Freud and the Art He couldn’t stand

It’s difficult to think of another personality, whose ideas had such a prominent influence on in the culture of the 20st century, as Sigmund Freud. His theory of psychoanalysis forced people to overthink the motifs of their behavior and the place of a human being in the world in general. But how did art influence on the personality of the scientist himself?

Art and creativity was one of core issues of Freud’s studies. In particular, he rooted art back in fantasy and imaginations. For instance, the ideas of the ‘Oedipus complex’ he analyzed the origin of imagination –by declining the idea to replace father in real life, it can force the person to sublimate his experience into certain artistic form: painting, poetry and others.

Otherwise, this information would be ousted into subconscious sphere that reveals itself through images, tails and myths. Freud believed art can be perceived as reconciliation of ‘reality’ and ‘pleasure,’ as in this case psychics get rid of socially inacceptable impulses.

So, art has a compensatory function for balancing unfulfilled instincts. By painting and looking at a masterpiece we penetrate into the world of unconscious images that allow us to vent on the energy we don’t need or get involved into illusionary compliance of his own desires through contemplation.

Freud paid a significant attention to interpretation of meanings in poetic and visual art. He draw parallels between artistic process and kid’s behavior, because children are capable of creating separate worlds that are seen as an alternative reality. The scientist thought that pleasure from contact with art could emerge from the similarity of the unconscious inclinations the author of the piece had. Naturally, within psychoanalysis, both children’s fantasies and art objects, have sexual implication. But Freud himself confessed he hadn’t managed to fully comprehend specifics of poetic creativity.

Paradoxically, but Freud, who was declared as a precursor and inspirer in several art movements of the 20th century (like surrealism), was a lover of classical art and was more than sceptic about modernistic art. He worshipped antique art (especially poets, like Homer, Sophocles) and preferred literature (Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, Milton) and sculpture; Freud had little interest in painting and was absolutely distanced from music.


Sigmund Freud faithfully and plainly wrote: “I may say at once that I am no connoisseur in art, but simply a layman. I have often observed that the subject matter of works of art has a stronger attraction for me than their formal and technical qualities, though to the artist their value lies first and foremost in the latter.

Such rational attitude was typical for his epoch and could be traced back to the Enlightenment epoch. It was ‘content,’ a totality of certain concepts, which could be easily verbalized, that people were looking for. And such method is relevant to the perception of art as a mere or a waking dream, significance of which can be easily explained by a psychoanalytic.

On the other hand, Freud’s personality had his own features that defined his preference of rational view on art, of something clearly defined and simple for definition. American psychoanalytic Heinz Kohut, who established a new branch of psychoanalysis – self-psychology, claimed it was actually peculiarity of Freud’s identity that forced him to avoid abstract forms, intensive and inexplicable emotions.

For instance, Freud was almost unable to surrender himself to pure music experience, which wasn’t accompanied with a certain plot or verbal material (like in opera). He wrote he was greatly impressed by art pieces, if they allowed to understand the cause of the impact. “Wherever I cannot do this, as for instance with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.

DaliHis attitude towards modernistic art, which actively developed and searched for new forms, was incredulous as well. Kohut mentions such rejecting and slighting relation was common for the bourgeoisie of that time in Vienna. And several personal letters give grounds to a such strongly-worded thought. In his letter to a friend, Freud wrote: “I know what an excellent person you are, and I am all the more shocked that such a trifling flaw in your character as your tolerance or sympathy for modern ‘art’ has to be so cruelly punished.” And after that “… they are the all-too-undesirable illustration of Adler’s theory that it is just the people with serious congenital defects of vision who become painters and draughtsmen.”

What are the reasons for such position of Freud – a person, who himself has undermined wide-spread thoughts about human nature with his psychoanalytic ideas? Freud didn’t allow himself even neutral or respectful curiosity towards new and mysterious art. Trying to analyze the ground of the fact, Kohut suggests that Freud’s aversion towards contemporary art was entailed by unwillingness to immerse himself into archaic narcissistic state. The art revealed modern psychological problems and signaled about the breach of connectedness and coherency of then-contemporary world and issues of selfness.

Probably, Freud couldn’t understand the importance of changes in selfness and focused on psychology of inclinations and structure of our mentality. At the same time, we can’t say Freud ignored and neglected art of his time. In some of his works he referred exactly to the art of avant-garde and not to the narrative classical pieces. One especially curious moment: in his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud described structural model of the psychic apparatus and said about absence of clear boundaries between Id, Ego and Super-ego. And for better understanding he suggested to imagine those structures as “areas of color melting into one another as they are represented by modern artists.” Notably, it was Freud’s first attempt to make a visual representation of psychical structure. And, despite all his love for classic art, he put it aside and go for principles of abstract painting, which was only evolving those days.

dali-sigmund-freudIn 1938 Freud under advice of Stephen Zweig met with Salvador Dali. He appreciated the painter’s outstanding technical virtuosity (which is often ignored by art historians) and confessed that “for until then I was inclined to look upon surrealists, who have apparently chosen me for their patron saint, as absolute (let us say 95 per cent, like alcohol) cranks […] It would in fact be very interesting to investigate analytically how a picture like this came to be painted.” But his renewed views were fated to flourish only in the researches of his followers, less conservative and more daring in questions of art.

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