Gestalt Trainees at the Tate Modern: A Qualitative Research Study

Christine Stevens PhD

Published in The British Gestalt Journal 2005 14:2


Over the last couple of years part of my work as a Gestalt Psychotherapy Trainer has involved teaching research methods to trainees in preparation for their MA dissertations  (1).  This article is about an experiment that a group of third year trainees and I engaged in as part of this process, which was a day trip to the Tate Modern Gallery on Bankside in London.  The paper is in three parts starting with an introduction to some of my thinking about research training for Gestalt trainees and my rationale for the experiment.  The second section comprises the notes I wrote for the students to support the visit. This develops some of my ideas about perception and the parallels between engaging with contemporary art and the process of Gestalt therapy.  The final section presents and discusses feedback from the students who discussed their reactions in a focus group run by a colleague several weeks later.


Key Words
Gestalt Training; Tate Modern; art; research;

Psychotherapy trainees on Masters degree courses have traditionally looked forward to research training weekends with foreboding, knowing that at some stage they have to write a dissertation, but sensing little connection between the rather dry research methods they are introduced to, and the lively, contactful world of psychotherapy practice they have begun to engage in.  They have often a developing sense of themselves as therapists, but to be researchers carries connotations of number crunching statistical analysis for which they may feel personally inadequate and which they suspect may be professionally irrelevant.  If they equate research only with positivist empirical models of inquiry, they may rightly sense that some of the more interesting questions about Gestalt psychotherapy practice will not be answered in this way. 

One of the challenges for the trainer is to open up the complex and multi-faceted field of contemporary qualitative research in a way that is both accessible and relevant to the practice of Gestalt therapy.  Within the social sciences, the last few decades have seen a ferment of new developments in approaches to research, in an attempt to address the complex, intersubjective and diverse experiences of the human condition.  There now exists a rich field of choice in terms of paradigms, strategies of inquiry and approaches to data analysis (2).

The experiential rigour of Gestalt therapy training is in itself an excellent preparation for research-mindedness within a broadly post-modern paradigm.  Clarkson (1991) has argued that Gestalt, with its phenomenological concern with lived experience can be seen as qualitative research in action. Barber (2002) has argued that Gestalt is a prime medium for qualitative research and holistic education. A field-theory approach to contemporary Gestalt encourages awareness of the cultural, racial, gendered, political and class embeddedness of the therapist-researcher, and the impact of these contexts on what is created at the contact-boundary.  It seems to me however that as yet we are only scratching the surface of the research possibilities open to us, and that we under exploit the skills and knowledge we acquire as part of our training.  I would expect to find the paradigm shifts that occur in our thinking as we train and become experienced as therapists reflected in the form and content of student research projects. 

As a trainer, wondering how best to support this cohort of trainees in preparing for their research projects, it occurred to me to turn this task of doing research training into a form of action research in itself.  This would both model doing research as a lived experience and inform the process of teaching how to do research.  I had several times found it useful to describe pieces of contemporary art as illustrations of ways of thinking about the world.  Now I found myself wondering what the impact would be if we went as a group on a visit to a whole art gallery, as part of the research-training module.  With the students’ agreement, the event was planned as a day trip, with most of the group travelling together by coach to the Tate Modern gallery in London. 

The next section of this article consists of an abridged version of the orientation paper that I wrote to accompany the trip.

Why are we going on a visit to the Tate Modern?

  1. Because I think that engaging with contemporary art has many parallels with the process of Gestalt psychotherapy


Like the art student, the Gestalt therapist trainee is trained to really see, suspending judgement, assumptions and evaluation to perceive what is.

      “When we teach therapists, we wish for them the real curiosity which springs from a childlike seeing and hearing of the actual” (Joseph Zinker 1982 in Smith 1992 p82)

Goodman writes about recovering the earnestness of the child who, like the artist, brings her full attention to the matter in hand, fully absorbed in playing with or manipulating the materials until the matter is resolved to her satisfaction. 

Seeing comes before words. We are able to recognise things around us long before we learn to speak, and our earliest sense of ourselves is formed from the relationship between ourselves and other things, from what is me and not me.  Soon after we begin to see, we realise that we can also be seen, and the whole complex sense of intersubjectivity develops, long before we find a way to represent this in words. Just as in gestalt therapy we bring ourselves experientially to the meeting in the present moment, so with art we engage with the “what is” of the experience, taking the risk that through the encounter the world, as we have been configuring it may be changed, and that we too, will experience ourselves somehow differently.

  1. Because I think that visiting a collection of some of the most important art of the twentieth century helps us to grasp more holistically philosophical influences which influence us in our approach to doing psychotherapy research


It is not my intention in these notes to give an analysis of the history of twentieth century art, or to set myself up as a contemporary art expert (I am not!). This is not the point of the visit, but I want to give a brief explanation of why I think looking at this stuff helps us think about our research.

We often talk about postmodernism, modernism, positivism, constructivism etc, and it can be hard to grasp hold of what often seem vague, abstract ideas. This visit might help us to get more of a sense of these important influences on the way we think and make sense of our world. 


“Modern” art really begins with Cézanne and particularly Cubism. The most significant development in European art over the preceding 500 years had been the discovery of one -point perspective during the Renaissance, based on mathematical principles.  The aim was to assist with the appearance of reality in paintings, by depicting things further away from the viewer as smaller than they really were, giving a sense of distance and depth. In fact, perspective is an abstraction, a device that simplifies the act of seeing and restricts it to the static viewpoint of the onlooker from a particular place and point in time.  Normally we build up a sense of something by integrating multiple perspectives, we move around, interact with a thing; build up a sense of it from different glimpses.  This is what the Cubist painters were experimenting with, and why their work was so radical.  Perspective is a generalisation of the experience of a god-like viewer positioned outside of the picture.  This is something to think about as you explore the paintings and sculptures in the Tate galleries. 

Another idea to think about is that even in traditional classical paintings, the very surface of the paint is itself an abstraction.  No matter how breathtakingly real the fabric texture on a Reynolds dress or the water droplets on a Dutch still life, the reality is a representational illusion.  When you examine even the most highly finished oil painting close up, you see the minute brush strokes, the surface cracks, the different pigments, which have been skilfully manipulated by the artist to create the image.

A very broad trend to think about when you are looking at modern (and post modern) art is to notice a move away from representation of things to involvement with the things themselves.  Post World War II art has increasingly been influenced by philosophies of existentialism, phenomenology and transcendentalism, ideas that you will be familiar with from your Gestalt training.


  1. Because of the possibility that we might learn new things about ourselves and the world around us

“To get a deeper view of human nature, most thinkers turn to the arts” (Laura Perls 1982, in Smith 1992 p.91)

Gestalt therapy is more about style than technique.  It is a highly creative way of working, which enables us to integrate any technique into our work that is existential and experiential.  We are able to use anything we have available to us through our own background or interest.  Laura Perls firmly believed in the importance of the arts in psychotherapy.  She herself was a gifted pianist, studied classical languages and was deeply interested in poetry and modern dance, which she brought into her therapy practice in working with the body and breath.  She thought a background in the arts and humanities gave a therapist a deeper understanding of human nature.  She identified German Expressionism as being the artistic milieu in which she grew up. When interviewed towards the end of her life on her recollections of the development of Gestalt Therapy, she commented, “the people who really did it well, they were really artists.”

The whole of a day like this is part of the total experience.  Works of art are not encountered in a vacuum.  The novelty of making a journey within the training course is significant, of putting time aside to pay attention to different kinds of experience.  There is something about the space of the museum itself – of being in a “fertile void” – of freeing up time for possibilities, of wandering in a space where encounters may happen, with the art works, with each other, with other people, within ourselves, stimulating and challenging our own ideas and concepts.


  1. Because it might be fun!  I think the Tate Modern is a very exciting place to visit

As a museum, the Tate Modern is essentially postmodern in concept.  It has deliberately tried to get away from the linear idea of one art movement leading to another, arranging work chronologically to tell a story.  Instead, it has embraced the idea of there being many stories, many ways of organising its collection, and many voices to be heard. These include the subjective views of women artists, feminist critiques, Marxism, psychoanalysis, analytical philosophy, the politics of identity including race.  It encompasses divergent ideas, not only the traditional aesthetics of beauty and harmony, but also extreme suffering, and the voices of protest and oppression.

The architecture itself is significant, not a purpose built space, but the old Bankside power station, an industrial building in a once run down area of the city.  Experience the spaces in the building for yourself and see what it communicates to you.  There is the huge turbine hall, and other rooms on different levels, some interior spaces, others suddenly opening up onto vistas of major London landmarks, like St Paul’s Cathedral, almost at eye level.  The sense of inner and outer shifts and changes. There are several ways of accessing the building, and once you are inside, there is no one obvious way of going round the exhibitions.  There is no linear progression.  It is up to you to make your own sense – there is no Meta narrative, but rather many narratives, multi-facetted perspectives.

I do not intend to lecture you about modern art, or tell you what to see or how to see it, although I do have my favourites, old friends that I like to check in with, and I would enjoy talking about these with you.  Other exhibits I have not really noticed at all, or I may have looked at but not seen.  Sometimes I have that experience with clients – despite my best intentions, we do not really connect.  Maybe today because I am here with you, I will see new things for the first time.  Perhaps I will see some familiar things differently.  I hope so.  The important thing is to bring yourself to the experience in awareness.  Notice how your experience changes as you move around, feel hungry or thirsty, and move from room to room.   Let your curiosity be aroused – try not to have pre-formed ideas, stay with your phenomenological experience.  You don’t need to worry about what it’s “supposed” to be – note what it is for you, be interested in your reactions, dialogue with what you are looking at.  Notice how your energy changes – when you feel excited or stimulated, when you feel bored or need to rest.  How does all this relate to the cycle of experience?

The collections are arranged thematically in a way that transcends movements and periods.  The themes themselves reflect radical expansion of traditional art genre to include elements of time and space, and cultural and social imbeddedness.  They could be said to represent a field theoretical view rather than a linear idea of cause and effect.  A major trend in contemporary art is to move from metaphor and illustration to material and subjective reality, an engagement with things-as-they-are.  Some of the things you see you might be surprised to find in an art museum.  You may remember controversy in the press over piles of bricks, for example, and, yes, you may well find exhibits of bricks and other everyday objects here.  Catch yourself trying to be interpretive when you come across these things – “what does this mean?” – and looking at the title card on the wall for clues (at least this is what I often find myself doing when perplexed!)  Instead, try to really engage with the experience of looking.  Bracket off what you think you know about the materials in other contexts, and notice what you can discover about what is here.  For example, the shapes, colours, differences, even very subtle variations in colour and texture, what is happening with the light, space around or within, is there an audible element or temporal?  Notice your own reactions – surprise, indifference, curiosity, disgust, sexual arousal.

The four different areas into which the art has been organised represent an opening up of traditional genres – the nude, landscape, historical narrative and still life.  This re-thinking of traditional, rather closed concepts to take account of their inter-connectedness and wider fields of reference could inform our thinking about our own research – the multi-layered quality of the phenomenon we are interested in, and its embeddedness in a social, political, cultural matrix.  As in our role of researchers we are no longer able to regard ourselves as objective observers, so in our encounters with contemporary art, we cannot be only spectators, but become participants or performers, bringing our own histories, values and meanings and becoming part of what is being expressed.

These notes are intended to provide some orientation to the day.  There are many ways of visiting an art museum.  You might want to go around initially in a group to get a feel of what there is, and to share experiences.  Later you may prefer to go at your own pace on your own or with one or two others.  There are audio guides for hire, sometimes tours organised by museum staff, and areas with books and resources.  There is a café and a restaurant, and you will probably need to take time out to rest – a day like this can be exhausting!  People tend to sit around in the turbine hall and picnic or chill out. There are some fascinating books in the bookshop.

My suggestion is that you identify maybe one particular exhibit that stands out to you as you explore, and that you return to it later in the day and spend time with it.  You might want to draw it, or write about it, poetry or prose, or just contemplate it, experiencing its phenomenology, noticing your own reactions.  Do you make any connections between your experiences here and your research work? There are some sheets of paper attached to these notes for your own use. There will be time over the weekend for you to share some of your experiences if you want to. 

My colleague, Belinda Harris, offered to run a focus group for about an hour several weeks after the Tate trip when the group met together again during a training module.  I was not present, but listened later to the taped discussion, on which this section is based.  The discussion was animated, and themes ranged from what they made of the day in terms of Gestalt theory, what impact if any it had on their research ideas, their experiences at the gallery, and what impact the experience had on their interactions with each other, as a group.  I have given a brief flavour of the responses, organized for the sake of coherence around the four themes from the orientation paper.

  1. Parallels between engaging with contemporary art and the process of Gestalt therapy

A number of comments indicated that some participants experienced connections between seeing and meaning making as processes in which they became aware of being involved as active participants:
I got it more on the day – seeing the pictures visually and some of the sculptures and models really brought home to me perspective, and the difference of where I stand in relation to the object impacts on what I see.

I was thinking of it in terms of creative process – what it is that I see or other people see that encourages something different – growth in awareness that leads to another way of seeing or being that includes more of who I am.  Its about connecting.

One student, who had never been to an art gallery before, commented on her surprise at her response to a large abstract canvas;
Why was I so impacted by this apparently blank canvas?  It was a very moving experience for me – I feel tearful now – and its made me look at things in nature and art galleries and everything differently, because I do have an emotional gut response to it, and the link with Gestalt for me is having that gut response to things.

Students’ reflections expressed their experience in the gallery that seeing was not a value-free, passive activity, but that it involved them being actively present, available for contact, and that in the process of engaging, their experiences changed.  

  1. Making links between the visit and their research ideas


Several people were explicit that the trip had influenced the development of their research ideas.  One person was struck, not so much by the exhibits, but by the environment itself and the response it evoked in her.  She spent time watching how the people around her responded to being in that space, a theme which links to her research interest.  Several people discussed their reactions to the exhibit of the Bankside archaeological dig, and the multiple layers of meaning represented by the display of the found objects and the way the visitors interact with them, making connections with parallels in the research process.  For some, the day gave a felt sense of postmodern complexity;
That’s what I took out of the day – that’s the essence of the research – we could all look at exactly the same data and all come up with a different meaning for it…about what the truth is and how that’s evoked in us.  We’re not actually in search of Truth – its about our own individual meanings in connection with our own process.

One student who is interested in exploring the connection between dance movement and Gestalt therapy described the experience of watching two children playing in the turbine hall as an epiphany;
I just sat and watched the children as if I were watching a contemporary dance performance, but I was seeing children being completely free with no rules and that has actually triggered and really resonates with how I want to do my research…for me that was the art of the day.

  1. New ways of seeing ourselves and the world

A number of students mentioned becoming more interested in art as a result of this experience, and of having an enlarged view of art not just as something to be looked at in a museum, but to be found everywhere;
So its about what is in the environment that provokes a response in me that enables me to make something of it that I feel is eminently creative and that can happen with any material in any way…its how what I see engages me at whatever level.
Another participant was touched by the exhibition of an artist who used colour in a way that she recognised as resonating with her own ideas;
You see something and it touches you and you learn more about yourself as well.
Several students agreed with this person who described a sense of fresh vision;
From the experience of being at the Tate I became more aware of being much more selective about how I look at things, how I perceive things and how I make choices about what I look at and when I resonate with something, how it moves me.  That gave me a model within so that when I walked outside the gallery everything else became art, so I realized that not only is the Tate Gallery full of art, but the whole world is full of art, we are art, life is art…

  1. Having fun

For this training group, the experience of having a day out with their tutor was new,
It was very novel being there, something exciting, charged
And there were many aspects which the group commented on as enjoyable – the travelling on the coach, which reminded some of school trips, complete with silly songs and stopping for chips on the way home; the chance to talk to people in the group they hadn’t really connected with before, the panorama of London from the Tate, walking over the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s, having a beer in the sunshine, simply being in London.  One trainee put it,
Its like we’re adults and we remember innocence and our ability to play.
There were tensions too, some group members wanting more facilitated discussion during the day, others finding what direction there was too heady and intellectual and wanting more time on their own.  Some found some of the installations and exhibits profoundly disturbing, others so impacted by the sound installation in the otherwise vast, empty turbine hall that their whole day was shaped by this experience.  The novelty of the somewhat aged and rickety bus wore off as people slumped in exhaustion on the long trip home.

Was the experiment a success? Did the trip make a difference to the trainees’ understanding of research?  These questions mirror the complexities in measuring any kind of therapy research. The dissertations are still in the process of being written.  Should the outcome be calibrated in terms of the grades awarded?  Some students are at an advantage because they already have research experience. For others whose academic background is minimal, completion in itself would be a real achievement.  Could it be measured in terms of students’ future contributions to journals such as this one? Or in the quality of the therapy practices they eventually establish? Or in the way research is taught to psychotherapy trainees? These are long term possibilities, which, if assessment were feasible, could only be addressed retrospectively.
I am no longer involved as a trainer with this group – the experiment was what it was, part of the ground and training history of the group, and each person will integrate it differently. 

My own experience was that it was a worthwhile and stimulating day, and the freely expressed comments of the trainees show that for many of them it gave them new ideas and food for thought for their research projects.  In terms of group identity and cohesion it was clearly a positive experience.  My final thoughts are that there is something important about paralleling the research process in teaching research to psychotherapy trainees on experiential training courses.  The challenge is not just to teach about research, but to model the research process in the teaching, by praxis.  The requirement is for Gestalt psychotherapy research to be taught by practitioners who are at some level consciously involved themselves in research activity.

Special thanks to the Gestalt trainees who participated in this study: Steffi Bednarek, James Campbell, Ian Clulow, Ellen Hill, Heidi Minde, Claire Harrison-Breed; Helle Østbye; Joe Pattinson; Karen Player; Dawn Robinson; Julie Whitehorn; Jo Wood.

Thanks to Belinda Harris for facilitating the focus group.

1.   This work was carried out with students at the Sherwood Psychotherapy Training Institute.
2.   An excellent discussion of these can be found in the three volume collection of essays on Qualitative Research edited by Denzin, N & Lincoln, Y (2003) Strategies of Qualitative inquiry; The Landscape of Qualitative Research; Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials.  Sage, London

Barber, P (200)   Gestalt – A prime medium for holistic research and whole person education British Gestalt Journal Vol 11 no 2 78-90
Berger, J (1972)   Ways of Seeing   Penguin, Harmondsworth
Clarkson, P (1997)   Gestalt Therapy is changing: part II – which future? British Gestalt Journal Vol 6 no1 29-40
Blazwick, I & Wilson, S (2001)   Tate Modern the handbook   Tate Gallery, London
Daval, J-L (1989)   History of Abstract Painting   Art Data, London
Hughes, R (1991)   The shock of the new: Art and the century of change   Thames &  
Hudson, London
Perls,F, Hefferline, R, Goodman. P (1951) Gestalt Therapy, excitement and growth in
the human personality   Souvenir Press, London
Smith, E (ed) (1992)   Gestalt Voices   Gestalt Journal Press, Highland, NY

Biographical Note

Christine Stevens PhD, UKCP is a Gestalt psychotherapist, trainer and supervisor.  She is an Academic Advisor for the Doctor of Practice programme at Metanoia Institute and Course Leader for the Postgraduate Certificate in Pastoral Counselling at St Johns College, Nottingham.  She is currently a visiting trainer for a number of Gestalt Programmes, and works in primary care and in a private practice in Nottingham, where she also runs workshops on sandplay therapy and writing support groups for psychotherapists.

Address for Correspondance

Malvern House, 41, Mapperley Road, Nottingham NG3 5AQ  07826915161