Sunday, March 4, 2012

Creative Process Journal: Freud and The Uncanny

In 1919, Sigmund Freud wrote an essay called The Uncanny in which he described the intense feeling of strangeness that can occur when encountering something that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, causing doubt as to whether or not the object is, in fact, alive. The essay begins with a semantic analysis of the origins of the German word for uncanny, which is unheimlich and its opposite, heimlich which means homely. He ties the notion of uncanny to something that is familiar but strangely unsettling, such as dolls, doubles and waxwork figures. 

Wax-head doll. English c.1882
Freud also analyzed the idea of the double in his essay, drawing on the writings of Otto Rank who linked the double to “mirror-images, shadows, guardian spirits, the doctrine of the soul and the fear of death”. Doubles were used in ancient civilizations, where artists formed images of the dead as “assurance of immortality” and an “energetic denial of the power of death”.  Freud suggested that the double “having once been an assurance of immortality”, could also be an “uncanny harbinger of death.” (Freud 142). He also describes the fantasy of being mistakenly buried alive as "the most uncanny thing of all". 

Twin dolls c. 1840
In the 2008 Viktor and Rolf retrospective at the Barican Gallery, the use of dolls as mannequins was a curatorial choice designed to invoke a sense of the uncanny. The curator Caroline Evans mentions this in her essay from the exhibition catalogue and asks "If the dolls in the Barbican came to life, what might they not do? With career ambitions to match those of their makes, they may even now be planning their future in the powerhouse of Viktor and Rolf" (Evans 20). 

Image credits: H. Landshoff from The Doll (1972)

Evans, Caroline and Frankel, Susannah. The House of Viktor and Rolf. London: Merrell. 2008.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. London: Penguin Books, 2005.
Fox, Carl. The Doll. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1972.