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American Imago 57.4 (2000) 339-368

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Freud's Leonardo:
A Discussion of Recent Psychoanalytic Theories

Klaus Herding


It is a noteworthy coincidence when a writer like Jan Philipp Reemtsma, who is so critical of present German society, organizes an exhibition (shown in fifty cities) about the criminal mentality of the Wehrmacht under National Socialism and simultaneously concerns himself (1997, 820-834) with Freud's interpretation of Leonardo. Indeed, a change in current politics is directly linked to a new evaluation of Freud. At the end of the twentieth century, the call to "return to Freud's texts" (Grubrich-Simitis, 1993) cannot be ignored. Obviously, the present threat to human relationships posed by the only superficially equalitarian and potentially increasingly violent societies of the "leading industrial nations" has something to do with the theories of the founder of psychoanalysis. There is evidence of the uneasiness raised by the questions that Freud raised: for example, a comprehensive exhibition on Freud that opened in 1998 in the United States was subjected to massive criticism years in advance; 1 and a leading German political magazine simultaneously attacked the psychoanalyst and proclaimed him to be the Father of the twentieth century. 2 These incidents are obviously symptomatic of what Jürgen Habermas proclaimed to be the "new unintelligibility," referring to a continued aversion for father figures and at the same time, to an unquestioning following of them. The critical reception of Freud is a meeting place of enlightenment and esoterics, a search for protection as well as a rejection of an open display of emotional conflicts and of protracted analytical healing-processes. Often, the focus of criticism is not Freud's work but he himself, 3 with obviously only one intention: of tracking down projections in his writings simply to discredit his achievement as a whole. All responses from his followers are thereby considered obsolete. [End Page 339]

To my knowledge, no one as yet has analyzed the sources of these two phenomena, i.e., the emotional resistance to, and the fervent fascination with Freud. They both possibly point to a lack brought about by social and emotional deficiencies. Could it be that Freud upsets our "one world philosophy?" Might he, the super-father, be vital to us as a protective shield against "social coldness?" Both approaches--the naïvely devoted discipleship, just as much as the emotional resistance--are antagonistic to continuing the critical discourse on Freud. Yet a century after the first publication of Interpretation of Dreams, we are concerned neither with a renewed confirmation nor with a refutation of Freud's theories. Rather, it appears to be profitable to take up those unaddressed questions on human relations and emotional conflicts, especially as they concern the fine arts.

To put it plainly: art historians in general demonstrate a great reluctance to confront these questions even though art works provide a wealth of material for the discipline of the history of affects (Emotionsforschung). With respect to Freud's 1910 essay on Leonardo, there are only two exceptions: Meyer Schapiro and Ernst-H. Gombrich. The Nestor of Leonardo scholarship, Carlo Pedretti, was sure to be applauded for claiming: "It is of course useless to argue about such theories." 4 And more recently, the well-known author Hans Belting (1998) pitied Freud for supposedly having stepped into a "modern trap" (moderne Falle), for having been on "the wrong track" (auf der falschen Fährte) and for having taken "the bait" (sich ködern lassen). These seem to be claims of convenience. This latter art historian even neglected entirely to give any conclusive reasoning, or, to take into consideration the scholarly work done since 1910. His position marks a resistance, moreover, that is closely linked to the problem that Freud's questions pose so forcefully to contemporary society.

When 46 years after the publication of Freud's work on Leonardo, Schapiro reacted to it, he was the first art historian to do so and he was only able to deal with Freud's affect-related argument by confronting it with a catalog of iconographic models. This...


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