PRINT January 1990


For over 40 years, beginning in the 1890s, Sigmund Freud collected antiquities—some 2,000 in all, primarily from ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Rome, the Near East, and the Orient. He displayed them in his study and in his consulting room, cased in glass, lined up on shelves and in vitrines and cabinets, and standing in a thick row along the front of his desk. Sixty-seven of these objects will be shown in the exhibition “The Sigmund Freud Antiquities: Fragments from a Buried Past,” curated by Lynn Gamwell for the University Art Museum of the State University of New York, Binghamton.

WHEN I LOOK AT this catalogue of Freud’s collection, I think of Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. The analogy is not entirely a put-down. The collection is a document; it has the nostalgia of a period piece, and it’s very moving. Freud collected because it gave him pleasure, a kind of self-esteem. Why did he need self-esteem? I don’t know. How can a man like Freud need reassurance? Perhaps the collection gave him a social standing that he may have felt he lacked. Perhaps it gave him a way of decorating his office. Perhaps it gave him a distraction while he worked, since he must have been painfully weary of the sob stories of his patients. On the other hand, he must have been weary of their silences as well. It’s terrible to spend an hour with somebody who will not open up, not because they don’t want to but because they cannot, or because they have nothing to say, or their mind is blurred, or because they want to go and get drunk, or they want to express antagonism. God knows what the reason for the silences are, but Freud was probably bored. I doubt very much he liked most of his patients. Which only means he was human.

Freud’s collecting was a past time. He could hold the antiquities, he could caress them, he could dust them, he could handle them physically. Although he used many archaeological metaphors in his writings about the psyche and the unconscious, I doubt that these antiquities helped him in his work. He was a doctor, a neurologist, a disciple of Darwin, a student of Charcot, a materialist and a determinist. He was concerned with the laws of causality. He wanted to convince his patients to listen to reason. He even rejected hypnosis. He was solely interested in evidences, proofs, and documents. The information he used very often came from his own library. Freud was interested in biographies, case studies, and written, verifiable documentation. He could not have extrapolated much from these objects. He was not a visual person: his collection has no visual consistency. He hopped from Chinese to Greek, from Greek to Roman, and from Roman to Egyptian. Strangely, African art seems not to have concerned him much. And of course he had no interest in the art of his day.

It’s true, as the catalogue says, that psychoanalysis can be equated with digging. But the analogy is a cheap one. Anytime you are presented with a problem, you dig. You dig in your mind. We all dig for the truth. A cat will dig in the garden to hide its shit. We all dig all day long, so the metaphor is obvious. More revealing than Freud’s archaeological language is his use of terms from physics and mechanics, terms like energy, condensation, and displacement. He wanted to be scientific.

So these objects were not crucial to Freud’s work. They were his toys. They gave him a kick. They were part of the good life, and as I said, he may have needed reassurance. I also think you have to see the enormous, threatening presence of Jung behind Freud’s collection. Jung really deduced his theories from his knowledge of antiquities, although he overdid it. But Freud was a reasonable and scientific man. He was content with these little trifles, but they did not engage his intellect or his ability as a doctor. One of the ways he sometimes healed was to move his hand to the forehead of the patient and just touch it. This physical contact was so real that suddenly the patient would start to talk, start to function. So as a healer, Freud was a very powerful person. Meaning that reality for him was not in the little figures. Reality for him was in the life or death of his patient. Reality was in the struggle for the survival of his patient.

I see his office with the half-dead hysterics there as a pitiful place. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I call them maggots. Freud was so in tune with the misery of people, and with the misery of their fantasies and superstitions, that he needed to look at the comforting spectacle of civilizations that have died and yet still live today. He needed relief from his constant, painful facing of the fragmented pieces of broken minds. Although he was irreligious, he believed in a kind of resurrection. Freud treated these people because that was his way of fighting death. For selfish reasons, he was challenged to prove to himself that he was stronger than death. The patient was dying inside, but Freud could push death away. Still, he was constantly facing the disappearance of these maggots. But the comparison is strange, because a maggot is very alive. A maggot is wiggling with life. A maggot is actually a symbol of resurrection.

So he found in the chaos of his relation to the patient that he was able to believe in a resurrection through culture. All the cultures that Freud put together in his collection gave him the hope that history is whole. All civilizations have the right to exist. He could make sense out of history, and that assured him he had a place in it. He belonged somewhere, in spite of the injustices he suffered. After all, he incorporated with a vengeance the suffering of his father. We all want to defend our parents. It was when Freud’s father died that he started to collect, and in his collecting he was very generous. He accepted all these figures. He gave a place to every one of them, so therefore he had a place, too. Their being there on the desk or on his shelf was a physical thing. But they weren’t important to him visually. Ten books would have done the same. In fact, Freud was in love with his library. It didn’t have to be those little concrete entities.

I am not a collector. It gives me fantastic pleasure to discover something, but once I have acquired it and I have put my money where my mouth is, I instantly lose interest. I feel ashamed to have indulged in such a pleasure and immediately try to get rid of the object.

My father had one collection and I found it. I still have it. It was a box and inside there were pebbles. There were hundreds of pebbles, and he had it on his desk. He said, “Every time I have a beautiful moment, it proves to me that life is worth living, and in gratitude I put a pebble in the box.” So he was collecting beautiful moments. Why did he have to do that? Probably because he was anxious, he considered life hell, and he had to prove to himself that in spite of everything, beautiful moments existed, and the pebble was the proof of their existence.

In these terms, there is no more value in a Greek statue than in a pebble. Both can help you to believe that life has an order and a raison d’être. Still, there is a big difference between a personal symbol and a social symbol. There is also a big difference between an artifact and art. An artifact is first of all useful, and does not relate to anything more vitally than to its use. It is isolated in its momentary meaning, and is easily reproduced. It is not an original. So much contemporary art should really be seen as artifact; but then, so should some of the objects in Freud’s collection. Is a little Tanagra statuette from the Greek period a real embodiment of that civilization? These figures were made by the thousands, from molds, because they were funerary statuettes and were placed in the tombs. They are not symbols today. Andy Warhol collected cookie jars; these are only valuable in that they represent Warhol’s choice. They meant something to him, but they are not socially significant. Today they are a commodity of the mass media. A toy is fine, but it is only a toy. It’s not a reality. Art is a reality. The artifact is a manufactured object; a work of art is a language. The artifact has only an educational or sentimental value. The work of art has an absolute value. How could Freud have had an eye for esthetic quality when the esthetic of some of these objects is so low?

Ultimately, I am less concerned with Freud’s interest in art than with his interest in artists. I simply want to know what Freud and his treatment can do, have tried to do, are expected to do, might do, might fail to do, or were unable to do for the artist here and now. The truth is that Freud did nothing for artists, or for the artist’s problem, the artist’s torment—to be an artist involves some suffering. That’s why artists repeat themselves—because they have no access to a cure. People sublimate and turn to art because, first of all, they would like to be sexual but they are afraid, and second, they feel guilty. In this day and age it is easy for people to be separated from sex. You certainly do not have to be religious to be afraid of sex. And the need of artists remains unsatisfied, as does their torment.

Louise Bourgeois is an artist who lives in New York.

“The Sigmund Freud Antiquities: Fragments from a Buried Past” can be seen in Binghamton between February 9 and March 23. It will travel extensively through the United States until the spring of 1992, with stops in Chicago, Boulder, Coral Gables, Irvine, Palo Alto, New Orleans, Houston, New York, and Boston.