By Chris Wallace
Half way up the staircase of 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead – the London home of Sigmund Freud, wife Martha and daughter and fellow psychoanalyst Anna Freud – is a deep windowsill on which rest two finely beaten, very beautiful copper bowls.
In a house brimming with fascinating objects, maintained faithfully as it was when Sigmund died in 1939 and Anna died in 1982, the bowls act like a burr on the brain. They’re different from the rest of the home’s contents. These days it’s the Freud Museum, a place for viewing the scenes of the Freuds’ life and psychoanalytic practices and reflecting on their meaning, not actually for living in. So why are the bowls filled with what looks like lead shot, or perhaps nigella seeds?
Turns out they’re little metal weights serving no more complicated purpose than making attempted theft of the bowls noisier and therefore more noticeable to staff. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, that the ranks of Freud Museum visitors could include thieves. Or perhaps not. After all, Freud’s study is a testament to the power of relics. He surrounded himself with Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Asian antiquities projecting powerful presences from the past into the present for contemporary contemplation. Some devotees (or those who would illegally feed their needs) must feel if relic collection was good enough for Freud it’s good enough for them too.
But there are laws against trousering museum objects. I chose the orthodox, happily legal route and bought something from the museum shop instead: a colour photograph of Freud’s study which is now pinned above my desk back home. His London study was and remains as close a recreation of the original at Berggasse 19, Vienna, that his architect son Ernst Freud and Austrian psychoanalyst and art historian Ernst Kris could arrange in 1938. Some of Freud’s books didn’t make it from Europe but nearly everything else important did. Though old and slowly dying from cancer, Sigmund continued to see patients downstairs, who lay on the original couch among the original relics, while Anna Freud saw patients upstairs.
The curtains on the glass doors opening onto 20 Maresfield Gardens’ lush, green backyard are open in the photograph before me, throwing bright light onto the rich reds of the Persian carpet on Freud’s famous couch, the huge red Persian rug on the floor and the deep red velvet drapes. It’s a colour his patients back then and museum visitors today, both experiencing the room with curtains closed, would register differently.
In low light Freud’s study takes on a close, womb-like quality. The still atmosphere, the very dark red glow, the rich patterning of the Persian rugs on the couch and floor, the flocking antiquities on the desk, the mantelpiece, on every available surface really, create a magical ambience. In such a dark, intimate, exotic space it’s hard to imagine being able to resist for long falling into a deep, disclosing stream of consciousness.
French artist Anne Deguelle recently described the overall effect as “a perfect and irresistible success in visual terms, (calling) forth in the beholder tactile and physical sensations”. Freud, Deguelle says, created “an installation ahead of its time and which might have been created by a contemporary artist”. Experiencing the room, it’s hard to disagree.
Deguelle’s efforts to explore the meaning of the rug on the famous couch are tantalizingly frustrating. It’s a knotted stitch rug made by Qashqa’i nomad women in Iran, covered in a complex pattern of “vegetable, animal and stellar motifs” including a desert garden with flowers, peacocks and three pools. “A spirit of femininity hovers over this territory where so many female patients from the haute bourgeoisie came to untie the knots of their angst,” Deguelle writes in notes for a recent exhibition of her work, “Sigmund’s rug – To sleep to dream no more”.
Was it intentional? We’ll never know. Deguelle’s search yielded nothing: “Freud himself said nothing on the subject of this rug.” But Deguelle doesn’t confuse silence with insignificance. Back at Berggasse 19 the décor could be rationalized as the byproduct of turn of the century Viennese taste, but its exact recreation in mid-20th century London cannot. Janine Burke’s The Gods of Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Art Collection (2006) is terrific on Freud’s collecting habits. Deguelle’s research suggests “Freud as installation artist” is another fertile angle for research.
The contrast between sites where Sigmund and Anna Freud saw their patients at 20 Maresfield Gardens could not be more different. There was no Persian rug on Anna’s couch – just simple, rustic, woven cloth. We can only speculate which ambience yielded the most disclosure.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 28 January 2012