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FREUD'S FAVORITE THINGS : A Rare Glimpse of the Man Through His Talismans

November 08, 1990|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

Just about everyone likes to work with favorite objects nearby--pictures of the kids, silly toys, clippings of pithy sayings. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was no different.

But the talismans he chose were ancient sculptures of humans and animals. He lined up some of them on the mantelpiece in his study and kept a bunch of them on his big wooden art nouveau desk. Every morning, he habitually reached over and patted one of his animal "friends."

The 65 pieces from Freud's collection in "The Sigmund Freud Antiquities: Fragments From a Buried Past," at the Fine Arts Gallery at UC Irvine, represent the first time this work has been seen beyond the walls of his study, now the Freud Museum in London. Director Richard Wells organized the exhibit with Lynn Gamwell, director of the University Art Museum at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

The objects at UCI, chosen from more than 2,000 in the museum, include images from ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Asia and the Near East. When the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938 and Freud had to flee his native Vienna, he paid a special "ransom" for the sculptures to be shipped to his new home in London. There, they resumed their familiar positions on his desk, a large and motley audience facing him attentively.

Freud had begun to collect small antiquities in 1896 when he was 40 and his father had just died. He was feeling especially isolated during these years, as he began his seminal investigations into the functioning of the human mind.

The process of archeology--then in its heyday, after major finds in Troy and Crete had been uncovered--struck him as a parallel to his own work of locating urges and yearnings buried in the mind. The price was right, too, even for a father of six: Ancient objects were not in fashion at the time, and they generally cost no more than a couple hundred dollars.

It is tempting to try to figure out just what these sculptures meant to Freud. For example, one object is a balsamarium, an Etruscan container for perfumed oil that dates to the 3rd Century BC. One side of this 3 3/4-inch-tall bronze vessel is carved with a woman's face; the other side, with a man's face. What a convenient image for Freud's assertion that bisexuality is the normal state of humankind!

A tiny Late Period Egyptian statue of Imhotep--an ancient architect, scribe and physician associated with the interpretation of dreams--also seems a likely item for Freud to collect. And so does a Greek terra-cotta sphinx, a miniature version of the oracle consulted by Oedipus before he unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. The Oedipus complex--the unconscious tendency of a son to be attached to his mother--is perhaps Freud's best-known theory.

Some pieces had private significance for the good doctor. One is a falcon-headed wooden figure that looks Egyptian (unbeknown to Freud, it's a 19th-Century forgery of an ancient piece). As a child, he dreamed people with birds' beaks were carrying his dead mother--an image he analyzed in "The Interpretation of Dreams."

As catalogue essayist Peter Gay writes, Freud's tendency to collect objects from the Orient and the Mediterranean, the lands of his ancestors, was also a means of searching for the answer to a personal riddle: In what fundamental way did he remain a Jew, despite a lifelong avoidance of the rituals and observances of his religion?

But not everything in Freud's collection is susceptible to specific interpretation. Some of the pieces are glass jars that may well have been bought simply for the power-driven pleasure of acquisition and the sensory pleasure of handling attractive objects. A heavy cigar smoker who suffered from cancer of the palate, Freud was not above going on an antiquities shopping trip simply to cheer himself up. Sometimes, as we know, a cigar is just a cigar.

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