Figurative Art in Philosophy: the Female Psyche in the Work of Alexander Hayden

Written by Deianira Tolema


“Num Venus egreditur ponto, quam finxit Apelles?

An ne ea, Praxitelis quae fabbricata manu est?

Neutra quidam, Venerem sed si quid degenet esse,

Divinum tamen hoc nemo negabit opus.”1


Alexander Hayden, ‘Panicburn No. 1’, charcoal on paper, 20x30in, 2018, Courtesy of the artist

In Arthur Schopenhauer’s book, “The World as Representation”, the chapters dedicated to art are located after the chapter dedicated to genius (chapter 31), and madness (chapter 33). They follow a logic that revolves around analytic reasoning. This sequence of thought leads to the impossible existence of a world where its representation is disjoined from its own self-produced awareness.

Elisabet Ney, Bust of Arthur Schopenhauer, 1859, Elisabet Ney Museum, Photo found on Wikipedia

In the introductory chapter dedicated to the “intimate essence of art”, Schopenhauer reconnects art to its mediating function, which is essential to the cognitive process that characterizes the mechanism of assimilation and re-writing of reality filtered by perception, ideas, and transmutation of meaning: “Not only philosophy, but also the fine arts aim at resolving the problem of existence.”

In reference to the art of painting, Schopenhauer relegates visual artists to the sphere of the senses, while philosophers take on the task of linking the metaphors of the subconscious to the clarity of meaning and communication of the physical world.

“The art of painters, only considered in its guise of producer of illusions, is to be connected to its ability to separate the mere sensations of the retina and its immediate effects to its source from the intuitions of the intellect; thus, with the help of artistic techniques, painters can produce the same effect in the eyes that can be achieved through splashes of paint on a canvas, in such a way as the same intuition can take form in the intellect of the viewer first and then lead to its origin.

If you consider how, in each human face, there is something so entirely native, so absolutely original that shows a totality that can only be expected by a unity comprised of necessary parts, so that among thousands of individuals we can recognize a specific person – even after many years. Within a specific ethnicity, we are forced to doubt that something so essentially homogeneous and original can come from a source that differs from the mysterious depths of the intimacy of nature. No artist can truly ideate the original specificity of a human face. Neither can he create one that resembles its natural shape. What an artist CAN produce, is rather a composition that is only half true and perhaps impossible, since to create a real “physiognomical truth”, he should know the very principle of such unity.

Kant Vs Hegel, photo collage found on Il Superuovo (

According to Oscar Meo in the book, Tragedy and Esthetic Fruition in the Work of Kant and Hegel”, artworks are appearance(s) [Schein] of the intelligible world, so the only (theoretical) senses that can intervene in the esthetic interaction with them should be sight and hearing only with no contact with the “triviality of matter”.

The work of Alexander Hayden has managed to elevate itself above such prejudice by bringing to light the consequences of the imitation of nature that have been translated into individual impressions. In the work, “Study of Marz (Redirecting)”, for instance, to the simplicity of a glimpse reclined toward the floor as well as to an “interrupted” face scratched sharply and forcefully you can see the esthetic theories of Immanuel Kant about the fruition of the tragic in “non-technical” works of art. The unhappiness caused by a tragic work, as Kant would say, tickles the empathy of the viewer so that his generous heart can beat for the troubles and misfortunes of other human beings. The viewer is delicately touched by his own awakened feelings – be them related to their religious ideas, to their cultures, or to any kind of interest in society – and, regardless of his own imagination, he can’t ask for the honor of a sublime exhibition unless such feelings are driven by an intellectual purpose – the supersensible –, (otherwise all these emotions end up reduced to pleasant yet healthy movements of the soul). 1

Alexander Hayden by Bárbara Gabrielle, Courtesy of the artist

Alexander Hayden’s production is articulated around the tension that exists between senses, sight in particular, and ideas in search of that primordial archè that can ferry a vast array of human emotions from one esthetic theory to the other.

Portrait of Carl Jung by Suzann’s Art, Photo found on Fine Art America

The human psyche, especially the female one, is analyzed with a rather voyeuristic approach, which makes it impossible for the second observer to understand if the emotional states represented by Hayden have been masterfully simulated or simply caught in one of their spontaneous manifestations, completely unaware of their roles as indicators and units of measure of the human soul. Besides pointing out the fundamental traits that characterize the female psyche, Hayden depicts the role of the individual in the development of his own personality, of which certain esthetic and natural details are the main catalyzers – especially if caught almost by mistake, fleetingly; and if what C. G. Jung says in the book, “The Self and the Subconscious” is true: “A self-aware personality is nothing but a more or less arbitrary segment of the collective psyche”, the way a certain condition can be caught in secret, slantingly, far from its own society and culture. Once the obliterating power of the collective influences over the individual expression of inner forces has been eliminated, the female soul can finally blossom in its entirety.

Alexander Hayden, Ch. XX Verse 284 [Disregard], charcoal on paper, 10x14in., 2018, Courtesy of the artist

In the work, Ch. XX Verse 284 [Disregard] you can identify a reference either to a poem or to an unidentified sacred text (possibly the Bible). Several fragments of verses have been transcribed to the background on the left side of the composition. The eyes of the model are focusing on something that seems to be going on within the artwork itself, but beyond the frame, in a corner of the eye to which the viewer’s access has been denied. The model is observing her own surroundings and meditating on what to do, trying to decide if she feels comfortable – or not. In the contemporary portraits by Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville the eyes of the models tend to express discomfort while rarely eluding the eyes of the spectators. Thus, in the era of “media-related protagonism” we can say they are looking straight towards the camera. This odd combination of insecurity and confidence is not present in Hayden’s portraits which focus on solitude and self-reflection.

The shreds of human flesh portrayed by contemporary painters tend to have a life of their own, while inviting the viewer to practice a kind of corporeal penetration – a self-referential, linguistic violence that revolves around visuality and the spontaneity of the subjects represented. Here the crudity of human life – right after birth, right before death – is stuck in this eternal limbo where concepts stolen from Gericault’s historical realism and brushstrokes stolen from the painters of the postwar period are wisely alternated to the “factuality of form”. In this light, Hayden’s female portraits stand out for their unique way they incorporate the great masters’ teachings.

Francesco Hayez, Portrait of Carolina Zucchi, 1825, Courtesy of the artist

Let’s think, for a second, about the female portraits by Francesco Hayez 2 – for instance, “The Sick Woman, Portrait of Carolina Zucchi”, where the artist depicts the subject lost in her mortal circumstance. Hayez manages to reveal her delicate beauty while suggesting the abyss. In Alexander Hayden’s work, reminescent of Hayez’s portraits models, sometimes joyful, sometimes blurred, yet never idealized – are never forced to pose, but are observed from behind the stage. The most important thing for Hayden, is not to imitate form, but to catch recollections of the physical world through space toward the setting or aether to which it belongs.

Eroticism in the series Panicburn and Prelude, reside in the gestures, in the unexpressed thoughts, in the light.

In the work, When the Drinks are Gone, one expects the woman depicted in profile to be about to emit a sound, to have some sort of revelation for us – something to be shared with her audience. Her eyes are wet and her mouth is distorted by a rare moment of self-love. As Miklos Boskovitz says in his book “Images to Meditate Upon”, the new relationship between artist and matter, although rooted in ancient traditions and techniques, can be traced back to the profoundly human manifestations of idolized images (for instance, the image of Saint Nicola whipped in a painting made by a collaborator of Giotto). Our unrealistic expectations imbued with dreams of theater designs, and cinematic effects, should come as no surprise. The God we used to praise through prayers and even curses is now a bunch of images where the natural world is mixed-up with humanity’s memories past and future, with magic, and with the hope to interact with the artificial matter more often than we do with our own creator.

Alexander Hayden, ‘Panicburn No. 3’, charcoal on paper, 20x30in, 2018, Courtesy of the artist

Alexander Hayden, ‘Panicburn No. 2’, charcoal on paper, 18x30in, 2018, Courtesy of the artist

Alexander Hayden, Panicburn No. 2, charcoal on paper, 18x30in, 2018, Courtesy of the artist

In Hayden’s work, often mistaken for photographs, the psychological aspects tend to prevail over the philosophical. Perhaps, they are more connected to the subconscious than to modern esthetics, but not over the formal skill embedded in the lightness of the artist’s technique. Hayden is a master painter of the female soul, a sworn enemy of male destructive energy and everything around it including academia, the monstrous, and the grotesque that find no venue either in his work or by the side of the top realist painters in the world.

Alexander Hayden, When the Drinks Are Gone, charcoal on paper, 12x18in / 30.48×45.72cm, 2018, Courtesy of the artist


Book references

  1. Translation: <Is it Venus – she who was faked by Apelles – who is emerging from the sea? / Or is it perhaps she who was created by Praxiteles? / She is neither. But if anything denies her identity, / nevertheless, no one will deny the divine nature of this work of art.> A Latin epigram by Falletti from the book, “European Portraits in 1500” by Aldo Galli, Chiara Piccinini, Massimiliano Rossi, published by Leo S. Olschki, 2002
  2. “The Tragic and its Role in the Esthetic of Kant and Hegel” by Oscar Meo, published by Il Melangolo. Cit. Chapter dedicated to the tragic in Kant’s esthetics: “Within the semantic field of the term, “tragic” you can distinguish at least two different definitions of the term: the tragic as a liminal experience where men are inevitably immersed in their own existential coordinates, which determines their constitution as beings subject to sufferance and death due to the unresolved contradictions of life and conflict. The tragic is a systematic, conceptual, category that refers to the domain of the arts in general, and historically in poetic thinking starting with Aristotle. We can call the first one existential-tragic, and the second one esthetic-tragic. If we approach the matter with a philosophical attitude that goes beyond history and philology (considering that esthetic-tragic is, in a way, a consequence of the existential-tragic) we must conclude that it is impossible to define the boundary between existential and esthetic-tragedy. What the existential and esthetic-tragedy have in common is not solely the presence of terrifying, creepy, painful, pitiful, touching, sad, upsetting, etc. situations, but also the ingredients that allow for the resolution of the state of affliction. In both cases, suppression of pain is as important as clarifying reality. The fact that it’s necessary to reference psychological states to characterize the essence of the tragic indicates that its architectural weight is supported by the emotional reaction that it triggers in the subject experiencing the tragic event, and not its individual quality. The tragic cannot be intended as an ontological predicate of the being. It’s singularly tragic for those who experience it, and those who witness and acknowledge it as negative. It causes them to ask “Why?” The tragic is a radically anthropological concept overlaying the absolute indifference of its parte objecti. And so, we see the subjective human emotional response comparatively and simultaneously against the esthetic objective analysis of pain, for example, in the works of great tragic poets such as Aristotle and Nietzsche. Is it inevitable to put this template of the Weltanschauung under the sign of the tragic? The answer is,”Yes.” if the predominant contemporary interpreters of suffering give importance to “the prodromes of the irremediable corruption hosted ab origine by the true and the good.” Those who know they are “exposed to the unprecedented ruin.” The answer is, “No.” if our radical question turns into a solemn yet vane insistence on the caducity of things (the génesis kaì phthorà of Platone). In the philosophical investigation of the tragic not only the question (the search for meaning) but also the answer is fundamental.
  3. “Let Me Borrow Your Face: Women Beyond Portrait”, Valeria Palumbo, published by Selene Edizioni, 2003
  4. “Images to Meditate Upon”, Miklos Boskovitz, published by Vita e Pensiero Editore, 1994


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