeing a waiting game and holding a sense of expectation that something was about to happen.  I was aware that I held a very different view. As I looked at the paintings I was conscious of a strong feeling of alienation and an organised desolation emanating from the work.  

We were both looking at the same paintings at the same time. We had agreed on the factual content, including shape, structure and colour but we differed in our interpretation of the artwork and on what it was saying to each of us. The paintings evoked strong feelings in both of us but these were quite different emotions.  It occurs to me that this capability to see something very different in the same surroundings, mirrors much of what can happen in the therapy room.  This can be particularly true in the opening period of work between therapist and client.

Clients will present a story with specific facts and considerations.  The details of the narrative may be undeniable such as a death, a divorce or a personal breakdown but the accompanying interpretation of that story can vary greatly.  There may often be various ideas offered by clients which the therapist can consider and then if appropriate, reflect back perhaps with an added nuance. On other occasions the therapist may see a completely different scenario within the picture painted in words by the client.

Clients can for example recount a story with a sense of resignation and inevitability. Yet the counsellor may actually see hidden within a particularly stoic presentation, a glimpse of hope and a possibility that things really could be different. If client and therapist are working well together the therapist may be able to reflect this different interpretation back to the client for her or him to consider. That interpretation may at least in part be accepted and enable the client to move forward perhaps in a slightly different direction

The feelings my colleague and I held about Hopper’s work were both equally valid despite our different interpretations. In hearing each other’s explanations as to why the particular emotion was evoked, there was a broadening of understanding of both the painting and ourselves. Again this can be reflected within the work in the therapy room. There can sometimes be a dialectical process at work which will enable us to be impacted by another idea and this in turn will deepen our own understanding and encourage us to move onto another place.  

That process of change and development will often lie at the heart of work within the counselling room. It is not that the interpretations made by either party are wrong. Indeed I would suggest that the clients’ interpretations of their lives should always be regarded as valid at the time they are spoken even if these are unhelpful or even destructive.  It is more that the counselling room provides a safe space to explore the client’s interpretation and also where it is appropriate to do so, to offer up alternative ways of thinking or feeling. 

Unlike those characters in the Nighthawks who will remain frozen for eternity in their situation, my hope is always that counselling work can allow for personal movement and development. Therapy offers an opportunity for clients to move into a place where they may start to challenge difficult emotions whether those are feelings such as alienation and isolation or something more harmful. Clients can then begin that process of change – if that is what they seek to do.

And if I was not a nondirective counsellor I would also be minded to add that the Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue with those wonderful Hopper works, is certainly worth a visit the next time your travels take you to New York!


Geoff Boutle

added on 26th June 2012

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