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American Imago 60.1 (2003) 9-20

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The Dying Slave at Berggasse 19

Mary Bergstein


In his introduction to "The Moses of Michelangelo," Freud stated, "Works of art do exercise a powerful effect on me, especially those of literature and sculpture, less often of painting" (1914, 211). Sculpture, with all its ambivalence as a surrogate for the human body, and its uncanny potential for "coming to life," is at the heart of Sigmund Freud's writings about visual art. This is exemplified in his essay on Michelangelo's Moses as well as his interpretative study of Jensen's Gradiva. For Freud, who dealt on a daily basis with the soft, spectral material of memories and dreams, sculpture seemed to belong to a superior order of historical monumentality. Malcolm Bowie, for instance, has stated that sculpture was for Freud "a fixed physical structure which, in its fixity, explains" (1987, 22-23). Sculpture may well possess the advantage of fixity and durability, as another of Freud's favorite protagonists, Leonardo da Vinci, stated in his sixteenth-century Treatise on Painting (1956, 42). But in Freud's visual imagination, sculpture was far from inanimate.

A photograph, probably taken by one of his sons around 1912 (E. Freud et al. 1998, 200), portrays Freud seated on his veranda with a framed reproduction of The Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabitha from the fresco cycle of Saint Peter Healing (Brancacci Chapel, Florence) by Masolino and Masaccio above his head, and a reduced copy of Michelangelo's Dying Slave (Louvre) at his side (fig. 1). This photographic portrait was arranged casually; its visual structure reads like a snapshot. But as much as any classically inspired Renaissance portrait, it is meant to define the interior mind of the sitter by his association with certain venerable objects. The Healing of the Cripple and the miraculous Raising of Tabitha by the bearded Saint Peter may have been relevant to Freud in his role as a physician. But Michelangelo's sleeping tomb figure, or "Dying Slave" as he has come to be nicknamed, has an even more [End Page 9] provocative significance in this image. The presence of Michelangelo's Slave represents one of the several ways that Freud used Michelangelo's sculptures in his search for self-definition. The environment of Berggasse 19, dense not only with antiquities but also with plaster-casts, paintings, engravings, and illustrated books, constituted a kind of self-staging, a [End Page 10] Gesamtkunstwerk of deliberate self-representation. The habitat represented the man, which was typical of Freud's time and place (see Gronberg 2001).

Within the casually parallel syntax of its two three-dimensional figures (one living and the other plaster), the photograph speaks in terms of the rhetoric both of the gaze and the pose. Freud's own gaze is outward, penetrating, and full of agency, an expression that Francesco Saverio Trincia (2000, 3-40) has denominated "lo sguardo di Freud," an attitude of particular intensity and observational power. This is juxtaposed with the mental state of the somnolent, epicene statue, which is drawn inward, as though pulled irresistibly toward unconscious realms.

The structure of Freud's photographic portrait calls to mind sixteenth-century paintings that showed Renaissance collectors with pieces of sculpture as personal attributes. These portraits, such as Lorenzo Lotto's magnificent Andrea Odoni (Hampton Court), Titian's Jacopo Strada (Vienna), and Jacopo Palma il Giovane's Portrait of a Collector (Birmingham), use classical statuary to enhance the dignity and erudition of the subject (Franzoni 1984, 301-4). In the Portrait of Jacopo Strada (1567-68) by Titian, the distinguished antiquarian, regarding the viewer with a rare intensity, holds up a nude statue of Venus. The painted statue, especially in contrast with the dynamic attitude of the sitter, appears reticent and demure. Freud and his inner circle of friends almost certainly knew Titian's painting, as it hung in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Steeped in the Greco-Roman classics, Freud received a classical education in a gymnasium under the auspices of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and traveled to Florence, Rome...


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