Prior to Sigmund Freud’s findings in psychoanalytic thought, Vienna’s psychiatric practices and their influence on modern art are easiest explored through her mental health institutions.

November 6, 2013
by Laura Catsellis
Inmates standing in their cells, Prison Presido Modelo, Cuba, 1926
Inmates standing in their cells, Prison Presido Modelo, Cuba, 1926
Inmates standing in their cells, Prison Presido Modelo, Cuba, 1926 - The layout of this prison is similar to how the Narrenturm would have looked

When approaching the culture of fin-de-siècle Vienna, it is all too simple to assume circular motions of influence between the psychological leaps of its very own Sigmund Freud, and the art of the period.

Understandably so, due to the influence of the renowned psychoanalyst, and the eerily introverted images which were being produced by artists in Vienna.

The prolific output of this period leads the categorical amongst us to attribute this to a previously agreed upon and discussed arrangement; that all the great minds that were fashionably dashing in and out of the city’s coffee houses such as Schoenberg, Freud, Klimt, Wittgenstein, etc; were all conversing and plotting together to explore and expose the elusive interiority of that malaise sufferer: The Modern Man.

Unfortunately, not so; prior to Sigmund Freud’s findings in psychoanalytic thought, Vienna’s psychiatric practices and their influence on modern art are easiest explored through her mental health institutions.

The Narrenturm, or ‘Tower of Fools,’ a disturbingly primitive facility which now houses the ‘Pathologic-Anatomical Museum’ exhibits preserved plaster casts, specimens in formaldehyde and imitations out of paraffin wax of previous unfortunate inhabitants.

The ‘Gugelhupf,’ so called because of its shape, like a popular Viennese confectionary much like a pound cake; once sequestered those whose features, behaviours and limitations branded them as insane, sometimes even dangerous, and best kept out of sight.

This was based on the assumption that one’s physicality was responsible for mental illness, which to the modern person is a staggeringly medieval thought.

Regardless, the empire housed its patients much as it would cage ferocious animals; in a building whose circular structure allowed them to pace endlessly as well as being chained up and kept in rooms that were lined with straw.

Next, the Sanatorium Purkersdorf, designed and decorated by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, founders and foremost artists of the Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte, suggests that Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis had little impact on Viennese visual culture, and was perhaps even an antithesis to his dangerously progressive ideas.

Freud’s ideas about the mind containing multiple levels and harbouring repressions and memories differed highly to the thoughts and practices of those behind the Purkersorf Sanatorium, not to mention the ‘Tower of Fools.’

Inmates at this facility were subject to treatment in the building’s machine room, which again, championed the notion that stimulating the body would help to cure the mind.

Examples of such therapeutic advances include the mecanotherapy chair; which resembles a turn of the century cross-trainer with a chair attached to it, and the electrotherapeutic cage, designed to soothe hysterical women of their sexual depravity.

Still, at least the decor was fabulous; the incredibly modern Wiener Werkstätte cutlery used is still available to buy in the form of authorised reproductions and the aptly named ‘Sitzmaschine’ (Sitting Machine); a beautiful and innovative design piece; is perhaps a clever tongue-in- cheek reference to all the other machines in the facility, unless it did actually treat patients through that revolutionary technique- sitting.

Finally, Steinhof, designed by Otto Wagner, is a grandiose multiple building facility which sits upon a hillside overlooking the city.

Surrounded by green and luscious fields, it even contains a private chapel, gloriously adorned with golden dome and magnificently modern Secessionist angels, giving it the charming term of endearment ‘Lemoniberg’, (Lemon Mountain) and was once home to several artistically significant figures, most notably Peter Altenberg, (who actually loathed it there).

Regardless, the Steinhof’s darkest secret is another; that it was used as a centre for Nazi medical crimes; which replaces one’s perception of a relatively forward thinking institution into an image of Laurence Olivier as a Mengele-like angel of death in ‘Marathon Man.’

So, Freud and Jung and their miraculous, and yet so simple, ‘Talking Cure’ have absolutely nothing to do with Viennese art of this period.

Interestingly however, Freud was an art lover, and an avid collector of antiquities, believing that primitive and tribal artworks would have the ability to jog the darkest recesses of a repressed mind.

He also wrote a study of Leonardo da Vinci, from which most people derive sufficient evidence that the polymathic artist was a homosexual, (although Freud’s disapproval of the matter is best not discussed and assigned to ‘a different generation’) and was grandfather to that still fresh and devastating loss to contemporary art, Lucien.

What’s more, the questionable methods that Vienna implemented for dealing with the portion of their population that was let us say, non-conformist, yielded some startling artistic originalities.

The first ‘psychological portrait’ is considered to be Klimt’s of Sonja Knips, beneath whose feathery pink gown and fair features lies an unnerving tension which must have been widespread amongst Vienna’s ladies.

Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka too, pioneered the enormous portion of modern art that dares to explore psychological interiority and human sexuality; Kokoschka in particular would come to paint patients and those who suffered from mental instabilities, and was able to express an understanding of their plight through his brushstrokes in a manner which is nothing short of miraculous.

Such portraits, and those of Klimt and Schiele we will thankfully all see when The National Gallery opens its doors on the 9th of October for its ‘Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900’ exhibition.