The Red Book


Entry to the exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York City; inset below: image from the Rubin Museum website

From 1913 to 1920, the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung recorded his waking visions in word and image in a large parchment volume that was bound in red leather. Part odyssey, part scripture, part Tarot, it revealed an Inferno of his deepest self and his eventual emergence as a whole and balanced person—an “individuated” being, is the term he used.
Jung kept The Red Book largely private during his life, and after his death in 1961, his heirs kept it locked in a safe deposit box. Over time the heirs, prodded in large part by his disciples, were persuaded to produce a facsimile copy of the volume. It has just been published.

Rubin Museum of Art in New York City offers an opportunity to see the actual volume. Given the difficult time that Jung student (and eventual editor) Sonu Shamdasani had in persuading the family to reproduce the volume, the museum's getting them to part with the original, even temporarily, must have been a coup.

The actual volume, which opens to about 18 x 30 inches, is set on a stand within a vitrine. The hallucinogenic illustrations are richly detailed in stained-glass hues on creamy parchment, painted in what look to be mineral pigments. The calligraphic text is in German and Latin. The whole thing is brilliantly obsessive. Once a week the museum staff removes the vitrine and turns the page, so that to get a sense of the volume you’d need to return regularly and often.

The Red Book sits on a stand inside a large vitrine. The light in the gallery is low, so the illuminations on the page electrify the eye

Fortunately, along with the original volume—and a nice selection of letters and original preparatory illustrations—the museum offers three facsimile copies for personal viewing. Bound within a red (though not leather) cover are high-res digital reproductions on creamy stock that are satisfyingly substantial to the eye and the hand. Shamdasani, the editor, has added an English translation at the back.

The Red Book is on view at
The Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea (a small gem of an institution that focuses on the art of the Himalayas) through January 25, 2010. Facsimile copies of The Red Book are available through booksellers now.

And by wonderful a coincidence, William Blake’s World: A New Heaven Is Begun, illustrations and books by the 18th-Century poet and illustrator, are on view at the Morgan Library through January 3.

At the Morgan Library: William Blake, image of Urizen from Europe: A Prophecy


Chris Rywalt said...

This is the third time someone's mentioned Jung's book's show on a blog I read -- must be synchronicity! Either I need to go see the show or I should put on the Police, I'm not sure which.

This is the first time anyone's mentioned Blake, though. That's something I have to see. Thanks!

Chris Rywalt said...

The Morgan Library site has Jeremy Irons reading Blake's most famous poem, but he overplays it like most actors reading poetry. I hereby recommend Tom O'Bedlam's reading of "The Tyger" on YouTube. He reads "London" also.

Joanne Mattera said...

The Red Book is a big deal to serious followers of Jung, and even to people like me who find his integrative East/West ideas interesting. While some of the ideas and images contained with this volume made their way into his other writings, the big book remained something of a mystery to all but Jung's closest colleagues and students. NPR did an hour-long program about it--I happened to catch it while was driving. If you click onto Shamdasani's name in the post, you'll access an eight-minute video of his talking about the project.

By the way, I think the Rubin is truly special--a small, tightly focused collection (Himalayan art, and by extension the culture and spirituality of the East) housed in a beautiful space, the old Barney's on 17th at Seventh. That spiral staircase, once so ostentatious, now has a more metaphorical association.

Be careful if you go, Chris; you'll find your cynicism leave you at the door ;- )

Chris Rywalt said...

I've got a streak of credulous mysticism I don't often show in public.

Larry said...

I thought the Blake was well-mounted (I walked up to the Morgan right after leaving DM Contemporary) but nothing new or different if you saw the Met exhibit a few years ago.

The more interesting show at the Morgan for me was the Jane Austen on the second floor. And the little Puccini exhibit on the ground floor.

Still, I always like a visit to the Morgan, if only to see the three splendid old library rooms and to ride the cool new glass elevators.

The Rubin is always worth seeing too, even if they don't serve Reubens in the nice little cafeteria.

Seth said...

Thanks for the preview Joanna. I have not made it there yet but it is high on my list!

Nancy Natale said...

I read an article about The Red Book in the Times, I think it was, and it looked so fascinating. The story of how it finally was made public was really interesting in what it revealed about the Jung family. The illustrations in the book looked fabulous if a tad obsessive. I'm glad you saw it, Joanne, and posted for us.