Curated by the Freud Museum London
Freud's Vienna was a cultural melting pot, the site of an explosion of ideas in art, music, literature and science.
Antisemitism simmered beneath the surface, but it was a time of great optimism.
Prominent Viennese included Gustav Mahler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
In Viennese society, sex was everywhere.
The ‘social repression’ of sexuality through excessive moralising only served to draw attention to it in all spheres of life.
"In its constant prudish anxiety, it was always sniffing out immorality […], with the result that it was in fact forced to keep dwelling on the immoral."
He soon became an expert in neuroanatomy. His work was at the forefront of neurological research, and he published several studies of the nervous systems of fish.
This is one of Freud's sketches of the spinal nerve cells of a sea lamprey.
He also wrote significant books on childhood cerebral palsy and aphasia (language disorders), as well as a monograph on the anaesthetic properties of cocaine.
One of Freud’s friends and mentors was the physician Josef Breuer. Breuer had told Freud about a patient, Bertha Pappenheim, who became ill while looking after her dying father.
He had found that each of Pappenheim’s symptoms seemed to be connected to a forgotten traumatic memory. Under hypnosis she could recover these memories, and this would cause the symptoms to disappear.
Breuer called this technique the cathartic method. Pappenheim called it the talking cure.
Through free association, unexpected chains of thought began to unfold, often leading his patients from seemingly worthless fragments of everyday life to their innermost thoughts and longings.
Free association is central to psychoanalysis. In this video, psychoanalyst Astrid Gessert gives an example of its use.
The method of free association led Freud to propose the existence of a dynamic unconscious, containing ideas that the mind actively struggles to keep at bay.
Freud discovered the return of these ideas in disguised forms such as slips of the tongue, little mistakes, the words we find ourselves using, and dreams.
He may have identified the workings of the unconscious in trivial occurrences, but Freud did not see the unconscious itself as trivial. He found it at work in the symptoms that tormented his patients.
“Imagine that an explorer arrives in a little-known region where his interest is aroused by an expanse of ruins.
He may have brought picks, shovels and spades with him, and he may set the inhabitants to work with these implements.
Together with them he may start upon the ruins, clear away the rubbish, and, beginning from the visible remains, uncover what is buried.”
Freud uncovered complex emotional attitudes towards parents and siblings in his patients, leading him to view childhood as a time of intense feelings of love, hatred, envy and fear.
He described this early situation as the Oedipus complex, drawing on the Greek myth of Oedipus, who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother.
Freud's account of sexuality was very different to traditional definitions.
He discovered components of sexuality throughout the body, and traced it back to much earlier in childhood than it was commonly thought to emerge.
A baby's first experience of satisfaction, he observed, is at its mother's breast.
Freud often referred to Eros, the Greek god of love, to give form to his theory of libido, which encompassed sexuality in a much broader sense than conventional definitions of a reproductive instinct.
"Language has carried out an entirely justifiable piece of unification in creating the word ‘love’ with its numerous uses."
With his understanding of the fluidity of sexuality, Freud had very enlightened views on homosexuality.
His views are evidenced in this letter to the distressed mother of a homosexual man.
"Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them. [...] It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime – and a cruelty, too."
This letter is the property of the Kinsey Institute.
Freud came to refer the cluster of drives pushing for satisfaction as the id. He compared the conscious ego's relation to the unconscious id to a rider and a horse:
"Only too often the situation between the ego and the id is far from ideal: the rider has no choice but to guide the horse in whichever direction it wants to go."
Because of their unsettling implications, Freud compared his discoveries to those of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who first discovered that the sun did not rotate around the earth.
Just as Copernicus showed that man is not at the centre of the universe, Freud showed that we are not even at home in our own minds.
"The ego is not master in its own house"
When the Nazis entered Austria in 1938, Freud and his family were forced to flee.
This photograph shows a swastika hanging above the front door to Freud's apartment, where he lived and worked for over 40 years (now the Freud Museum Vienna).
After nearly three months' struggle to obtain their papers, Freud and his family finally left for London by the Orient Express on 4 June 1938.
Four of his sisters weren't so lucky. Denied exit visas, Pauline, Adolfine, Marie and Rosa Freud were trapped in Vienna. They later died in Nazi concentration camps.
“At bottom, no one believes in his own death, or, to put it another way, in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality. Towards the actual person who has died we adopt a special attitude - something almost like admiration for someone who has accomplished a very difficult task.”
Sigmund Freud, 'Thoughts for the Times on War and Death'
Freud is routinely declared ‘dead’, but his legacy keeps coming back to haunt us.
Psychoanalysis was one of the most influential theories of the 20th century. Today, it is practiced by thousands of clinicians around the world.
Freud’s legacy extends far beyond the couch. It spans disciplines from psychology to literature and art. His ideas continue to affect the way we understand ourselves, and provide a vital tool to make sense of a changing and troubled world.
“Sigmund Freud shaped the twentieth century idea of what a person is; we would not recognise ourselves without him.
His influence reverberates in Henry James and Virginia Woolf, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch, the art of the Surrealists and the lure of advertisements.
Freud's stories have become our stories, his map our map, his questions our questions.”
Curated by the Freud Museum London.
To continue our work, we need your help. Please consider making a donation to help secure the future of the Freud Museum London.
Freud spent most of his working life at Berggasse 19, Vienna, now the Freud Museum Vienna.
Freud's birthplace is now the Freud's Birthplace Museum in Příbor, Czech Republic.
Freud's 'Letter to the mother of a homosexual man' generously provided by the Kinsey Institute.