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American Imago 60.1 (2003) 1-7
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Peter L. Rudnytsky
In 1914, in the third volume of Imago, there appeared an anonymous essay, "The Moses of Michelangelo," the authorship of which Freud acknowledged a decade later when he reprinted it in his Gesammelte Schriften. That this seminal contribution to psychoanalytic aesthetics was originally published in the journal that is our illustrious forebear makes it especially fitting that the present issue of American Imago should be devoted to the theme of "Freud's Michelangelo."
Our first essay, by Mary Bergstein, takes up not Moses but a much less well-known connection between Freud and Michelangelo, namely, a photograph dated about 1912 showing Freud seated with a framed reproduction of Masolino and Masaccio's The Healing of the Cripple and the Raising of Tabitha and a reduced copy of Michelangelo's sculpture, The Dying Slave, which he had viewed at the Louvre during his sojourn in Paris in 1885-86. Like the Moses, this statue was initially destined for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Bergstein, an accomplished scholar of Renaissance art as well as of psychoanalysis, places the photograph in the tradition of sixteenth-century paintings of collectors, in which the represented objects symbolize personal attributes of the sitter. Bergstein remarks that the "heroic nudity" of Michelangelo's figure defied the Jewish prohibition on figurative art, and the photograph thus captures the tension between Freud's Jewish identity and his passionate devotion to the classical tradition, which had been revived in the Renaissance. Seeing in the somnolent, nude Slave "a personification of the unconscious mind," particularly during adolescence, Bergstein proposes that Michelangelo's statue manifests "the signature concept of Freud's psychoanalytic system."
Not only does the photographic image show Freud with a simulacrum of The Dying Slave, removed from its original context as a papal tomb figure, but—in keeping with the thesis [End Page 1] of Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936)—the use of this quintessentially modern medium further transforms the meanings of Michelangelo's sculpture. To tease out the implications of such a blurring of the ontological distinction between an original and a copy is Aviva Briefel's aim in "Sacred Objects/Illusory Idols: The Fake in Freud's 'The Moses of Michelangelo.'" As Briefel notes, "before earning the status of a great original, Michelangelo began his career of a forger," when he deceived his contemporaries into thinking that a statue of his own creation was the excavated work of Praxiteles. Intriguingly, he performed his trick by first breaking off the arm of his work and then showing how it perfectly fit the amputated body. Not only might Michelangelo's practical joke be seen as a parody of Freud's "jigsaw technique" of reconstruction, trenchantly dissected by Malcolm Macmillan and Peter J. Swales in their contribution, but it likewise comments ironically on the notion of the Renaissance as a rebirth of antiquity.
According to Briefel, the anonymity of Freud's text parallels Michelangelo's imitation of Praxiteles by rendering unstable the category of authorship and thereby creating a situation "in which the same object is at once true and forged." In "The Moses of Michelangelo," Freud cites as a precedent for his interpretative method the example of the Italian connoisseur Giovanni Morelli, who published under the Russian pseudonym of Ivan Lermolieff and was renowned for his ability to distinguish authentic paintings by masters from inferior copies, thus adding several more levels to the play of disguises and impersonations. Briefel goes on to discuss the uncanny prefiguration of Freud's argument by Watkiss Lloyd, the relation between Michelangelo's statue and the accounts of Moses in Exodus, which refers to two sets of tables on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed, and the connections between "The Moses of Michelangelo" and Moses and Monotheism (1939), in which Freud again "treats the Bible as a patchwork of disparate and dubious narrative strands." What is more, Briefel observes, Freud writes two contradictory prefaces to the third part of Moses and Monotheism and he stresses that there were two incarnations of Moses, an Egyptian...