Psychoanalysis and modernism grew up together. Far more than a historical coincidence, their simultaneous emergence and subsequent elaboration were the result of deep entanglements that brought European revolutionaries of science and art into close proximity—intellectual, social, and, at times, intensely personal—in the decades around the turn of the last century.
Coming to Paris to study under J. M. Charcot in 1885–86, Freud learned lessons that would last a lifetime, but not only at the Salpêtrière psychiatric clinic. Dreams, myth, delusions, the language of the unconscious were the subject of intense exploration on the part of the Parisian avant-garde that year as well. The Symbolist Revolution was in full swing. While artists and writers watched Charcot’s experiments with interest, the famous psychologist looked to the arts for inspiration, comparing the postures of hysterical patients with classical works in Les Démoniaques dans l’art (1887). No stranger to the symbolists’ milieu, Charcot dabbled in the arts himself and even went so far as to emulate drawings of the psychologically disturbed in an effort to experience altered states of perception from the inside out. Assembled by medical professionals, the first collections of asylum art were already in the making, and soon artists would find themselves the subject of psychological investigation.
Psychoanalysis and modernism grew up together, but they didn’t always get along. The strange interplay of psychology and symbolism set in motion a dynamic of mutual attraction, suspicion, and revulsion that drove trajectories on both sides forward for decades to come. Drawn together by their fascination with the power of the unconscious, psychologists and moderns could easily come to blows when it came to the question of what to do with this newly-discovered power.
A case in point is the renegade psychologist Otto Gross, a former student of Freud, who gained a strong following among German Symbolists and Expressionists by calling for the emancipation of the libido as a revolutionary force capable of toppling bourgeois society. This was hardly the aim the psychoanalytic profession had in mind, however. Spurned by Freud, Gross was tracked down by his own father—himself a specialist in criminal psychology—and incarcerated in a mental institution. Appeals for his release appeared on the front pages of Expressionist journals like Die Revolution, alongside angry polemics against mainstream psychoanalysis, and Gross’s critique of patriarchal order and its “sado-masochistic” tendencies echoed loudly through avant-garde plays, novels, and revolutionary tracts well into the 1920s. By this time another Freudian renegade and counterculture guru close to the hearts of the avant-garde had already picked up the torch: Wilhelm Reich.
Dreams, madness, insurrection—nowhere were the fruits of modernism’s dalliance with the “science of the soul” more potent and beguiling than in the Révolution surréaliste. Looking to subvert the ordering principles of the rational mind (and bourgeois society), Surrealists hailed Freud’s discovery of the “omnipotence of the dream” and openly toyed with deranging powers of the unconscious that could all-too-easily spin out of control. Here too the allure of psychological methods—from the early days of Desnos’s trance-like states of “pure psychic automatism” to the “paranoia criticism” of Dali and Lacan—went hand in hand with haunting fear of the asylum and “contempt for psychiatry, its rituals and its works.” “They shut up Sade; they shut up Nietzsche; they shut up Baudelaire,” Breton lamented in the conclusion of Nadja, his tale of the Surrealists’ muse who ended in a madhouse. “I should have restrained her.”
—Kevin Repp, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts
Image: Oskar Kokoschka, Die träumenden Knaben, Vienna: Wiener Werkstätte, 1908. While Freud was turning to the childhood memories of da Vinci, Viennese artists like Oskar Kokoschka might have provided striking diagnostic material closer to home in works like The Dreaming Boys. Driving the Symbolist obsession with dreams, sexuality, and violence to new extremes, Kokoschka’s bloody visions of pubescent fantasy would soon merge into the oedipal revolt of German Expressionism.