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Art & Psyche: The Freudian Legacy

CDS Gallery
September 14 – November 29, 2007

Lucian Freud (born 1922), German/British. “Four Figures”, 1991. Etching on Somerset Satin White paper. 23 x 33 in. ed. 23 of 30.
Lucian Freud (born 1922), German/British. “Four Figures”, 1991. Etching on Somerset Satin White paper. 23 x 33 in. ed. 23 of 30.

This recent exhibit, curated by Dr. Lynn Gamwell at the CDS Gallery, was born of a book she edited several years ago called Dreams 1900-2000: Art, Science and the Unconscious Mind (Cornell University Press, 2000), commemorating the centennial of Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams. An earlier incarnation of the exhibit toured museums in Vienna, Paris and New York in 2000-2001. This time around, reduced by half and minus the films shown previously, the show comprised twenty-two art pieces and several artifacts directly connected to Freud, such as a diorama of his study with his extensive collection of original antique sculptures, most of them "goddesses" from Egypt, Greece and India. Also present were Freud's own drawings of the acoustic nerves of the ear.

The show revealed yet again the very complex relationship between visual art and psychoanalytic thought from the late 19th century through the 20th and beyond. In Paris, Jean-Martin Charcot, Freud's teacher, was using drawings and photographs as early as 1885 to study "hysteria." Freud in turn developed a new therapy, moving from "seeing to listening," according to August Ruhs's foreword to Dreams 1900-2000. In addition, Dr. Gamwell mentions that during Freud's visit to New York in 1909, he went to the movies and subsequently linked them to dreams and dream interpretation. The "art of the nerves," as created by artists of the time and thereafter, had verbal as well as visual components. "Suppressed memories of repressed desires" were the Surrealists' favorite subject, along with "remembering dreams" refashioned into poetry and art. "The muse is not someone who comes to visit us, it is within,” says Gamwell.

The earliest drawing in the show is an 1886 sketch of the acoustic nerve by Freud himself, connecting the eardrum to the hearing center of the brain, a first in neuroscience at that time. Next is a photo of Freud from 1905, where he is shown with a cast model of Michelangelo's "Dying Slave," the earliest of his art-reproductions, bought in 1896. Within a few years, Freud stopped buying reproductions and started collecting original antiquities.

The premiere example of the Freudian legacy is by Max Ernst, a small collage depicting a young girl—a butterfly catcher standing on a ladder propped against a street lamp—and three gentlemen gazing up her skirt. The work, replete with snakes and dragon-tails, is titled, "Hermes and Dorothea," from Ernst's Paramyth series (1948).

Roberto Matta's abstract drawing creates a dreamlike space with floating yellow and green forms suggesting fantastic machines. Matta also employs biomorphic shapes to depict landscapes of the unconscious mind that he called "inscapes" or "psychological morphologies."

"Phantom of the Past" is the title of an etching by Kurt Seligmann done in 1948, a nightmarish skeletal apparition attired in a soldier's helmet and tattered cape, carrying a twisted sword—a frightful memory portrayed against a black sky. Marcel Jean is another dream-co-conspirator represented by an etching called "Surrealist Landscape" (1935), depicting a sleeping female nude with a numeral eight for her head, and a half-human/half-scarecrow with a key in his pocket, symbols waiting to be interpreted or deciphered by the viewer.

Among the native Surrealists, a.k.a. the Abstract Expressionists, there's an unusual, early two-sided drawing from Jackson Pollack's Psychoanalytical Series of 1939-1940, completed during the artist's treatment with Jungian analyst Joseph L. Henderson, in which the head of a bull, alluding to a sacrificial animal, represents the blind impetuosity of human emotions, instincts and obsessions. And Archile Gorky's untitled 1935 drawing, a cubist figure in graphite on paper, drawn from multiple viewpoints and twisted into contortions, seems to foreshadow Gorky's suicide in 1948, which followed a failed marriage, a fire at his studio and the loss of the ability to paint due to injuries sustained in a car accident.

Two South American sculptors attracted my attention: the Argentinean Jorge Michael, with the marble piece "Cumulo (Heap or pile)" from 1976, and Uruguayan Gonzalo Fonseca with the Carrara sculpture, "High place" (1955). Both represent a modern approach to the fear and erotic misery generated in confined spaces by subliminal symbolic messages and autosuggestion.

Another inclusion in the show is Hedda Sterne, age 96 and the widow of Surrealist Saul Steinberg, the sole survivor of the Abstract Expressionist group, who presents an oil pastel and pencil on paper called "Ghosts" (2001), the image of an ancestral figure that still haunts her waking hours.

I also must mention Sigmund's grandson, Lucian Freud, 85, whose etching on paper, "Four Figures" (1991), depicts a male nude in a top corner and a couple with a child on the bottom. The image was sketched not from professional models, but ordinary-looking people whose formal separation reveals the magnetism between them as much as their disconnection.

When Freud first published The Interpretation of Dreams, he began the modern study of a phenomenon that has fascinated human beings for thousands of years. At the same time he opened a new realm, the unconscious mind, to filmmakers and artists. This aspect is captured in Gamwell's lavish 300-page catalogue by a “dream archive”—an illustrated encyclopedia of approximately 500 examples of 20th-century art about dreams. Unfortunately, it's missing important examples of native Surrealists and avant-gardists, such as Kay Sage, Charles Henry Ford, Alfonso Ossorio ,Pavel Tchelitchev, Boris Margo, May Wilson, Bryon Gysin and many other dreamers. The subject will need several more incarnations to encompass them all in full.


Valery Oisteanu


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 07-JAN 08

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