Freud’s Obsession with Collecting Statuettes
In the late 1890s, while writing The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud became an art collector, developing an obsession with antiquity, beauty, myth and archaeology that led him to amass a brilliant private museum of over two thousand statues, vases, reliefs, busts, fragments of papyrus, rings, precious stones and prints. Bringing both his passions together, Freud stated: ‘The psychoanalyst, like the archaeologist, must uncover layer after layer of the patient's psyche, before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures.’
I have already observed in many previous posts on psychoanalysis that one of Freud’s theories of the human psyche was what is termed the topographical model, namely that the mind is constructed rather like an archaeological site of several strata, viz., the top layer being the conscious mind, the next layer down being the preconscious and the final and deepest layer being the murky realm of the unconscious. Interestingly also, Freud arrayed his statuettes – some of them valuable objets d’art – around him in his study, in various cabinets and on his large desk. [Also, I remember doing summer courses where there was a central area/display/focal point where any objects connected with the theme of the course were artistically laid out. This rather Freudian layout was potent indeed for the group and helped focus the group by consciously and unconsciously putting these images before each participant’s mind.]
A scholar called Donald Kuspit (1989, 150) suggests, quite rightly I believe, that Freud used his antiquities to reflect upon or “to question them about himself.” (See this link here: Annual) They were, in short, instruments of self-analysis, rather than particularly valuable archaeological specimens. Freud was not using them to read back into pre-history, but rather to read his very own pre-history. So whether his objets d’art were forgeries or not was immaterial to this great man as their purpose was purely psychoanalytical or psychological.
One of Freud’s favourite statuettes was that of the goddess Athene (also Athena). She is the shrewd companion of heroes and the goddess of heroic endeavour. She is the virgin patron of Athens, which built the Parthenon to worship her. As well as this Athena became the goddess of wisdom as philosophy became a part of the cult in the later fifth century and Classical Greece. She was the patroness of weaving and other crafts and led battles as the disciplined side of war. The metalwork of weapons consequently fell under her patronage. Athena's wisdom includes the cunning intelligence (metis) of such figures as Odysseus. Freud believed that Athene exerted her special protective functions for both his family and him – hence, she was a lucky charm for his flight from possible deportation and death in a Nazi concentration camp. In Freud’s actual statuette Athene had lost her spear and oftentimes this symbolic fact led to his and his client’s search for what was lost or repressed in the psyche.
In all of his surroundings, books, couch and statuettes and objets d’art Freud gives off the aura of a well-grounded person who is sure of his identity, or at least is actively pursuing it. His study and consulting room over-abounded in statues: Egyptian, Greek and Roman ones as well as African and Asian ones. All these statues were containers of myth and clues to human nature, collaborators in stories Freud told about men and women. They spoke to him of humankind’s deepest obsessions. Let me return to the words of Edmundson here as he sums up beautifully the Romantic and later fascination with the ancient pagan worlds of Greece and Rome:
The pagan world allowed them to sustain their sense of wonder at the variety and strangeness of nature and at the middle of their own being. Rome, as the formidable Edward Gibbon indicated, worshipped many gods, was hospitable to many religions, and that polymorphous worship was a source for the empire’s urbanity and tolerance – and also for its amazing vigour. Perhaps Freud was of that breed of modern pagans who would not give up pondering rich mystery, even as they repudiated the all-knowing sky-god. The collection had been valued – good; there were promises that it would follow Freud into exile – also good…
Marie Bonaparte, who sat on the stairs every day after Anna was arrested to make sure the Gestapo did not come and take away the Professor… soon smuggled away his favourite treasure: a bronze statue of Athena, a little more than four inches high. Athena’s left hand is poised to grip a spear, which was lost; in her right hand she holds a libation bowl… The statue had a special place in Freud’s heart, symbolising both wisdom and marshal prowess; it was an icon of the mind as warrior, the intellect combatant. Marie Bonaparte held it for Freud at her home in Paris to present to him when he was finally free. (The Death of Sigmund Freud, 118-119)
Above I have uploaded a picture of a statue of Athena from the Vatican.