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|Freud in Analysis
by Meredith Mendelsohn
|What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name "Sigmund Freud?" Couch? Beard? Oedipus? All of these things -- along with an explanation of "free association" -- are on view in "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture," on view at the Jewish Museum, Apr. 18-Sept. 9, 1999.
Freud has inspired numerous controversies over the years. The one surrounding this exhibition may well be the least interesting. When the Library of Congress announced the project in 1995, anti-Freudians claimed it would be too partisan, undeservedly glorifying Freud's life and work. Forty-two writers, scholars and psychologists signed a petition against it. Even Freud's granddaughter, Sophie, registered a protest, claiming that "some of my grandfather's ideas have become obsolete." The show finally opened in D.C. on Oct. 15, 1998.
Guest curator Michael Roth has clearly attempted to design a bipartisan exhibition. Rather than venturing into the further realms of psychoanalytic theory, he has set out to prove that Freud is everywhere. Greeting the viewer at the entrance to the show is a giant lightbox installation of about 70 examples of Freud-related book, magazine and comic book covers, New Yorker style cartoons and print-outs of Freud-related web pages. References abound to Freud's "talking cure" -- one of his many claims to fame.
In the main galleries is a meticulously arranged selection of Freud's manuscripts, first editions of his books, letters, items from his case studies, photos of Freud with his family, objets d'art and film clips. This material is organized into loosely chronological sections -- "Formative Years," "The Individual: Therapy and Theory" and "From the Individual to Society."
The biggest challenge facing the show's organizers was how to make a bunch of stuff from the library visually interesting. The result is a sort of "Freud for Beginners." Next to each original manuscript or first edition is a digital facsimile with highlighted text, panels with translations, explanations and definitions of key concepts. The process is referred to as "exploding the text" and makes for a surprisingly clear display. This all may sound a bit contrived, but don't underestimate the aura of the original -- each manuscript is like a work of art itself in its scrawling German splendor.
The show does include a handful of actual art. Best known is the 1964 preparatory sketch for a painting of wolves by Sergei Pankejeff (1887-1979) -- the patient known as the "Wolf Man," who had childhood nightmares of wolves perched in a tree outside his window. Painted years after his therapy with Freud, it's a naïve and nightmarish image, and demonstrates Freud's ability to get his patients to articulate what was in their minds.
A cocaine prescription and a wrapper that held a stash of the powder provide a glimpse into Freud's early experiments with pharmaceuticals. Freud thought the drug might be helpful in fighting morphine addiction and melancholy, and urged people to try it before he realized it was addictive. Freud's own cocaine habit isn't addressed, though rumor has it that around 1884, while working at a psychiatric hospital, the drug enabled him to stay up all night writing his case studies.
The space where Freud worked is also on view. His desk, a model of his consulting couch, a Persian rug and decorative objects from his office at Berggasse 19 -- his long-time home in Vienna -- are encased in a glass display. His spectacles rest on his desk like an artifact, looking just as imbued with fetishistic power as the classical antiquities and African objects he collected.
One of the show's most entertaining components are its video kiosks. Equipped with headphones, each stand shows a short montage of TV and film clips that reference Freudian concepts -- from transference and free association to repression and the Oedipus Complex. Lisa Simpson tells Homer why Marge shouldn't repress her emotions. Dick Van Dyke thanks his doctor for curing him, and Tippie Hendron spews psychoanalytic catch phrases at Sean Connery in Marnie, Alfred Hitchcock's Freudian thriller. If Freud's opponents really want to ensure his legacy doesn't live on, they should attack Hollywood.
The exhibition takes on a more serious tone in its final gallery, with a display on the effects of Nazism and World War II. Freud was an atheist, but considered himself a Jew in the face of anti-Semitism. Towards the end of his life the Gestapo forced him out of Vienna, and he fled to London. Four of his sisters died in concentration camps. After suffering for over 10 years from oral cancer (Freud was addicted to nicotine and supposedly smoked as many as 20 cigars a day) he took a lethal injection of morphine in 1939.
"Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture" has an excellent website at the Library of Congress [www.loc.gov].
MEREDITH MENDELSOHN is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.
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