The Freud Museum


Freud and Surrealism

<p>Salvador Dalí, Portrait of Freud (1938)</p>

Salvador Dalí, Portrait of Freud (1938)

Freud’s discovery of the unconscious would prove to be a new method for artists and art historians to engage with art.

Historically, artists had channeled the workings of their unconscious to create art - this was nothing new - but Freud provided the framework for them to understand it.

The first artistic movement to directly accredit Sigmund Freud for his discoveries was Surrealism. Surrealism was an avant-garde movement founded in Paris in 1924 and it aspired to reunite the modern man and woman with the forces of the unconscious. It was the successor of the earlier “anti-art” movement, Dada, that strived for viewers to question the state of art, politics and society.

The founding Surrealists included André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Georges Bataille, Man Ray, André Masson, Gala Éluard, and Joan Miró. It has an extensive legacy, as artists - like Leonora Carrington, Louise Bourgeois, and Cindy Sherman - have continued to work under the title “Surrealism” until the present day.

Diana Brinton-Lee, Salvador Dalí (in diving suit), Rupert Lee, Paul Éluard, Musch Éluard, ELT Mesens at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London (1936)
© Tate Archive

The formation of the Surrealist movement happened almost simultaneously with the translation of Freud’s writings into French:

  • The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) was translated in 1922
  • Totem and Taboo (1912-13) was translated in 1924
  • The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) was translated in 1925
  • Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) was translated in 1927 

Freud and André Breton

André Breton was first introduced to Freud’s writings during World War I, as he was a medic treating shell-shocked soldiers in a neurological hospital. Fascinated by Freud’s theories of the unconscious, Breton consequently arranged to meet Freud at his home at Berggasse 19, Vienna, on the 10th October 1921. According to his wife, Breton was said to have been very sad and disappointed, unwilling to speak of it. Some years later, Freud wrote to Breton:

And now a confession, which you will have to accept with tolerance! Although I receive so many testimonies of the interest that you and your friends show for my research, I am not able to clarify for myself what surrealism is and what it wants. Perhaps I am not made to understand it, I who am so distant from art.

(SF to AB, letter, 26 December 1932, in André Breton, Les Vases communicants, p. 176)

Freud and Salvador Dalí

Almost two decades after Breton and Freud’s meeting, the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig arranged a meeting between Salvador Dalí and Freud. They met in London on the 19th July 1938, with fellow Surrealist - Dalí’s wife - Gala Éluard, and the poet Edward James, who brought Dalí’s The Metamorphosis of Narcissus to show the father of psychoanalysis.

Salvador Dalí, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937
© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2016

Freud wrote to Zweig the following day:

It would be very interesting to investigate analytically how a picture like this came to be painted.

While to Dalí, he remarked:

In classic paintings, I look for the unconscious - in surrealist painting, for the conscious.

Dalí deemed this comment a death sentence for Surrealism.
(Diary of SF, p. 244)

From these two encounters, it is plain to see that Freud was not necessarily in accord with the Surrealists. A matter of taste possibly came into the picture, as walking around Freud’s London home today, one would see that his preferences were for Biedermeier furniture (an Austrian style from the early-nineteenth century) and Roman, Egyptian and Oriental antiquities. His personal collection is devoid of modern works.

Next page: Processes of Surrealism

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