Symbolic representations of love, romance (and consumerism) are everywhere. It is February 14; upon us is the day we celebrate/endure Valentine’s Day (which has long lost its original saintly prefix, being removed from the Roman calendar of saints in 1969). The cupid adorned handmade card, once exchanged as a token of affection, is now rare. Mass-produced heart-shaped and heart-embossed stuff prevail, from cards to chocolates and way beyond.
In this psychic state, it seems like a good time to visit the exhibition ‘Objects in Mind’ at The Freud Museum, London. The museum was originally Freud’s home, although he actually only lived there for just over a year, from 1938 to his death in September 1939.
The exhibition, which runs until February 27, explores how integral objects are to our lives, and to our identity. When you reflect on it, most of what we do, how we do it, and how we react emotionally, are object-governed. Yet, we rarely stop to consider the object as a stand-alone thing; we see it and engage with it as an extension of ourselves. The objects we surround ourselves with contribute to our ‘self-portrait’, in its broadest sense.
Centrepiece to the exhibition is a specially commissioned self-portrait by the artist Maggi Hambling. An intriguing piece, the artist is central, with three arms, each holding a significant personal object: a paintbrush, a cigarette, and a drink. Surrounding this central image are 17 further meaningful objects, including a penguin, a teapot, and Concorde. Hambling states that the composition happened by accident. Freud would no doubt have disagreed with her; maybe she was unaware of the composition but it came from her unconscious mind – there’s no such thing as the unintentional.
In psychoanalysis, the object takes on another dimension, usually representing a person rather than a thing. The exhibition provides a brief overview of our object relationships in this context, from early years to old age, with the mother’s breast as the first object usually encountered, to old age where objects often serve as repositories of memory. Freud surrounded himself with objects; predominantly the antiquities he collected which now adorn his study/consulting room. The most prized object for the public on view is Freud’s couch, the analyst’s quintessential relic, and that which most visitors appear to treat with awe and (sometimes tearful) veneration.
As one ascends the stairs, questions are posed: can you hate objects, can objects replace people? Most intriguing was the idea of the ugly object, and the flip side, what renders something beautiful. All this is part of a bigger unknown: whether the reality of the object is intrinsic or is merely something ascribed by the viewer/owner. Stuff to think about.
On the first floor, the exhibition continues, with ‘Artists and their Studios’, a collaborative work with the National Portrait Gallery, of artists in their working environment, photographed by Eamon McCabe. Much like (the imagined) Freud in his study, we get a glimpse of artists including Paula Rego, Richard Long, Simon Starling and Bridget Riley, in their places of inspiration and surrounded by that which, presumably, fuels their inspiration. This is reminiscent of a series some time ago, in The Guardian Weekend, which showed photographs of writers’ studies accompanied by text explaining the personal meaning of the objects they contained. Other people’s stuff can be endlessly fascinating, a potential way into their psyche, perhaps particularly interesting when we are dealing with creative genius.
Freud was a prolific writer yet never wrote a book about love, although the theme does pervade many of his writings. But like the rest of the world, the Freud Museum is not ignoring Valentine’s Day. The romantic couple in search of an event can go on an after hours tour for two of the museum, an opportunity to see rarely viewed items including love letters and intimate family photographs… with Prosecco and canapés thrown in.
Objects and us. We surround ourselves with them, and we create our identity by that which surrounds us. An object-free zone is the kind of utopia/dystopia that perhaps only science fiction can attempt to address. For now, it is Valentine’s Day, the objects are red, heart-shaped, with a cupid or two thrown in. Reflect on, and ignore, if you dare….