Opening the Mind’s Eye: Sigmund Freud’s Impact on Art

Best known as the founding “father of psychoanalysis,” Sigmund Freud opened up radically subversive ideas about the human mind. But he also had a profound and long-lasting influence on art; as a critic and collector, the arts were a vital strand of his life, providing a backbone to much of his writing. During and after his lifetime he was also a powerful influencer, pioneering ideas about dreams and the subconscious that would ripple through artistic practices for generations to follow, inspiring the Surrealists, Abstract Expressionists, Young British Artists and many, many more.

Louise Bourgeois, Spirals, 2005, image via Galerie Magazine

Louise Bourgeois, Spirals, 2005, image via Galerie Magazine

Best known as the founding “father of psychoanalysis,” Sigmund Freud opened up radically subversive ideas about the human mind. But he also had a profound and long-lasting influence on art; as a critic and collector, the arts were a vital strand of his life, providing a backbone to much of his writing. During and after his lifetime he was also a powerful influencer, pioneering ideas about dreams and the subconscious that would ripple through artistic practices for generations to follow, inspiring the Surrealists, Abstract Expressionists, Young British Artists and many, many more.

Sigmund Freud’s work desk, courtesy of the Freud Museum, London

Sigmund Freud’s work desk, courtesy of the Freud Museum, London

 From early in his career as an Austrian neurologist Freud loved collecting art, amassing a huge archive of over 2,500 objects within his lifetime. He had a particular passion for antiquities, believing ancient civilisations held intrinsic meanings about our society. Some of the earliest objects he collected were simple plaster replicas of Renaissance sculptures, but as his career and capital grew, he started scouring Vienna’s markets for rare objects from the ancient kingdoms of Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, China and Etruria. These objects held great personal value for Freud and he had them carefully arranged throughout his offices in Vienna and later London, where they would assist him when writing or treating patients. He was even said to carry some of his smaller sculptures in his hands while working to help him think.

Sigmund Freud’s private collection of rare antiquities, courtesy of the Freud Museum, London

Sigmund Freud’s private collection of rare antiquities, courtesy of the Freud Museum, London

 Freud wrote several influential essays about art - some analysed the lives and works of artists, including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, searching for the deeper drives that compelled these geniuses to create. He also developed a fascinating theory called “ideational mimetics”, arguing that art could cause a creative interchange of energy between viewer and work of art, similar to the experience of empathy.

Salvador Dalí, Mountain Lake, 1938, image via Tate, London

Salvador Dalí, Mountain Lake, 1938, image via Tate, London

 But by far the most long-lasting impact Freud had on art was through the European Surrealists of the early 19th century, while they, in turn brought his ideas out into the wider public eye. Freud was taken aback when the Surrealists began adopting his theories, observing with some amusement, “the Surrealists have apparently chosen me as their patron saint.” Many prominent Surrealists were particularly excited by Freud’s text The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899, in which he claimed dreams could reveal secrets about our innermost passions and desires, often through hidden, coded objects with a sexualised meaning. Both Salvador Dali and Edith Rimmington sought ways of recreating the language of their dreams, painting sexualised objects loaded with innuendo, objects we might now refer to as “Freudian.”

Joan Miró, Head of a Catalan Peasant, 1925, image via Tate, London

Joan Miró, Head of a Catalan Peasant, 1925, image via Tate, London

 Other Surrealists adopted Freud’s techniques of free association and automatic drawing, which he believed could unleash the subconscious mind. Both Joan Miro and Paul Klee made wonderfully bizarre, freewheeling drawings and prints with a raw, child-like energy, which would in turn inspire their curious, hybrid paintings. Poet and leader of the Surrealist group Andre Breton called this uninhibited way of working “Thought expressed in the absence of any control exerted by reason, and outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.” These ideas went on to shape the improvisatory, action-led art of the Abstract Expressionists in New York throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as seen in the art of Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning and Lee Krasner.

Lee Krasner, Gothic Landscape, 1961, image via Tate, London

Lee Krasner, Gothic Landscape, 1961, image via Tate, London

 Freud’s influential essay The Uncanny, 1919, also had a lasting impact on Surrealist art; he described “the uncanny” as something familiar that is made to appear odd, haunting or disturbing, such as old dolls coming to life, broken mirrors, doppelgangers and eerie shadows. Surrealists relished this playground of ideas, taking ordinary objects and transforming them into the strange and unusual, such as Hans Bellmer’s creepy dolls and Man Ray’s disturbing found object sculptures.

Louise Bourgeois, 10am is When you Come to Me, 2006, image via Daily Nous

Louise Bourgeois, 10am is When you Come to Me, 2006, image via Daily Nous

Through the art of the Surrealists, Freud’s ideas around dreams, the subconscious mind and the uncanny have remained a source of fascination for today’s artists. Louise Bourgeois is one of the most prominent contemporary artists to explore Freudian ideas - she attended regular psychoanalysis therapy throughout her life and created expressive, intuitive artworks based on the findings of her inner mind during these sessions, arguing that all art was a “a form of psychoanalysis.” More recently, it is clear to see Freud’s influence on The Young British Artists of the 1990s, particularly the innuendo-laden found-object art of Sarah Lucas and the confessional drawings, prints, paintings and installations of Tracey Emin. Today, The Freud Museum in London showcases Freud’s own extensive collection of rare antiquities, but it also continues to display exhibitions of contemporary work inspired by him, proving that visual art is the most enduring aspect of his legacy.

 

This amazing article written by Rosie Lesso.

 

 


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