Beware the Boa Constructor! Freud, Modern Art and the Riddle of Interpretation

‘Some of the grandest and most overwhelming creations of art are still unsolved riddles to our understanding. We admire them, we feel overawed by them, but we are unable to say what they mean to us.’

Sigmund Freud The Michelangelo of Moses (1914)


I’m currently drafting a lecture series for BA Fine Art and Fine Art with Psychology students at the University of Worcester connecting concepts of art, psychology and society. So I was very happy when Tanya Carpenter and Luke Devine, two colleagues from the psychology and politics departments respectively, invited me to contribute an online lockdown lecture on Freud, Psychoanalysis and Culture during the suspension of campus activities in Summer 2020. It gave me the opportunity to draw out, in broad brushstrokes, the importance of Freud for 20th century art and the psychological aspects of its interpretation.

Photo Max Halberstadt (1932)

Arguably no individual psychologist had a greater impact on modern art than Sigmund Freud, especially during its formative phase at the beginning of the last century. Although Freud’s influence on the visual arts began to wane by the 1950’s as the Modern gradually gave way to the Contemporary, the legacy of psychoanalysis has remained strong in the fields of art theory and criticism and the traditions that have defined them (notably deconstruction, feminism, Frankfurt school critical theory, Marxism, post-colonial theory, semiotics and structuralism). In the 1980’s, when in UK art schools these discourses came to be collectively known as Theory, no critical studies program would have been complete without at least one lecture on Freud and psychoanalysis.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik 1943 by Dorothea Tanning 1910-2012
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) Dorothea Tanning

The influence of psychoanalysis on Surrealism is well known to anyone with an interest in 20th century art. My personal journey into art and theory began when I saw reproductions of the paintings of Salvador Dalí, Giorgio De Chirico, René Magritte and Dorothea Tanning in the art room of my secondary school. In the same books as these images I read about psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and his disconcerting theories about childhood sexuality, repression and the unconscious mind. Ten years later I found myself writing a PhD thesis on Georges Bataille, a writer whose work was entangled in the turbulent birth of Surrealism in Paris during the 1920’s and 30’s, and who, like several of his Surrealist colleagues, had entered into psychoanalysis at that time.[1]

My own research keeps returning to the intellectual milieu of Paris in the 1930’s, a period of intense artistic, philosophical and political ferment in which several important figures in the ensuing decades of French cultural life were embroiled.[2] The 30’s began with the Paris Colonial Exposition (in response to which the Surrealists staged a counter exhibition, The Truth about the Colonies); and the first Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic mission to Africa (for which Bataille’s close friend and fellow Surrealist Michel Leiris was archivist and secretary). It saw the consolidation of Soviet Communism under Stalin; the rise of Hitler and National Socialism in Germany; the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich; the beginning of WWII and the occupation of France by the German army. All were events that Bataille and his Surrealist colleagues attempted to understand from psychoanalytic, religious and sociological perspectives.[3]

Cover of Minotaur #8 (1936) Salvador Dali

My current interest in correlations between art, environmental psychology, inter-species communication and what I have elsewhere called paranoid critical theory, are lines of inquiry seeded by writings first published in Surrealist art journal Minotaur in the 30’s. The most important of these is Roger Caillois’ essay ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia’ which combines reflections on insect mimicry, psychopathology and sorcery.[4] Caillois’ attention to the trans-disciplinary potential of surrealist insight was shared by the influential French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whose essay ‘The Problem of Style and Paranoid Forms of Experience’ was published in Minotaur in 1933, and Salvador Dali, who outlined his paranoiac-critical working method in the same journal.[5] Lacan’s famous formulation of the mirror phase, which was to have a profound influence on cultural and critical theory from the 1960’s, was directly informed by Caillois’ ideas.[6] Lacan’s puzzling writing and lecturing style, with its tautological word plays and convoluted conceptual formula, owed much to the Dali’s paranoiac-critical method, intended less to explain and clarify his ideas than to disturb, confuse and unsettle his audiences.[7]

Metaphors of the Mind

Freud’s most important contribution to the history of psychology was his development of the idea of the unconscious: mental activity ordinarily hidden from everyday awareness that secretly shapes our behaviour, emotional life and well-being. Freud was not the first to identify this obscure region of the mind.[8]  What was novel in Freud’s theory was the central role sexual instincts and their repression played in its development and the means by which they could be accessed and managed (i.e. psychoanalysis).

Freud identified three interacting agencies of the mind:

Id: the obscure, disorganised and primal instinctual drives of the human-animal directed by ‘the pleasure principle’

Ego: part of the Id that has been modified by ‘the reality principle’ in response to the outside world

Super-Ego: internalised expression of cultural norms and rules via identification with its representatives

The Id is the primal region of unconscious activity, expressing everything we inherit biologically at birth, where ‘contrary impulses exist side by side, without cancelling each other out’.[9] In order to live as social beings we must learn to control its primitive impulses, modelling our behaviour on the example and guidance of others. The ongoing process of repressing the Id creates both the Ego and the unconscious.

Freud used a range metaphors to describe the mind, the most often cited being an iceberg where the unconscious is represented by its vast, submerged bulk. In this model (which Freud himself never used) the conscious and preconscious, both aspects of the ego, are represented by the tip of iceberg and the zone just below the water, while the super-ego functions at both conscious and unconscious levels.[10]  Although Freud did make use of aquatic metaphors (the fluid dynamics of libidinal energy, the welling-up of repressed psychic content, the flowing of the libido around the blockages presented to it and the oceanic feeling associated with intra-uterine existence), geological and archaeological metaphors were the norm. From his earliest writings Freud imagined the unconscious as a terrestrial region of the mind where the experiences of time are sedimented into layers of solid material, the precious metals of the unconscious are trapped in seams, and ancient cities wait to be discovered and excavated.[11] Freud’s discovery of the unconscious was inspired as much by literature and drama as it was by his patients. One of his earliest writings on literature was a psychoanalytic interpretation of Wilhelm Jensen’s Gradiva (1907), in which the central character Hanold, an archaeologist, circuitously rediscovers his repressed love for a childhood friend through a bas relief in a Roman museum and a dream journey to Pompeii.

Gradiva (‘She Who Walks) bas-relief,
Greece 4th century BC
Gradiva (1939) André Masson

In Studies in Hysteria (1895) Freud explained how during his first psychoanalytic treatment of a female patient he arrived at a procedure which would later become one of the principle methods of psychoanalysis: free association.[12] The criss-crossing lines of his patient’s mental associations seemed to Freud like veins of precious metals in rock: ‘I would carefully note the points at which some train of thought remained obscure or some link in the causal chain seemed to be missing,’ he wrote, ‘and afterwards I would penetrate into deeper layers of the memories at these points’.[13] Following these paths to the inner stratum of the psychic structure, the hysterical symptoms were imagined/discovered crystalizing concentrically around a ‘pathogenic nucleus’. Freud likened the process of free association to ‘clearing away the pathogenic material layer by layer… [like] the technique of excavating a buried city’.  Freud would return to the metaphor of the ancient city throughout his career, the famous description of dreams as ‘the royal road to the unconscious’ a reference to the historic networks of roads (via regia) that connected European cities of the Middle Ages to Rome, the Eternal City.[14]

Freud’s own relationship to the mind was that of an explorer whose dangerous journey into uncharted territory would bring back great gifts for humanity. To borrow a concept from his colleague Carl Jung, we could say that Freud was shaped from an early age by the archetype of ‘conquering hero’.[15] Greek mythology and ancient antiquity offered many examples, most famously Oedipus, whose legend Freud used to describe a stage in childhood sexual development based on desire for the opposite sex parent; and Virgil’s Aeneid, from whom Freud took the epigraph to The Interpretation of Dreams (1900): “If I cannot bend the powers of heaven, I will rouse the underworld”. The Surrealists were particularly compelled by subterranean metaphors of the unconscious, notably the labyrinth, in which the brave adventurer of the soul confronts the violent, chimerical beast within.

Cover of Acephale Journal (1936) André Masson

Like Oedipus, Freud was a puzzle solver. The symptoms presented to him by his patients were puzzles to be processed through his own ongoing self-analysis, fervent intellectual curiosity and personal ambition. As many commentators have noted, not only does the story of Oedipus echo Freud’s own childhood in clear ways (his pre-occupation with the mythical machinations of biology and destiny, the lives of great men and historical heroes, a conflicted relationship to his father and the love of doting mother), it is also a story told from the perspective of an ambitious, morally conservative, middle-class man from Vienna.[16] 

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864) Gustave Moreau

The centrality of the Oedipus myth for psychoanalysis is well-known: Oedipus, the son of royal parents, is prophesied by the oracle at Delphi to kill his father, marry his mother and bring disaster to the city of Thebes. In an attempt to thwart the prophesy the child is left to die on a mountainside where he is found by a shepherd and later adopted by another royal couple. Unaware of his true parentage Oedipus eventually does kill his father, returns to Thebes and marries his mother.[17] Reflecting on the emotional impact of a play written over a thousand years ago, Freud hit upon the idea that the story represented less a struggle between freewill and destiny, as generally thought, than an artistic expression of a deeper, innate and universal truth of human psychology: the primordial desire for the opposite-sex parent and violent hostility towards the same-sex parent. A basic tenet of psychoanalysis is that in order to lead a well-adjusted emotional life, an individual must learn to accept and overcome the entangled and forbidden paths of innate childhood desire (i.e. the Oedipus complex).

Cover of Henry M. Stanley The Dark Continent (1878)

One of the most well-known and controversial geographical metaphors used by Freud was the Dark Continent.  Taken directly from Henry Morton Stanley’s book about the colonial exploration of Africa and the adventurer’s quest to find the source of the river Nile, Freud associated the metaphor with the inaccessible darkness of the womb, the hidden secrets of female nature and the pre-Oedipal archaism of ancient Egypt.[18] Egypt was the legendary home of the Sphinx, a female creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human, whose riddle Oedipus had to solve to re-enter Thebes. Given that Freud’s psychoanalytic work began with a study of hysteria (a disease disproportionally effecting women in the 19th century), that the majority of his private patients were women and that a number of central psychoanalytic concepts were taken directly from his female patients, it seems strange that the inner-depths of female psychology remained a mystery to Freud, so much so that at the end of his life he could still ask ‘the great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul… ‘What does a woman want?’’[19] The contradiction has led to important critical evaluations of Freud and psychoanalysis by feminist writers like Simone De Beauvoir, who challenged Freud’s masculinist conception of the libido and his lack of attention to the social dimension of male privilege and paternal power; Betty Friedan who, in The Feminine Mystique (1963), drew attention to Freud’s ‘sexual solipsism’; and post-feminist Luce Irigaray’s close reading of what she calls Freud’s ‘blind spot’.[20]

Despite the obvious flaws in Freud’s comprehension of the psycho-sexual development of women and the role of social institutions in the management of gender norms, our understandings of sexual difference and the complex interaction of biology and culture in the construction of gender and identity would be unthinkable without psychoanalysis. Contemporary ideals of sexual liberation and gender equality, and the belief that early childhood trauma has a profound impact on adult well-being, would not have come about without Freud’s insights into the role of sexual instincts in our emotional life and their importance for civilization (and its discontents).[21]

Reading with Freud

Freud was a great polymath whose interests ranged from classical mythology to contemporary physics. His writing style, which subtly combines the range of literatures that inspired him, is sometimes disarmingly frank and compelling, rich in metaphor, literary allusion and exorbitant speculation, at others academic, highly technical and quasi-scientific. If taken sequentially from his earliest work On Aphasia (1891) to Moses and Monotheism (1939), the story of psychoanalysis can be read as an epic, autobiographical story of his attempt to create a method for accessing the hidden layers of the human mind, relieving people of their psychological distress and, ultimately, offering insights about the human condition that would be positively (if reservedly) world changing. In the process he created a fantastical theoretical system that, regardless of its ‘truth’ or effectiveness, undoubtably generates a special kind of self-awareness in its readers. The principle means of accessing the unconscious – linguistic slips, puns, symbols, associations, metaphors, dream images – give the reader insights into the workings of their own mind, tools to critically analyse both themselves and texts they are reading as they read them. There is something very singular about this auto-reflective reading process that, while sharing much with the literary arts that so influenced him, allows for a “self-conscious” perspective on the very act of reading and comprehension.

To enter the realm of psychoanalysis as a reader, practitioner or patient, is to begin a journey into one’s forgotten and buried past. It can be a troubling, enlightening, intellectually stimulating and potentially life-long adventure, from which a person rarely returns unchanged. The metaphor that suggests itself is a fantastical Viennese fair-ground with the different zones of the Freudian psyche connected by a network of scenic rides, haunted houses, carrousels, illicit attractions and secret passageways.[22] We should not think of psychoanalysis as a static system however: it was, and continues to be, a transformative discourse and practice, whose followers continually correct and modify its structures, constitutive ideas and guiding hypotheses.

Beware the Boa Constructor!

Lilith( 1887) John Collier

The riddle Freudian psychoanalysis poses for both the making and appreciation of a work of is whether the meaning of a work of art resides primarily in the work itself, in the intentions of the maker or the unconscious of the reader/viewer? It is a riddle that haunts psychoanalysis itself, a discipline born as much from the unconscious of its founder as from the patients in whom he saw it reflected. My title is taken from Ernst Gombrich’s lecture on Freud’s aesthetic theory ‘Verbal Wit as a Paradigm of Art’ (1984) in which he makes reference to an expression reputedly used by Erwin Panofsky, the influential historian of Renaissance art, to warn his students against the dangers of ignoring historical facts in the interests of an elegant and compelling theory. It was a temptation Panofsky knew well from his experience as an historian specialising in iconology, a branch of art history concerned with the meaning of symbols in social and cultural contexts remote from his own. From a Freudian perspective the boa constructor is like an unconscious wish compelling the ego to ignore truths that contradict its fantasy (an accusation levelled at psychoanalysis itself by several of its harshest critics).[23] For Gombrich the boa constructor was a metaphor connecting the well-lit and ordered stacks of an academic library, where the giant snake might be filed under ‘zoology’, and a gloomy and chaotic basement full of unsorted volumes and ephemera, where it had been wrongly filed under ‘engineering’. While the upper levels are managed by diligent and well-meaning librarians, in the basement the imps of the unconscious are playfully arranging texts according to whatever sound, image and word associations they like. Without the insights of Freud’s model of the psyche these two levels of meaning would remain forever unconnected.

Gombrich’s essay begins with a recent exhibition at the British Library in which Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) was shown alongside Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Principle World Systems (1632) and Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, all landmarks in the intellectual history of Europe. As a book that ‘ushered in a new epoch in the exploration of the human psyche’, The Interpretation of Dreams was impossible to ignore for an art historian like Gombrich. Interest in the psychology of art did not begin with Freud however, he explained, but developed as a branch of natural philosophy in the 18th century. Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756) is an early and influential example of the attempt to build a theory of artistic taste and preference on a biological basis.[24] Our experience of the beautiful, Burke argued, is an effect of our natural impulse towards procreation while the sublime expresses our instincts for self-preservation. Burke’s focus however was on the experience of audiences rather than the intentions of its makers. Interest in the motives of artists only became the focus of art historical study under the influence of Romanticism in the 19th century, a movement associated by the ‘Sturm  und  Drang’ (storm and drive) writings of Goethe and Friedrich Schiller and the poetry of Wordsworth and Shelley, which extolled virtues of subjective irrationalism and passion over empirical objectivity and calculation.

By the end of the 19th century the visionary kinship of the artist and the insane was well established within the Bohemian subcultures of European cities, and at the time of its publication Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams immediately garnered interest among artists who considered themselves ‘modern’. Freud identified two levels of dreams: the manifest dream which is remembered and can be recounted to others and the latent dream which expresses the secret desires of the Id. As in waking life, where the primary processes of the unconscious are repressed by the secondary process of ego, the two levels of dreams are mediated by a censoring function called ‘the dreamwork’ which disguises the latent dream wishes in symbols, displacements of significance, cryptic word and image associations and secondary revision.

The Key to Dreams (1930) René Magritte

Importantly for the practice of art and art history, the dreamwork manipulated conventional relationships between word and image, made use of symbols, and found ingenious ways of concealing the dream’s unconscious meaning. The practice of psychoanalytic dream interpretation involves suspending the censor function of the ego, deciphering the dream content hidden by the dreamwork and bringing to consciousness understanding of the repressed desires that formed it on a deeper level. Freud’s thesis that dreams were the complex products of a conflict between the natural, violent and sexual impulses of the Id and the repressive function of the Ego/Super Ego resonated with the non-conformist and anti-establishment tendencies of what would later be known as ‘the avant-garde’, the belief within artistic circles that art is a means to bring about revolutionary social change.

But for Gombrich it was less Freud’s work on dreams that gave the clearest insight into the relationship between the theory of art and psychoanalysis, but his book on jokes: Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). Alongside free-association and dreams, jokes offered a more commonplace window into the hidden regions of the mind. For Freud a play-on-words (pun) is like an intentional slip-of-the-tongue, subtly revealing a contrary counter-impulse hidden beneath a seemingly straightforward and benign statement. But unlike a dream, whose meaning is often deeply personal, a joke must have meaning for others and, as such, has a wider social significance. Like a work of art, a joke is something made to be shared, its value measured by the audience it is intended to please. Joking is a craft, its effectiveness subtly conditioned by timing, delivery and the sensitivities of individuals and groups. Finally, like the works of Renaissance art studied by Panofsky, jokes depend on particular contexts to have their desired effect, and only those-in-the-know get them.

Most of Freud’s references to the Arts were historical, his aesthetic preferences broadly classical and antiquarian. He was famously critical of modern art movements like Expressionism and Surrealism which purportedly expressed the artist’s primal feelings in aesthetic form. For him the expression of repressed memories, powerful emotions or difficult feelings within an artistic medium was not sufficient to constitute a work of art. A great work of art should ‘sublimate’ the archaic complexes of the unconscious and their conflict with reality into established aesthetic forms through traditional techniques specific to the artistic tradition. In other words the formal properties of works of art exist independently of unconscious lives of the artists who made them.

Virgin and Child with St Anne (1508) Leonardo Da Vinci

Despite Freud’s own reservations about the value of psychoanalysis for the appreciation of art and art history, he did write a number of case studies about famous artists and their works. The collected volume of Freud’s writing on art and literature, published by Pelican in 1985, contains a book length study on Leonardo Da Vinci and an important essay on Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses which are fascinating and still controversial attempts to apply psychoanalysis to art history. In the Leonardo essay for instance, Freud put forward the claim that an inverted image of an vulture had been unconsciously concealed in The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (1503), an interpretation derived from the artist’s early childhood memory of a bird of prey visiting him in his cradle and placing its tail in his mouth.

Freud draws an erroneous psychoanalytic correlation between the words “mother” and “vulture” in Latin, German and Egyptian hieroglyphics, in order to interpret the hidden image as evidence of Leonardo’s passive homosexual fantasy of an androgynous ‘phallic mother’. Freud’s error, which was led by his own free-associations on historical mistranslations, shows us how the theories and insights of psychoanalysis owe as much to Freud’s own psychological complexes as they do of the artists whose work he chose to interpret.[25] It is, as such, an exemplary case of what I’m calling here the riddle of interpretation. It also tells us about the workings of the unconscious as Freud understood it. The ‘truth’ of psychoanalysis is often proven as much by one’s errors as one’s achievements. In his over-riding desire to establish psychoanalysis as a credible and relevant theory of the human mind, Freud would often make highly suspect and exorbitant claims, some of which have stood the test of time and become the established truths of psychoanalysis as a discipline, while others have been thoroughly discredited.

Freud’s Moses

Moses (1515) Michelangelo

Freud’s desire to create a revolutionary new theory of mind owes much to a profound messianic current in the culture of his Jewish family. Although as a scientist Freud maintained a generally sceptical view of religion, Moses the great patriarch, leader of the Israelites, Abrahamic lawgiver and prophet of monotheism was an influential figure in Freud’s work to whom he would dedicate a book length study towards the end of his life.[26] In the language of psychoanalysis we might call him an ‘Ego-Ideal’ or ‘Father-figure’ for Freud. Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses in the Saint Pietro in Vincoli in Rome was the object of a particular fascination for Freud who would visit it regularly whenever he was in the city. During a three-week visit to Rome in 1912 he visited the statue of everyday, reflecting on its profound effect on him, a fascination he would write about in his essay The Moses of Michelangelo published anonymously in the psychoanalytic journal Imago in 1914.

The riddle of interpretation is exemplified by Freud’s preoccupation with Michelangelo’s sculpture, touching upon meanings that were both very personal (his Jewish ancestry, parental influences and the Oedipus myth) and deeply formative of Western culture in general (Judeo-Christian monotheism, the rule of law, patriarchy, freedom, the overcoming of superstition). The great work of art and its interpretation form a bridge between the deepest motivations of the individual and those shaping culture and civilisation as a whole. Freud admits at the outset of the essay that he is no connoisseur of art and is more interested in a work’s subject matter than its formal qualities or the methods used to create it. He is confident however that the powerful effects of a work of art must have something to do with the artist’s intention, something as much a matter of emotional attitude as intellectual comprehension. But, as Panofsky taught us, intention is only possible to interpret when the meaning of a work is understood in its historical context.

In the essay Freud focuses on details of the sculpture which have particular relevance for him (Moses’ posture, facial expression, the right hand which seems to be gently pulling his flowing beard to one-side, the instability of the tablets of the Ten Commandments which rest to his side) and how they have been interpreted by other scholars in relation to the biblical narrative it is assumed to depict. Most scholars assume the moment is when Moses, after descending from Mount Sinai with the tablets of Ten Commandments, is confronted by his followers worshiping the pagan idol of the Golden Calf and breaks the tablets in rage.[27] Freud makes a thorough overview of previous art historical interpretations of the sculpture and the meaning of each detail which come some way to explaining his fascination. But this only helps to partially help explain his fascination.

Freud’s preoccupation with Moses coincided with an important period in the development of psychoanalysis as a movement when his leadership was being challenged by several of his most important followers. Freud’s interpretation of the sculpture can now be read in light of his own personal struggles to found a new religion which was accepted by the psychiatric establishment and wider culture, the anger and personal hurt he felt towards the followers that had broken from the movement and the need to maintain an unassailable authority regarding the discipline he had founded.[28] His interpretation therefore depends not only upon his former knowledge of the biblical story of Moses and its importance for Judeo-Christian culture, but his personal identification with the historical figure and the circumstances of Freud’s personal life at the time. In other words a great work of art may have broadly understood meanings that speak to universal human values but it will resonate more powerfully with some individuals than others, and at different times in their lives.

Freud and Modern Art

Night and Sleep (1878) Evelyn de Morgan

Symbolism and Expressionism coincided most closely with the development of psychoanalysis at the turn of the last century. Symbolism was a late 19th century art movement that followed Romanticism in its rejection of naturalistic and conventional representations of the world for those with esoteric, psychological and spiritual meanings.

The Kiss (1907) Gustave Klimt

Freud’s native Vienna was a centre for the development of the movement; Viennese artists like Gustave Klimt and Egon Schiele were familiar with his radical new ideas.

Under The Trees (1911) Max Pechstein

Expressionism, which originated in Germany at the beginning of 20th century, rejected the artistic values of academic technique, naturalism and realism in favour of spontaneous, expressive and seemingly untutored gesture. It marked a decisive shift in popular conceptions of Modern Art, amplifying the anti-naturalistic tendencies of Romanticism and Symbolism and their rejection of the external and physical world, seeking the true source of art’s meaning in the tempestuous souls and troubled minds of its makers.

Da Dandy (1919) Hannah Hoch

Freud wrote little about contemporary trends in the arts and what we know about his opinions on Modern Art come from letters to colleagues, family and friends. Freud discussed Expressionism in letters to his colleague Oskar Pfister. Pfister was author of The Psychological and Biological Background of Expressionism (1920), an account of his therapeutic use of free-association and automatic drawings with psychiatric patients that made direct reference to the anti-naturalism of Cubism and Dada.[29] Modern abstract artworks could be interpreted, Pfister claimed, as expressions of unconscious inner conflicts discovered by psychoanalysis. Freud strongly rejected the value of using the work of psychiatric patients to help the general public understand and appreciate Expressionism, and neither the work of modern artists or the art of psychiatric patients interested him: ‘In private life I have no patience at all with lunatics. I only see the harm they can do and as far as these ‘artists’ are concerned, I am in fact one of those philistines and stick-in-the-muds whom you pillory in your introduction’ (quoted in Gombrich).

Gombrich compares Freud’s rejection of the value of Expressionist art with his insistence on the importance of morals for a well-ordered life (i.e. an agreed set of codes, rules and conventions that allow us to conduct our activity with the minimum degree of inter-personal and social conflict). Cubism, Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism sought to challenge, subvert and undermine the established conventions of academic and classical art and the broader social and cultural values they were seen to enforce. As such they found themselves in conflict with the established moral conventions of the time. Freud himself did not seem to have been aware of the radical transformation that was taking place within the arts more generally and that modern artists, by challenging the traditional conventions of art, were also raising questions about the values of society as a whole. Although the underlying motives of the avant-gardes were very much at odds with Freud’s moral conservatism, this did not prevent him from having a profound influence on modern art. Of all the modernist art movements at the beginning of the 20th century Surrealism is most indebted to his work, taking dreams, delusions and fantasies as the raw material for artworks and using the techniques of psychoanalysis (free association, automatic writing, the juxtaposition of randomly selected objects) as methods for making them.

The Enigma of Hitler (1939) Salvador Dali

Shortly before the end of his life Freud agreed to meet with Salvador Dali, one of the most famous and exemplary Surrealists, in London on the request of the artist.[30] In a letter to the writer Stefan Zwieg, who had extended the invitation, Freud thanked him for the introduction confessing that before meeting Dali he had considered the surrealists ninety-five per cent lunatics. Dali’s sincerity, ‘fanatical eyes’ and technical mastery made his work worthy of psychoanalytic interpretation. However ‘the concept of art’ he wrote ‘resists an extension beyond the point where the quantitative proportion between unconscious material and preconscious elaboration is kept within a certain limit. In any case…these are serious psychological problems’.

Freud’s appreciation of Dali’s mastery of the medium of painting is in keeping with concept of art as something constrained by the rules and conventions of a technical discipline and historical tradition. As such it reflects a conservative tradition in art appreciation that runs counter to the subversive, transgressive and emancipatory impulses of avant-garde art. Dali may have been a ‘lunatic’ but his mastery of painting kept his work within the recognizable traditions of ‘great painting’ and the works articulated his ‘paranoiac-critical’ relation to the symbolism and iconology of that tradition, re-imagined through a profound personal attachment to Catalonia.

In his 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’, the French literary critic Roland Barthes famously wrote that ‘the birth of the reader comes with the death of the author’. What he meant was that we should no longer look for the meaning of a work of art in the intentions and designs of the artist, but in the subjective response of the critic, reader or interpreter. Such a radical denial of artistic agency would no doubt have been shocking for Freud. And yet without the insights of psychoanalysis, particularly as they passed through Marxism, Critical Theory and Feminism, Barthes would never have been able to make such an exorbitant claim.

When I first saw Dali’s paintings as a teenager I knew nothing about what I have written about here. But the images still had a profound and formative impact on me, one that I am, in many ways, still trying to fathom. If Dali had not been recognised as a great artist in his life-time, and his reputation consolidated according to the artistic values of his own time, his books would have not been on the shelves of the school art room. If they had not been there, I would not have encountered them. And were it not for Freud and the theories of psychoanalysis, Dali would probably never have painted them the way he did, and the riddle of interpretation would not be wrapped in the coils of the boa constructor.

Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) Salvador Dali


Richard Armstrong ‘Oedipus as Evidence: The Theatrical Background to Freud’s Oedipus Complex’ (1999)

Roland Barthes ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image-Music-Text (1977)

Bruce Baugh French Hegel: From Surrealism to Postmodernism (2003)

Teresa Brennan (ed.) Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis (1989)

Teresa Brennan The Interpretation of the Flesh: Freud and Femininity (1992)

Frank Cioffi Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience (1998)

Salvador Dali The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1968)

Simone De Beauvoir The Second Sex (1949)

Henri P Ellenberger The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History of Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry (1970)

Hans Eysenck The Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (1985)

Sigmund Freud Studies in Hysteria (1895)

Sigmund Freud The Interpretation of Dreams (1899)

Sigmund Freud Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905)

Sigmund Freud The Moses of Michelangelo (1914)

Sigmund Freud Civilization and its Discontents (1930)

Sigmund Freud The New Introductory Lectures (1933)

Sigmund Freud Moses and Monotheism (1939)

Sigmund Freud An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940)

Sigmund Freud The Pelican Freud Library: Volume 14  Art and Literature (1985)

Betty Friedan The Feminine Mystique (1963)

Ernst Gombrich ‘Verbal Wit as a Paradigm of Art: the Aesthetic Theories of Sigmund Freud’ in The Essential Gombrich:  Selected Writings on Art and Culture (1996)

C. D.  Green ‘Where did Freud’s iceberg metaphor of mind come from?’ (2019) History of Psychology, 22(4), 369–372

Ernest Jones Sigmund Freud: Life and Work (1953)

Denis Hollier The College of Sociology 1937-39 (1988)

Luce Irigaray Speculum of the Other Woman (1974)

D. B. Lewin ‘The Train Ride: A Study of One of Freud’s Figures of Speech’ (1970) Psychoanalytic Quarterly 39(1):71-89

Jeffrey Masson The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory (1984).

Juliet Mitchell Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1973) Benjamin Noys ‘Shattering the subject: Georges Bataille and the limits of therapy’ (2005), European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling, 7:3

Ian Parker ‘ The unconscious love of Elisabeth von R.’ (2003) Psychodynamic Practice, 9:2, 141-15

Wilhelm Reich The Sexual Revolution (1936)

Herman Rorschach Psychodiagnostics (1921)

Jaqueline Rose Sexuality in the Field of Vision (1986).

Silas L. Warner ‘Freud and the Mighty Warrior’ (1991) Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, Vol 19, Iss. 2.

Richard Webster Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (1995)

Richard Webster ‘The cult of Lacan: Freud, Lacan and the mirror stage’(, 07/09/20)


[1] The Paris Psychoanalytic Society was founded in 1926 by René Laforgue and Adrien Borel. Bataille underwent psychoanalysis with Borel between 1926-27 and his pornographic novella The Story of the Eye (1928), for which he is perhaps most well-known, was written during this analysis. For an account of Bataille’s engagement with psychoanalysis see Noys (2005). Bataille’s reputation as a radical thinker of excess, eroticism and transgression was (re)discovered by Anglo-American critical art historians, art theorists and contemporary philosophers in the 1980’s.

[2] Along with the many artists and writers associated with the Surrealism were those who attended the lectures by the influential anthropologist Marcel Mauss and the Russian philosopher Alexendre Kojéve in the 1920’s and 30’s. These included Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre and Claude Levi-Strauss. For an account of Kojeve’s influence on French intellectual see Bruce Baugh French Hegel: From Surrealism to Postmodernism (2003).

[3] See Bataille’s lecture ‘The Psychological Structure of Fascism’, which he delivered at The College of Sociology (an organization created by himself, Leiris and others to discuss the role of religion in society) was an early attempt to understand the phenomena of fascism in broadly psychoanalytic terms. Other examples include Bataille’s ‘The Structure and Function of the Army’ and ‘Hitler and the Teutonic Order’ and Caillois’ ‘Brotherhoods, Orders, Secret Societies, Churches’ and ‘Power’. See Denis Hollier The College of Sociology 1937-39, University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

[4] Roger Caillois calls the inter-disciplinary perspective on scientific inquiry inspired by Surrealism ‘diagonal science’. See ‘A New Plea for Diagonal Science’, The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader (2003).

[5] Dali recounts his first meeting with Lacan In The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1968). The ‘brilliant young psychiatrist’ had asked to meet Dali after reading his essay ‘The Inner Mechanism of Paranoiac Activity’ in Minotaur.

[6] See Lacan ‘The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience’ in Écrits: A Selection (1977). Lacan’s formulation of the specular ego and its constitutive role in shaping the ego’s imaginary relations with others is likened to the transition from a larval to adult stage of insect morphology. The essay’s influence on cultural theory, which took many years to take effect, was most pronounced in the Marxist-structuralism of Louis Althusser, the psychoanalytic feminism of Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray and psychoanalytic film, literature and media studies articulated in journals like Screen in the 1970’s.

[7]  As Elisabeth Roudinesco, Lacan’s biographer, wrote: ‘Lacan played false because he was speaking true, as though through the rigour of a voice perpetually on the verge of cracking, he was, like some ventriloquist, effecting the resurgence of the secret mirror of the unconscious, the symptom of a mastery endlessly on the brink of collapse. A sorcerer without magic, a guru without hypnosis, a prophet without god, he fascinated his audience in an admirable language effecting, in the margins of desire, the revival of a century of enlightenment. Lacan did not analyse; he associated. Nor did he expatiate; he produced resonances. At every session at that exercise in collective therapy, his students had the impression that the master was speaking of them and for them, in a coded message secretly addressed to them alone.’ Jacques Lacan & Co.: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985 (19090) Free Association Books, Londonp.295-6 (quoted in Richard Webster ‘The cult of Lacan: Freud, Lacan and the mirror stage’).

[8] See Henri P Ellenberger The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History of Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry (1970).

[9] See An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940) and The New Introductory Lectures (1933).

[10] This now ubiquitous metaphor was taken from the American psychologist Granville Stanley Hall, who invited Freud to give a series of lectures in the US in 1909. Green attributes the popularity of the metaphor to the contemporaneous event of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. See Green, C. D. (2019) ‘Where did Freud’s iceberg metaphor of mind come from?’ History of Psychology, 22(4), 369–372.

[11] In a letter to Stefan Zweig in 1931 Freud claimed to have read more archaeology than psychology (See Raphael-Leff).

[12] The procedure was inspired by Elizabeth Von R., who came to Freud suffering from pains in her legs. Through analysis Freud arrived that the interpretation that the pains were the consequence of a repressed desire to be with her brother-in-law. Freud was still a physical doctor at this time, and part of the treatment involved the massaging of Elizabeth’s temples during analysis (see Ian Parker ‘ The unconscious love of Elisabeth von R.’ (2003) Psychodynamic Practice, 9:2, 141-15.) In a letter to his colleague Wilhelm Fleiss, Freud wrote that from the network of his patient’s free associations he saw that ‘the path leading down to the deeper layers of her mind lay through the memory-image of the orgasm itself’ (quoted in Wolf and Nebel).

[13] See Ernest S. Wolf and Sue S. Nebel ‘Psychoanalytic Excavations: The Structure of Freud’s Cosmography’ (1978), American Imago Vol. 35, pp. 178-202

[14] ‘Now, let us make the fantastic assumption that Rome is not a place where people live, but a psychical entity with a similarly long, rich past, in which nothing that ever took shape has passed away, and in which all previous phases of development exist beside the most recent…If we wish to represent a historical sequence in spatial terms, we can do so only by juxtaposition in space, for the same space cannot accommodate two different things…its sole justification is to show how far we are from being able to illustrate the peculiarities of mental life by visual means.’ Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)

[15] As many commentators have noted, Freud’s childhood heroes were of the military kind: Napoleon, Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Oliver Cromwell. Freud admitted that he was far less a man of science than a conquistador. See Silas L. Warner ‘Freud and the Mighty Warrior’ (1991) Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis; New York, Vol 19, 2.

[16] See Richard Webster Why Freud was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (1995). Freud attended productions of Sophocles’ play in Paris  and Vienna in the 1880’s and 1890’s, while developing working on his studies in hysteria. See Richard Armstrong ‘Oedipus as Evidence: The Theatrical Background to Freud’s Oedipus Complex’ (1999) Psyart Journal: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts

[17] The Interpretation of Dreams (1899).

[18] The metaphor also carries with it mythical associations of a terra incognita and its primitive, dark-skinned natives. Stanley, who famously sought the source of the River Nile, was an agent for King Leopold II of Belgium. He helped establish the occupation of the Congo Basin region and was knighted for his efforts in 1899. See Joan Raphael‐Leff ‘Freud’s ‘Dark Continent’ (2007) Parallax, 13:2, 41-55

[19] Quoted in Ernest Jones Sigmund Freud: Life and Work (1953)

[20] See Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex (1949) and Luce Irigaray Speculum of the Other Woman (1974). Freud believed that the libido was an essentially masculine energy that men and women must negotiate differently. Freud’s early follower Carl Jung proposed a female counter point to the Oedipus complex, the Electra complex, which Freud rejected. For the relationship between psychoanalysis and feminism see Teresa Brennan (ed.) Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis (1992), Juliet Mitchell Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1973) and Jaqueline Rose Sexuality in the Field of Vision (1986).

[21] The idea that a psychosexual trauma can be pathologically embedded in the body was the basis for Wilhelm Reich’s The Sexual Revolution (1936), a book which had a powerful influence on the politics of sexual liberation in the 1960’s.

[22] Freud himself likened analysis to a train-ride, the emergent associations flowing like the passing scenery. See Lewin, B. D. ‘The Train Ride: A Study of One of Freud’s Figures of Speech’ (1970) Psychoanalytic Quarterly 39(1):71-89. By way of association, Angela Carter’s novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) is an excellent example of psychoanalytically inspired literary fiction that engages feminist concerns.

[23] See Hans Eysenck The Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (1985), Jeffrey Masson The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory (1984) and Richard Webster Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (1995.

[24] The beautiful for Burke is associated with all that gives us pleasure and satisfaction, while the sublime is an effect of terror and the instinct for self-preservation.

[25] Frank Cioffi described Freud’s analytic procedure as follows: ‘Examination of Freud’s interpretations will show that he typically proceeds by beginning with whatever content his theoretical preconceptions compel him to maintain underlies the symptoms and then, by working back and forth between it and the explanandum, constructing persuasive but spurious links between them.’ Frank Cioffi Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience (1998) quoted in Richard Webster ‘The cult of Lacan: Freud, Lacan and the mirror stage’.

[26] Sigmund Freud Moses and Monotheism (1939)

[27] Freud describes his feelings when approaching the sculpture like a member ‘the mob upon which his eye is turned – the mob can hold fast no conviction, which has neither faith nor patience, and which rejoices when it has regained its illusory idols.’

[28] Between 1911 and 1913 three of Freud’s most influential disciples would officially break ties the IPA (International Psychoanalytic Association) and its leader: Alfred Adler, who went in to found the school of Individual Psychology, Carl Jung who went to develop an influential branch of psychoanalysis he called Analytic Psychology and Wilhelm Stekel, one of Freud’s earliest followers.

[29] Automatic drawing is drawing done without intention or aim that attempts to bypass the censoring function of the ego/superego and reveal deeper unconscious motivations. The Swiss psychologist Herman Rorschach, a student of Carl Jung and Freud, developed the 19th century art of Klegsography (Inkblots) into means of psychological evaluation in (Psychodiagnostics 1921).

[30] Dali recounts the meeting with Freud in his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1968). He had tried to meet Freud several times during visits to Vienna. Echoing Freud’s account of his visits to Rome, Dali would visit the Czernin Collection in Vienna every morning to look at Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (1666-68). His story includes an example of the paranoid critical method in operation: while eating snails in a restaurant in Sens, France, and discussing a recent psychoanalytic study of Edgard Allen Poe by Marie Boneparte (a close associate of Freud’s) Dali noticed a photograph of Freud on the front page of a newspaper being read by someone beside him. In that instant he discovered the ‘morphological secret’ of Freud’s cranium: ‘his brain is in the form of a spiral – to be extracted with a needle!’. (In my own paranoid critical universe this insight is associated with the drawing of the ‘transcendental snail’ in the portrait of Louis Althusser lecturing at the Ecole Normale in Paris in 1973 by Patrick Guis. It was Althusser who introduce the work of Jacques Lacan into the discourse and theory of scientific Marxism). Dali met Freud in the company of Stephan Zweig and the Edward James, the great patron of surrealist art in Britain. Dali tried to give Freud a magazine that contained one of his articles on paranoia, insisting that it was ambitiously scientific rather than a surrealist diversion. Freud refused to even glance at the article and instead said to Zweig “I have never seen a more complete example of a Spaniard. What a fanatic!”

One Reply to “Beware the Boa Constructor! Freud, Modern Art and the Riddle of Interpretation”

  1. Hey John, what a great post. The whole construction of it gave me deja vu: the broad brushstrokes are my own remembered time with you and everyone else chewing this fat. Brought to mind Zizek’s account of how for Hegel, the riddle of the sphinx was a riddle for the Egyptians themselves. There’s a book in there, but if that was the introduction I might not need to read the rest of it.

    Hope you’re ok


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