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Freudian Mosaic


Great lengths are taken in the ambitious exhibition "Freud: Conflict and Culture" at the Skirball Cultural Center to get at a deeper understanding of the legendary man of the mind.

The exhibition traces Freud's history and touches on the prominent themes in his work. The display is well-padded with writings, memorabilia and other concrete Freudiana.

We find examples of his writings in his inimitable scrawl and we track his progress, starting as a neurologist in Vienna who "discovered some new and important facts about the unconscious in psychic life," including "the instinctual urges--especially of a sexual sort."

Psychoanalysis was born. But more evidence than insight is the upshot here.

Freud was a figure whose influence made a strong impact on 20th century art's evolution. As Freud's theories and psychoanalytical principles evolved early in the century, art delved into the psyche and sought to liberate itself from the baggage of past affiliations, with the church, with aristocratic whims and with the representational imperative.

The main body of the exhibition is presented in themes and chronology through his 1938 move from Vienna to London, where he died in 1939. In the back Hurd Gallery, what might seem like an afterthought contains some of the most interesting material. One wall shows an expansive mosaic of Freud-related clippings, satirical references, magazine covers and Internet sites attesting to the prevalence of his role, then and now, as a poster boy for psychoanalysis.

Home movies, silent and done with all the clumsy charm we expect, fill in the personal portrait of Freud as we see his comportment and life at leisure. More impressive still is a mock-up of his Vienna office, including his "psychoanalytic chair," a Persian rug and cushions from the fabled "psychoanalytic couch." His desk holds a grouping of exotic statuettes and figurines, including antiquities from Egypt, Art Nouveau objects and a figure of an African deity, the Orisha, as if they are mute consultants from the world beyond and before.

Scattered throughout the exhibition are photos of that face, which looms over modern culture and consciousness as a kind of mythic gatekeeper of the mind. He appears stern, probing, possibly compassionate but at least intrigued, partly protected behind his wire-rim glasses, but also peering through the lenses as if they were custom X-ray specs into the mind.

There is that face, too, looking down a bit imperiously on us as we tool along Ventura Boulevard, on banners advertising the exhibition. The very image of Freud's face invites us, somehow, to look inward and trap demons.

There's no escape, even in the San Fernando Valley circa the 21st century.


"Freud: Conflict and Culture," through July 25 at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Sepulveda Pass. hours: Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday evenings until 9; adults $8, seniors and students $6, children under 12 free; and free Thursdays after 4 p.m. (310) 440-4500.


Joe Woodard writes about art for the Valley Edition. He can be reached at

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