Art display of the unconscious

A quick look at the Contemporary Art Collection of the Sigmund Freud Museum

Monika Pessler / photo: Christian Wind

During VIENNA ART WEEK the Sigmund Freud Museum is showing a selection from its Contem­po­rary Art Collection. In doing so, Freud’s former psychiatric practice is being opened to the public for the first time.

There are few addresses that you can immediately assign to someone. Berggasse 19, Vienna, is certainly one of them. It used to house the residence and doctor’s practice of Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, before he had to flee to London with his family in June 1938. There, at 20 Maresfield Gardens, he spent the short period until his death in September 1939. Today the latter address houses the Freud Museum London. It is a place full of his former belongings – his couch and most of his antiques; a place “full of things that have long been endowed a fetish character,” says scio, director of the Vienna Freud Museum since 2014.

With regard to its London counterpart, the Vienna Museum can be seen as the “other side of the coin.” Today, it acts as a more or less “gutted place of remembrance” – here Pessler is citing the words of historian Lydia Marinelli – and “despite, or simply because of its gaps opens up a sensuously palpable space for thought, likewise a specific place for remembrance.”

In the meantime the museum attracts 100,000 visitors a year on a floor space of only 280 square meters. Apparently the interest in reviewing Freud and his work and permanent effect on the world continues without abating. It is addressed and made visible not only in terms of cultural history, but also becomes tangible through art, contemporary art in particular.

For Monika Pessler, this is a matter of principle: “Preserving and activating cultural heritage only makes sense if you integrate it into the contemporary discourse and hence contribute to current issues. Art is a wonderful instrument for linking the past and the present, and for critically reviewing psychoanalysis and its potential. No less a figure than Thomas Mann designated Freud’s work as Kulturwerk, ‘cultural work’. As such, it needs to be activated and discussed over and above its form as therapy.”

Accordingly, the Freud Museum has in the meantime gathered an impressive collection of contemporary art, pre-eminently items of conceptual art. The “Contemporary Art Collection of the Sigmund Freud Museum owes its origin and inspiration primarily to the conceptual artist and Freud connoisseur Joseph Kosuth. Through the agency of Peter Pakesch, Kosuth created the work “Zero & Not” for the Freud Museum in 1989, the 50th anniversary of Freud’s death. This was succeeded by Kosuth’s appeal to his fellow artists to likewise endow and donate art, Pessler relates. Since 1990, works by many internationally renowned artists have thus landed in the collection, including by John Baldessari, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Clegg & Guttmann, Jessica Diamond, Marc Goethals, Georg Herold, Jenny Holzer, Ilya Kabakov, Sherrie Levine, Haim Steinbach, Franz West and Heimo Zobernig.

It is an ongoing dialog of artists with the psychoanalyst’s “cultural work,” for the collection is growing. Recently, works by Susan Hiller, Wolfgang Berkowski and Victoria Brown were added to the collection. For the 75th anniversary of Freud’s death in 2014 the holdings were shown at 21er Haus under the curatorship of “founding artist” Joseph Kosuth. Some of them are now being made accessible to the public once more for a brief period as part of VIENNA ART WEEK.

For this selection, Freud’s former psychiatric practice is being opened to the public for the first time. In these rooms the old woodstove still stands today in the dark kitchen with the original tiles, where Freud used to brew his tea.

It is also a preview of 2020, when the Sigmund Freud Museum is to be radically refurbished and given double the museum space, enlarged by the former private rooms of the Freud family and reinstalled in a new presentation. The former psychiatric practice is then to be used as permanent exhibition space for the works of the conceptual art collection. For Pessler, this is killing two birds with one stone: “The new museum concept enables us to present art as a fundamental testament to the complex history of the critical reception of Freud and psychoanalysis. Mind you, this is the very place where Freud developed the method of free association in order to sound out unconscious processes and lift them into the conscious mind. The former function of the exhibition rooms and current display spaces can now, at least by tendency, be conciliated with those of art. This correspondence of artwork and environment encourages a special awareness for the exhibits and their significance, and it might as well reveal insights of another kind into the nature of psychoanalysis.”

Text by Stefan Musil:

Stefan Musil lives and works in Vienna as art historian, freelance cultural journalist and music critic.

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