I have a fantasy, which is not insanely far outside the realm of reality, so maybe I should call it a very ambitious goal: When Freud’s Butcher the book is finished and published, I would like to have my book party in Siegmund Kornmehl’s former butcher shop. That’s not the very ambitious part. The shop has been part of Vienna’s Sigmund Freud Museum since 2001, when it was transformed into an art gallery showcasing works inspired by Freud. Lots of art galleries host book signings and similar events.
No, my fantasy is that, for this occasion, the butcher shop itself would be re-created. Instead of art, the guests would be surrounded by replicas of meat, early 20th century adding machines and refrigeration units, sales signs in German…
Of course, this being a party, real meat would be served too — perhaps deli, though not the sausages that we call Vienna sausages, which are in cans and awful.
A View to Whose Memory?
The first exhibition at the Freud Museum gallery, in May 2002, was Joseph Kosuth’s “A View to Memory.”
Kosuth, a pioneer of conceptual art, installed a blown-up photograph of Siegmund Kornmehl’s butcher shop taken by Edmund Engelman in May 1938, only a few weeks before Freud left Vienna for London. The shop itself was closed later that year. Above the photo, he added a quote from Sigmund Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life (in German; the translation is from the Freud Museum site):
It is universally acknowledged that where the origin of a people’s traditions and legendary history are concerned, a motive of this kind, whose aim is to wipe from memory whatever is distressing to national feeling, must be taken into consideration. Closer investigation would perhaps reveal a complete analogy between the ways in which the traditions of a people and the childhood memories of the individual come to be formed.” Sigmund Freud: Standard Edition, vol. VI, p. 148.
I understand the basic theories behind the Psychopathology of Everyday Life: It’s the book that brought us the unintended utterances that came to be known as Freudian slips, along with memory lapses and other pesky intrusions of the unconscious into our waking lives. I couldn’t find a context for this quote, but it seems to be referring to the repression of one people who are “distressing to national feeling” by another. Freud wrote this key text in 1906, long before the Nazis came to power, but Kosuth had the benefit of hindsight.
My interpretation, then, is that, by installing a picture of the butcher shop in its original space, Kosuth is bringing back a destroyed past, which is poignant.
But why not eschew poignancy for history — which would be both uplifting and fascinating?
The Case for History
I’m a big fan of art, including the conceptual variety. I love Cristo and Jeanne-Claude’s wrappings of bridges and buildings, for example, and Joseph Cornell’s boxes. But I’m keen on history too. I recently mentioned my return visit to the Tenement Museum in New York; the historical recreations of immigrant shops homes on the site itself — in this case the Lower East Side tenement building, 97 Orchard Street — are riveting.
So why not do something similar in Vienna? It wouldn’t be very difficult to re-create the butcher shop. After all, there’s Engelman’s picture to consult, not to mention my painstaking research on what my great-uncle’s butcher shop would have sold and looked like, which will be detailed in the book that inspired the exhibition. The Wien Museum, which traces the history of everyday life in Vienna from the city’s earliest days — and which was very helpful in my request to help identify the date of the Kornmehl family photograph — could be involved too.
A Modest Proposal
Come to think of it, why not make the butcher shop exhibition permanent?
The Freud Museum London has most of Freud’s possessions; they were sent along after him when he fled from Vienna with his family. Freud’s daughter Anna continued to live in the home that was later transformed into the London museum, and it represents Freud’s intellectual and domestic environment in all its richness. I visited it and was very moved to see the famous couch and all the exotic tchotckes surrounding it. (My mother would have called the room ungepatchket — cluttered).
The Vienna museum had to look to London to get some of Freud’s possessions back:
The interior decoration of the museum was carried out in 1971 with the help of Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s youngest daughter. Original furnishings, including the waiting room, a selection from Freud’s collection of antiquities, and signed copies and first editions of his works provide a glimpse into Freud’s biography, his cultural environment and the development of psychoanalysis. Unique film material showing the Freud family in the 1930’s, is shown in a video room with a commentary by Anna Freud.
But Freud only lived in London for a year — as opposed to the 47 years he lived on 19 Berggasse, where he saw all his patients and formulated the theories that changed the way we look at the human mind. Siegmund Kornmehl’s butcher shop shared the building with the Freud family for at least 45 of those years, possibly all of them.
Which would you prefer to see: An exhibition that provides a context for Freud’s life, re-creating a local business that Freud would have passed every time he stepped outside and where his patients might have shopped or at least exchanged a few friendly words with the proprietor — or conceptual art inspired by Freud’s theories?
Maybe I should mention that another fantasy is that the museum will have to respond to popular demand for such a project.