CAMILLE VERNHOL, PSYCHOLOGIST
We are happy to open the Re-touch chapter with psychologist Camille Vernhol. Our team, made up that day of Alexandra Balaresque and Anna Lataillade, interviewed her to build a context for future interviews with collectors. We wanted to explore the question: why collect? From her professional point of view, Camille enlightened us through a fascinating discussion on the subject.
Breakthrough+"Re-" team: Hello! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. Can you please introduce yourself and your profession?
Camille Vernhol: My name is Camille Vernhol and I am an operational support psychologist in the French National Police.
B+R: From a psychologist's standpoint, can you give us your point of view on the action of collecting as human beings, child and adult?
C.V. : In psychology, adolescence is a time of transformation, one of the most complicated times in life. It’s a period of physical reorganization with the appearance of all the primary and secondary sexual characteristics, as well as a psychic reorganization. This is a time when everything is moving, so it is quite anxiety-inducing for everyone. Among the strategies which allow the teenager to control this period of great changes and evolution are the collections, whether it be of stamps, of beans... I speak of my personal experience but it can be something else.
As for a child I couldn't say for sure because I think collections only start during our adolescence. On the other hand as an adult the collection can have several functions. There is this quote from Saint Augustine which says that “Happiness is to continue to desire what you already have”. The notion of collection is in its essence a notion of possession of an object, so it can have several functions. It could be a kind of recipe for happiness; well maybe it's a little presumptuous to say that, but when you are a collector you have a certain number of objects that you already own and you want to own even more of the same type, therefore, there is this objective in the search for them. There is this somewhat exciting aspect of looking for the object in order to complete one's collection, so this can give life goals, dynamics. It is an investment of the human being because by wanting to collect they invest their time, their energy... I imagine that they meet people during these moments, so there is a social investment when they go in different environments etc. This collection can be enriching for human beings, much like when we are little and go on a treasure hunt.
B+R: So as an adult is it also a search for that feeling we had as a child then?
C.V. : Maybe it resonates with the treasure hunt, yes!
B+R: Do you think that adults can be looking for loyalty, stability through their collection?
C.V. : I think so, and we can speculate a lot. Sometimes objects have symbolism, like friendship bracelets, or alliances between lovers. When a person dies, for example, often relatives keep items of that person. It can also have the function of memory, because humans need ⎯ apart from philosophers or certain people who do not need materials to symbolize their ideas ⎯ but otherwise most human beings need the tangible, the rational of something visible, that we can touch. It is also related to the 5 senses: an object, you can touch it, smell it, see it, sometimes it can make noise etc. At the symbolic level it makes it real in fact! If the person is no longer there but there is an object that comes from them, then it proves their existence, their history etc. It is something that recalls and brings symbolism to ward off the fear of forgetting that humans may have.
B+R: Do you think there is a specific motivation for collecting art rather than anything else?
C.V. : I think the difference is that an artistic object carries a lot more than an ordinary object. An object of art is multifaceted, it was shaped by someone who has a life story, who has a personality, who has a technique and who will give it a story, and who will put a little of themselves in it. And at the same time the object has its own history and its own consistency! So it's an object that I think is all the richer. We can say that there are stamps, beans, etc. which are little treasures, and works of art which are "high level" treasures.
I think that for some collectors there must be exchanges with artists, which is a big investment of time and energy, going to galleries etc. The whole research up to the acquisition is stuck to the object which makes it even richer.
B+R: Collecting the object also means becoming part of the history of the object and the history of art yourself!
C.V. : Yes, indeed the question of acquisition is important. Then I imagine art collectors have to present it to their friends, family etc so yes I agree with you Anna. The object, which initially is just a form of color with characteristics, becomes something subjective, customizable. I think that for some, the notion of possession must have a very important role in their history, in their personality, sometimes even in their narcissism.
C.V. : In what you describe, there is a real relationship with the object, a real exchange between the object and the collector.
To continue on narcissism, our last question lends itself to it: do you think that the way collectors process their objects could reveal something about them? For example a very emotional, materialistic link etc.
C.V. : Yes I think the way we treat objects reveals something of our personality. However I think it's complicated to really define it because a relation to the object is not the same as a relation to the other. Precisely, it is not the same as a relationship to another, but couldn't we put it in parallel with a relationship to oneself? In the sense of considering owning an object and investing ourselves in it as we have talked about. There is something subjective. Doesn't the object become an extension of oneself? And at that moment, the way we treat the object, how we see it or how we present it to others would be the way we see ourselves, how we consider ourselves, how we take care of ourselves? Is someone who is going to dust off every object in their gallery going to be a very thorough person then?
Now, I think it could reveal something of oneself to oneself but not from oneself to another. Next regarding materialism, in these cases I wonder if people consider an object as an object. It is possible that they give so much importance to these objects that they consider them more than objects in fact. And then it’s not material anymore. So I don’t think you can say that collectors are materialists.
B+R: We see that there are collectors who collect just to make money, there are those who collect completely unknown artists just out of passion… case by case it's always different, it's true that we are making a lot of generalities here.
C.V. : Well it is true that a human being can be difficult to grasp, because there is the “apparent”, what you show to others, and what is really inside. Meanwhile the object is seen as it is, there is no interior in itself. Perhaps indeed, in regards to narcissism, people who have difficulty defining themselves, or who need to show who they are to others, they can use objects to paint a picture of themselves, objects can become self-portraits. Then we can imagine a lot of things... but there is always this human side which is very mysterious, in which we don’t know what there is. Which can be very different when in a social circle versus with loved ones; this is called the false-self and, simply put, the true-self. The object cannot lie, we see it as it is. We can add a story to it but if it's a pink canvas with a yellow dot everyone will see it as a pink canvas with a yellow dot.
B+R: Continuing on this, I think that with art, the way we perceive a work can also change, while it’s maybe less with everyday objects. Everyone is going to feel something different in front of a painting, but I agree that objectively the facade remains the same.
C.V. : I agree with you that you can interpret it differently. A collector, according to the phases of life he is going through, according to his mood, or his psychological state in which he is at times [will interpret the work he owns differently]. I have a painting here that I love, but I know that when I'm a little sad, I find it gloomy because indeed it is full of rather dark colors. Whereas when I'm in a good mood I only spot the bright colors. There is also this question of perception, for the work of art more than the object, knowing that we can put a lot of interpretation on the former, can mirror ourselves.
B+R: The work of art is a stability which reveals the change in us.
C.V. : Which reveals a period of change and therefore, recalls the first period of life when the collection arrives, which is the most changing period: adolescence. So yes, we come back to the beginning. We’ve come full circle.
This interview was conducted in French by Alexandra Balaresque and Anna Lataillade.
Translation to English by Anna Lataillade.