AR 308 The Art of Subversion: Dada and Surrealism
Discuss the “Uncanny” in relation to Surrealism.
In 1919, the inventor of the psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, published his psychological essay on the “Uncanny”. He did not know that he gave the still young Surrealist movement a welcome scientific base for their subversive, new way of art. Although the “Uncanny” is only one of many means surrealism is playing with, the relation to Freud and its theories is close and essential to the movements artists. It is a key that is required to reveal the secrets of their sometimes not easily decipherable works, be it photos, sculptures or paintings. The surrealist movement saw Freud’s exploration of the “unconscious” as their legitimating of the view of the world, as for them, the reality was nothing but a fake idea whereas dreams and the unconscious state of mind inhabited the true world.
I shall depict the phenomenon of the “Uncanny” and how the surrealists used it for their purposes in this essay. Therefore, I consider it necessary to depict Freud’s psychological explanation of the “Uncanny” in full length. While comparing his essay to the works of the surrealist group, it will become clear that there is hardly any detail of the examples for the “Uncanny” given by it that is not transferred into a piece of art. Where possible, I shall give illustrations of the works mentioned, to visualize what the uncanny meant to them. However, did it mean the same to them all? How about the observer of the works? According to the fact that Freud’s “Uncanny” is psychologically related to women, and undoubtedly women play the major part in the surrealist’s works, too, how did surrealist women see it? If women are the personification of the “Uncanny“, what was the “Uncanny” for the uncanny then?
There are a few surrealist women who contributed with their works to the answer of this question, but unfortunately, they did not feel the urge to explain their oeuvre to the posterity, unlike the numerous literal outpouring of their colleagues. So I shall let the pictures speak to themselves and refer to my own, female, sense for the uncanny. The “Uncanny” by Sigmund Freud:
The “Uncanny” (German: unheimlich, French: l´inquiétante, lugubre) is as a feeling of nervousness, fear and horror not limited to the field of aesthetic experience. It not rarely causes anxiety in humans as a disturbing irritation in common situations. In numerous experiments with clients, he found mutual motifs for the cause of the uncanny felling, but he also concedes that there are as many different ways to it as there are people. However, the founder of the psychoanalytic movement himself, Sigmund Freud, was not familiar with the aesthetic discussion of the terrible, ugly and grotesque as it took place in the art world.
In his 1919 essay about the “Uncanny”, Freud first explores the etymological foundation of the originally German term for “uncanny“, the unheimlich. The meaning of unheimlich is apparently the opposite of heimlich, meaning familiar, or, directly translated, homely1. The phoneme Heim is another word for home, house, an intimate, familiar place to hide away from the outside and to feel safe. This implies the character of the secret, too. A situation or object is unheimlich (meaning not familiar) when it is not known, strange or weird and causes a feeling of insecurity by its appearance with the particular person that does thus not feel safe anymore.
In contrast to fear, the “Uncanny” takes a subtle way to create horror by making a person feel extremely uncomfortable with a situation, impression, objects or event.2 It can be caused either by an actual experience or by imagination. As an example for the first, he refers to events of `doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate.`, as best to be seen with waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata.3 For the imaginary uncanny, fictional tales obtain the effects of creating the feeling of nervousness, especially those horror stories like E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nachtstücke. This feeling of the “Uncanny” is in Freud’s view tracing back to regressed infantile complexes, like the castration complex or womb fantasies4, which the person is reminded of. In Hoffmann’s tale of “The Sandman”, these complexes are represented by the fear of the protagonist when he was a child of getting his eyes ripped out by the Sandman who will haunt him unless he goes to sleep as he was told to by his mother. The fear of the harm of ones own eyes is, due to Freud, equal to the fear of castration. This pattern is used by many surrealists as well as the plot of the story, where the young man falls violently in love with an automaton named Olympia, because of its resemblance to the girl he loves5. The doll that comes to life, or the mannequin in a shopping window are representing one of many figurations of the machine man or automaton tradition6. The doll is an android that can live through projection of feelings like love misogyny. For men who see automatons as a living woman, their affection to it can be interpreted as running away from “real women” as the “Other”, as well as pure narcissism.
In contrast to many other authors about the “Uncanny” in surrealism, I will not go into Hans Bellmer, “Dolls”, 19337
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depth of Salvador Dali’s paintings, although they symbolise uncanny signs to a vast extend.
His “Lugubrious Game” of 1929 is one of the examples that should be mentioned, but in my opinion, the most disturbing conversion of the theme of animate/inanimate bodies or machines is done by the German Surrealist Hans Bellmer. His “Dolls” (see pictures) are extremely frightening in an irritating way; they are at life-size of a 15years-old girl, are flexible and show girl’s features, castrated limbs or torsos, and sometimes no head at all.
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Eugène Atget, Corsets, 19128
His urge to produce these uncanny “creatures” [sic!] refers to him falling in love with his 15years-old cousin, while his wife was ill and frail and could not have any children. He was fascinated by Hoffmann’s story of the doll Olympia and decided to cure his frustration caused by the desire for his cousin. The dolls he created therefore were means to act out his fantasies, and the arranged pictures taken of them show this frankly but very grotesquely.9 They are strongly sexually provocative, but this fits into the surrealistic idea of the revolution of beauty, taste and the “normal”. Referring to Freud, they are to be seen as a battle between the castration complex, fetishism and the “Uncanny“, “defamiliarising” the common picture of little girls and their innate innocence. Artists like Man Ray or Dali, for example, were in favour of the Mannequins and the castration complex as he is related to the harm done to the eyes and/or the blindness. Several surrealist magazines featured photos of mannequins, automats and, Bellmer’s, dolls10, and the protagonist of André Bretons Nadja is roaming the streets of Paris, seeing the fragmented mannequins in the shop-windows (see picture). The dolls serve as a figure for desire, repressed memories and dreams; the woman figure has become an object, like Olympia.
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Salvador Dali with one of his mannequins, 193811
Salvador Dali and Louis Buñuel show in their 1928 film, “An Andalusian Dog”, the shocking sequence of slashing an eye (see pict.), the castration anxiety here is depicted in a rather directly frightening way, on the edge of not being uncanny anymore. Artists
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Scenes from the film “An Andalusian Dog”, 192812
as Max Ernst or Dali knew the Freudian repertoire for psychoanalytic patterns like the “Uncanny“13 and the symbols like the above-mentioned refraction which go with them and used them in their works.
Another cause for the “Uncanny” experience is the Doppelgänger, the double image of one self in a mirror, in person or as a shadow. In the language of dreams by Freud, the doubling or multiplication stands for castration, too- and is in the end always leading to death and thus the fear of death14. Max Ernst’s La femme 100 têtes from 1929 is an example for that repetition. It shows a bed as homely interior, in which several women seem to be asleep. The title can, depending on the pronunciation, either be read as The Woman With 100 Heads, or as The Woman Without Heads; in either way signifying castration15.
1 Freud, Sigmund, Studienausgabe Bd.IV (Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt, 1982) pp.244
2 ibid. p.250
3 Freud, Sigmund, The Complete Psychoanalytical Works XVII (Hogarth Press, London, 1955) p.226
5 Freud, Sigmund, The Complete Psychoanalytical Works XVII (Hogarth Press, London, 1955) p.229
6 Gendolla, Peter, MaschinenMenschen. Eine Bibliographie (Frankfurt/Main,1992)
7 Hans Bellmer, Obliques (Imprimerie Moderne, Paris, 1975) p.67
8 Fer, Briony, Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art between the Wars (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993) p.191
10 e.g. Minotaure, 1934 and La Révolution Surrealiste, 1925
12 Fer, Briony, Realism, Rationalism, Surrealismus. Art between the Wars (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993) p.197
13 ibid. ,p.199
14 Krauss, Rosalind, L´Amour Fou (Cross River Press, Hong Kong, 1985) p.82
15 Pierre, José, Der Surrealismus (Editions Rencontre Lausanne, Paris, 1966) p.199
-- Freud will take issue with both of these propositions.
-- Study of the German words, heimlich and unheimlich (canny/homey; uncanny/unhomey).
heimlich, first definition = I, a: belonging to the house; friendly; familiar; I, b: tame (as in animals); I, c: intimate, comfortable; i.e: secure, domestic(ated), hospitable.
heimlich, second definition = concealed, secret, withheld from sight and from others; secretive, deceitful = private.
-- Note the dialectic of these meanings, summarized on p. 200: what from the perspective of the one who is "at home" is familiar, is to the outsider, the stranger, the very definition of the unfamiliar, the secretive, the impenetrable.
-- The term heimlich embodies the dialectic of "privacy" and "intimacy" that is inherent in bourgeois ideology. Therefore Freud can associate it with the "private parts," the parts of the body that are the most "intimate" and that are simultaneously those parts subject to the most concealment (see p. 200). However, in Freud's understanding the "heimlich" will also be something that is concealed from the self.
unheimlich: as the negation of heimlich, this word usually only applies to the first set of meanings listed above:
unheimlich I = unhomey, unfamiliar, untame, uncomfortable = eerie, weird, etc.
unheimlich II (the less common variant) = unconcealed, unsecret; what is made known; what is supposed to be kept secret but is inadvertentlyrevealed.
-- Note the implicit connection of this notion of the unheimlich to Freud’s concept of "parapraxis," the inadvertent slip of the tongue that reveals a hidden truth. Schelling’s definition (p. 199): "Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light." Unheimlich thus becomes a kind of unwilling, mistaken self-exposure. In psychoanalytic terms, it provides a surprising and unexpected self-revelation.
Freud concentrates on the unusual semantics of these 2 terms:
heimlich I = known, familiar; unheimlich I = unknown, unfamiliar
heimlich II = secret, unknown; unheimlich II = revealed, uncovered
For a diagram of the complex semantic dynamics and oppositions Freud associates with these terms, click here.
The word heimlich thus has a meaning that overlaps with its opposite, unheimlich; the semantics of this word come full circle.
-- Freud's thesis: unheimlich, the uncanny = revelation of what is private and concealed, of what is hidden; hidden not only from others, but also from the self.
In Freudian terminology: the uncanny is the mark of the return of the repressed. (See "Uncanny" 217)