The father of psychoanalysis was also an inspiring writer on art – but do his ideas stand the test of time?
Freud loved art and collected it. In his London home, you can see the collection that came with him when he fled Vienna: a rich and diverse array of archaeological objects, a Rembrandt print, images of Egypt. It is often said that although Freud was the contemporary of Gustav Klimt, he showed no interest in modern art; but this is not fair. He dreamed about Arnold Böcklin’s symbolist masterpiece The Isle of the Dead, and his books are themselves works of modernism that went on to inspire the surrealists.
His famous book on Leonardo da Vinci is anything but conservative. Making bold claims about Leonardo’s sexuality, personality and the way works of art relate to real life, his book on this Renaissance genius is hugely suggestive and stimulating. It’s one of the classics on Leonardo and always will be.
But what is wrong with it is the belief that art can ultimately be theorised and explained. It’s not that Freud gets the artist wrong – his essential claims are convincing, his characterisation of the genius’s indecisive and gentle personality acute – but that the quest for ultimate origins and final explanations seems futile. You might say that Freud’s bedside manner towards Leonardo – his doctoring – is superb, but his scientific analysis seems to go beyond that humane sensitivity.
The genius of the surrealists was to adopt Freud’s insights while ignoring the underlying science – or, as more hostile critics might say, pseudo-science. They took what is living in Freud – the deeply insightful recognition of the psyche and sexuality – and left out the cumbersome dogmatic superstructure. What endures of Freud is the artist, the writer, the man of feeling.