Freud’s Influence on the Arts in the Early 20th Century
A hypothetical conversation with Freud
by Shannon Hart Hudnell
Sigmund Freud’s dictation of symbols became apparent in literature, poetry, music, and art in the early twentieth century. His psychoanalytic theories on dreams helped abandon the conventional ways of the arts. Bohemian author Franz Kafka’s use of symbolism in Metamorphosis, e.e. Cummings’ transformation of poetry into analytic pieces, and musician/composer Richard Strauss’s symbolic representations in his dramatic works are all examples of Freud’s influence. World War I also influenced visual artists at this time, inspiring the Dada movement in protest of the war, while surrealists Joan Miro, Frida Kahlo, and Salvador Dali were creating new symbolic works that reflected Freud’s theories.
Setting: Freud is surrounded by neatly organized bookshelves against three walls. He sits in a tall, brown leather cushioned chair to the side of his desk closest to the interviewer. In the center of the large den is an oversized mahogany desk. The interviewer is perched on a small orange love seat across from the psychoanalyst.
Interviewer: I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity, Mr. Freud. I am quite interested in your theories on dreams and their associations. Tell me, what exactly is it that you believe about dreams?
Freud: I see dreams as the “royal road to the unconscious” (Thomson 28). I believe that dream images are linked with subconscious ideas, similar to the idea of free association.
Interviewer: Do you mean dreams are repressed ideas?
Freud: Precisely. Dreams are a way of “secondary thinking” about something that has “societal unacceptability” (Thomson 24). In effect, the “mind is deceiving itself” (24). Not only ideas, but especially desires that are repressed. The desire is the id, and the ego prevents the desire from happening. For example, a woman artist may have repressed ideas about sex. She may desire sex, but because it may be unacceptable to society for a woman to desire sex, her mind substitutes other things in her work that represent her suppressed desire instead.
Interviewer: Interesting! How do you feel about changing the world of the arts?
Freud: Influencing, maybe, but not changing. It was the artists themselves that are responsible for the work. Are you referring to anyone in particular?
Interviewer: The musician and composer Richard Strauss used “abnormal sexuality and corruption… female obsessions,” (Grove) and violent deaths in his operas Salome and Elektra. Both were written just after you published your Interpretation of Dreams in 1900.
Freud: Both Strauss and myself received negative criticism for these works. Strauss used symbolism in many of his works, and he liked to use females in these violent roles. Die Frau ohne Schatten is one of his most highly regarded symbolic pieces. I am unsure of his relationship with his mother, but I gather that he had some repressed anger issues with her.
Interviewer: Do you think Kafka’s literary works deal with repressed issues?
Freud: Most definitely, but with Kafka I believe he had issues with his father. In his most recognized work, The Metamorphosis, the son literally metamorphosized into an insect. The bug is symbolic of Kafka’s feeling of worthlessness to his father (Nabokov 53). Kafka seemed to have odd sexual beliefs. He thought that intercourse was “punishment for being together” (Nabokov 55). His “sex in writings is frequently connected with dirt or guilt and treated as an attractive abomination” (Nabokov 55).
Interviewer: What are your thoughts about e.e. Cummings’ use of symbolism in poetry?
Freud: Cummings played with words and grammar. At times he used individual words in his poetry, a hint of being alone, perhaps. His lack of capitalization could indicate that he felt small. I feel that his grammatical mutations were symbolic in themselves.
Interviewer: What about the visual artists? For example, Dali painted dream images that clearly reflect your theories.
Freud: Indeed, they do. In 1936, Dali painted The Anthromorphic Cabinet. In it, a human figure lies twisted with drawers opening from its torso. Dali related the drawers to my theory as “a kind of allegory destined to illustrate a certain forebearance, to scent out the countless narcissistic smalls that waft out of all our drawers” (Neret 44). To sum it up, he meant that “the human body… is today full of secret drawers which only psychoanalysis is capable of opening” (44).
Interviewer: Joan Miro is an abstract surrealist. What do you see in his paintings?
Freud: Miro was quite different from Dali. His landscapes were unrealistic, but abstract. In Carnival of Harlequin, “much of Miro’s imagery suggests a cheerful sexuality, as though the whole space of the universe were occupied with lighthearted erotic play and reproduction” (Gilbert 468). The abstract forms – which have obvious faces – all appear to be moving, working, playing. They all have a personality. There are musical notes in the painting, which indicates joy. Miro’s use of lively primary colors give the work a feeling of play. A closer look at the images will reveal phallic shapes and suggested reproduction.
Interviewer: What do you think Frida Kahlo’s images represent?
Freud: I’m sure you agree she’s an intensely emotional artist. Most of her paintings reveal some kind of pain, although she paints her self-portaits without emotion on her face – never smiling or hinting at any expression. Kahlo is telling everyone that she is in pain inside and out. She’d had an accident that left her injured, then later contracted polio that affected her legs, which she indicates in several of her paintings (Frida). I am sure her husband’s infidelity contributed to her many emotional issues as well.
Interviewer: How do you feel about the Dada movement?
Freud: The Dadaists were very symbolic, as well. The Dada movement was a reaction to World War I as an attempt to protest all brutality, including conventional art (Gilbert 467). Duchamp drew a moustache on a Mona Lisa and wrote a French word that translated to “nymphomania” at the bottom of the portrait (467). It outraged people, but he was trying to make a point.
Interviewer: I’d say that was a pretty powerful way to protest. In a nutshell, what is your view of artistic creation?
Freud: I believe that “unconscious impulses resulting from unresolved childhood experiences can trigger the artist” (Addiss and Erickson 65)
Interviewer: Thank you again for your time, Mr. Freud.
Freud: You’re welcome. Sweet dreams!
Art History and Education by Stephen Addiss and Mary Erickson
Complete Poems 1904-1963 by e.e. Cummings
Living With Art by Rita Gilbert
Grove Concise Dictionary of Music
Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov
Dali by Giles Neret
Cloud Nine by Sandra Thomson