Sigmund Freud and His Influence on Fine Art

Wassily Kandinski, Composition VII, 1913 Wassily Kandinski, Composition VII, 1913. Oil on canvas, 119 x 79 inches. Tretyakov Gallery. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Often referred to as the ‘father of psychoanalysis,’ the influence of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud’s theories extended far beyond the immediate circle of his fellow colleagues. Freud’s writings sought to treat psychopathology, and at the core of these theories was the study of the unconscious mind. In Freud’s theory, the human mind is like an iceberg. While our conscious thoughts make up the visible tip of the iceberg, our preconscious and unconscious motives and desires are buried deep below the surface. 

It was this theory on the unconscious mind that sparked the interest of the Surrealist movement in the early 20th century. The artists involved in the movement, including Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, and Max Ernst, were set on breaking free from what they saw as the constraints of the rational mind. Through their work, these artists sought to bring their subconscious thoughts to the surface.

Photo of Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud, c. 1921. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, it is difficult to talk about the Surrealist movement without mentioning Freud. But Freud’s work would go on to influence other artists outside of the main group of Surrealist artists. Like a domino effect, the popularity of the Surrealist movement and its ideas would go on to influence artists and movements that followed.

Dorothea Tanning

Though often referred to as a Surrealist artist, Dorothea Tanning did not work in the same circle as the movement’s founders. It wasn’t until Surrealism had already gained popularity, earning a show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1936, that Tanning was introduced to the works of Magritte and Ernst. Tanning was instantly taken by the raw expression of the works in the show and what she saw as the movement’s limitless possibilities.

In 1942, Tanning painted the self-portrait Birthday. In it, the artist stands self-assuredly with a bare chest, tousled hair, and a skirt composed of organic material. The artist’s unapologetic stare despite her state of undress, the strange winged creature crouched in front of her, and the hallway of endless doors just behind her are reminiscent of a dream world. This work, housed in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is regarded by art historians as a pivotal moment in the artist’s oeuvre, imbued with symbolic meaning around rebirth and sexuality that marked Tanning’s introduction to the Surrealist movement.

Dorothea Tanning, “Birthday,” 1942. Oil on canvas, 40 1/4 x 25 1/2 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Purchased with funds contributed by C.K. Williams, II 1999-50-1. Image via

Jackson Pollock

While the Surrealist movement is without question the artistic movement most closely associated with Freud’s theories, Abstract Expressionism is another movement that was ultimately influenced by the study of psychoanalysis. Though American Abstract Expressionist painters were not as comfortable with overt symbolism like that presented in the work of the Surrealists, AbEx painters were undoubtedly inspired by the movement’s interest in the unconscious. 

Jackson Pollock, the artist synonymous with drip paintings, even sought out a few sessions of psychoanalysis with a doctor in the late 1930s. His artwork was utilized as a way for the artist to express his inner state during these sessions. 

When considering this, it’s no surprise that some of Pollock’s most famous works are associated with the idea of automatism. This “automatic” method of making art suppresses the conscious mind and allows the subconscious mind to take control. Automatism was an important part of the surrealist movement. It was through this method that Pollock created some of his most famous drip paintings.

Wassily Kandinsky

Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky is often credited with creating the first completely abstract works, seemingly void of any reference to the material world. However, the artist’s work didn’t start out that way: Kandinsky’s early work was influenced by Impressionists such as Claude Monet. It wasn’t until after the artist sought out artistic development through his own introspection that his style grew increasingly abstract.

As an artist, Kandinsky felt it was his duty to be aware of new discoveries and rapidly changing ideas. Because of this, the artist studied everything from Einstein’s laws of physics to Freudian psychology. The latter influenced the artist’s way of creating art, though he never officially aligned himself with Surrealism.

The soft, malleable shapes present in many of Kandinsky’s works, such as in Composition VII, are reminiscent of the biomorphic figures in Surrealist painter Joan Miró’s work. Kandinsky wished for his art to convey his inner identity and the depth of universal human emotion, much like the Surrealists’ goal of using art to express the unconscious mind.

Wassily Kandinski, Composition VII, 1913

Wassily Kandinski, “Composition VII,” 1913. Oil on canvas, 119 x 79 inches. Tretyakov Gallery. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-Paul Riopelle

As the first Canadian painter to garner widespread international recognition, Jean-Paul Riopelle’s work has been influenced by many different art movements through the decades. Most notably, Riopelle was a member of Les Automatistes, a group of Quebec artists who looked to the Surrealists and their use of automatism in the 1940s.

The movement was directly inspired by the stream-of-consciousness work of French writer André Breton, considered to be the founder of Surrealism. This idea of allowing one’s subconscious to dictate what appears on the canvas is one closely tied to Freud’s theories of the unconscious mind. In the untitled oil and ink on paper, Riopelle’s whimsical use of line and color serve as a window into the artist’s subconscious mind.

Jean-Paul Ropelle, Untitled

Jean-Paul Ropelle, “Untitled.” Oil and ink on paper laid down on canvas. Sold for €23000 via Sotheby’s (June 2019).

The influence of Freudian theory undoubtedly shaped the trajectory of the Surrealist movement, but the impact of his work extends well beyond the inner circle of Dali and Magritte. Freud’s influence can be felt in the realm of American Abstract Expressionist, Russian modern art, and more 20th century explorations in abstraction.

Sources: MoMA | Dazed | Schirn | New World Encyclopedia | The Canadian Encyclopedia