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Swastikas And Couches


Freud’s World in Photos: A Photographic Celebration of the 150th Anniversary of Sigmund Freud’s Birth

Through October 6, 2006

The Austrian Embassy

3524 International Court, NW Washington, D.C.

202-895-6714


 

 

Edmund Engelman’s photograph, Entrance of Berggasse in Vienna’s 9th District with Number 19 in the Middle, unfolds like a Twilight Zone episode. The cobbled street and storefront signs (in German) seem inviting enough at first, until the viewer sees the dark banner with a swastika hanging over the entrance to building number 19.

 

Building number 19 is of particular interest, as Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) lived there until 1938 when he fled from the Nazis after the Gestapo arrested and interrogated his youngest daughter Anna for five hours. Although this abduction assured Freud that he and his family were in serious danger, it could not have been the first time that Freud planned to emigrate. He might have escaped earlier if not for his age and health (he was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw and palate as early as 1922). Still, it could not have been easy for the renowned psychoanalyst to leave his home of 50 years, where he also held his practice and where his iconic couch sat (see image).

 

Upon his colleague’s, August Aichorn, suggestion, Freud agreed to have the contents of his apartment photographed by an amateur photographer that Aichhorn knew, Edmund Engelman (1907-2000). Freud was an avid collector, with more than 3,000 sculptures in his collection, and in May of 1938, Engelman photographed Freud’s artifacts, just weeks before Freud left Austria on June 4, 1938. Freud died later that year in London, after continuing to battle with cancer. Engelman would emigrate from Austria six months later to France and then New York City.

 

Were it not for Aichhorn’s suggestion and Engelman’s photographs – and the exhibit at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. – there would be no documentation of Freud’s artifacts and the apartment where he lived and practiced.

 

Freud’s World in Photos – an offshoot of Freud and Vienna, which previously hung at the Leica Gallery in New York City – gathers together 36 photographs by Engelman and two other artists, Ferdinand Schmutzer and Trude Fleischmann. (Fleischmann was Jewish, and she managed, like Freud, to flee Vienna in 1938.) Schmutzer’s and Fleischmann’s images largely provide a historical and sociological backdrop to the Austria where Freud lived, without emphasizing images of Freud and of his house as Engelman does (though two of Schmutzer’s photographs of Freud do hang in the show).

 



Freud’s Couch and Room. Estate of Edmund Engelman, courtesy of Leica Gallery, NYC.


 

 

Jewish responses to Freud have plastered him with a wide spectrum of labels: “prophet genius, self-hating Jew” to “dirty old man”. The creator of psychoanalysis, nevertheless, is without a doubt, one of the most important thinkers of the past century who changed the way people speak about abstract concepts, such as of the mind and human behavior, in a manner that puts him in a league with Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, and Jacques Derrida (who, incidentally, are all Jewish). Now, everyday terms like free association, consciousness, repression, neurosis, instinct, ego, id, unconscious, gratification, Oedipus complex, Freudian slip, Eros, and Thanatos owe their existence to Freud’s writings.

Although he wrote in 1925, “My parents were Jews, and I remained a Jew myself,” Freud was not observant. He famously admitted that he did not know Hebrew, nor was he a Zionist (in the preface to a Hebrew edition of his book, Totem and Taboo). But he opposed baptism, and he was member of the B’nai B’rith lodge in Vienna.

 

At age 83 (the year he died), Freud wrote Der Mann Moses und die Monotheistische Religion (Moses and Monotheism), where he argued that Moses had been an Egyptian (so far so good), and that he had taught an Egyptian version of monotheism to the Jews. But, Freud’s decidedly un-biblical account then has the Children of Israel rebel against Moses and assassinate him – an act so awful that it caused Jews to subconsciously feel guilty, even centuries thereafter. Although this theory of Freud’s offers a mythological explanation for Jewish guilt, it is understandable that it was widely unpopular at the time, to say the least – both in Jewish and non-Jewish circles.

 

However, even those who oppose some of Freud’s methods must accept him as a Jewish thinker of mammoth significance. Freud was born in Priber (Freiberg in German), Moravia, in the eastern part of the Czech Republic. Freud studied in Vienna and enrolled in university to study medicine. There he escaped the anti-Semitism on campus by working in Ernst Brucke’s physiology lab. Freud also befriended fellow Austrian, Jewish physician, Joseph Breuer and in 1895, the two published their collaborative work on hysteria, Studien ueber Hysterie (Studies in Hysteria).

 



Freud’s Couch (close-up).Estate of Edmund Engelman, courtesy of Leica Gallery, NYC.


 

Freud was so widely known that he must have been difficult to photograph in any meaningful way that would probe beneath the surface. Engelman’s photographs capture Freud with somewhat of a human touch. Surrounded by his sculptures on his desk (as in Portrait of Sigmund Freud at desk with antiquities), Freud looks particularly cerebral – like a chess master manipulating his chess pieces. In many of his pictures, Engelman frames his images through doorways, so that the viewer is very aware of interior and exterior space – a technique reminiscent of the famous painter Vermeer. Engelman captures a somewhat contemplative Freud in Portrait of Sigmund Freud, wearing a vest, photographed in a three-quarter view, looking off to his right.

 

But it is Ferdinand Schmutzer who captures the most interesting images of Freud. Schmutzer’s pigment print on Hahnemuehle Fine Art Photo Rag (stamped with the Austrian National Library seal), Sigmund Freud (1926), portrays the iconic Freud without his glasses, holding a cigar while facing the viewer. Freud looks closed off, perhaps bothered by something. This photograph reminds one of some of the works of the Jewish photographer, Richard Avedon (1923-2004), who photographed a sad, scared-looking Marilyn Monroe, where many of his colleagues only caught the glamorous actress in highly-posed circumstances.

 

The real star of the show, though, is Schmutzer’s Sigmund Freud with pocket watch on vest (1926). In this photograph, Freud’s thick eyebrows seem weighed down (he wears no eyeglasses), and he appears momentarily caught by surprise to be photographed. With his lips pursed, Freud might even be displeased. Schmutzer’s camera sheds light upon Freud the man, and ironically seems to turn a critical psychological eye on the founder of psychoanalysis.

 

On a purely historical level, the fact that the embassy of Austria has hung pictures that deeply analyze Freud as a man and a thinker, without shying away from his Jewishness, is to be commended. That the embassy has unabashedly shown an image with a swastika hanging over Freud’s apartment is remarkable. But far beyond the history, the photographs by the three artists in Freud’s World in Photos capture real people in unposed contexts. This is one of the greatest challenges of photography, and one of the most rewarding things photography can hope for – capturing the posed and the artificial in a manner that looks so unposed that it appears natural.

 

 

Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

 

I graciously acknowledge the articles about Freud in Encyclopedia Britannica Online www.britannica.com and in Encyclopedia Judaica. I used both encyclopedias for much of the background information for this review.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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