By Harriet Shapiro
November 27, 1989 12:00 PM


“All the Egyptians, Chinese and Greeks have arrived, have stood up to the journey with very little damage,” a relieved Dr. Sigmund Freud wrote to a friend in 1938. Only a few months earlier, Freud, one of the most prominent refugees from Nazism, had fled Vienna along with his family. Freshly settled into unfamiliar quarters in London, the 82-year-old founder of psychoanalysis had been worrying about possible injury to some of the pieces in his cherished collection of ancient statuary.

Collecting works of art was one of Freud’s two favorite addictions. (Cigar smoking, as his biographer Peter Gay has pointed out, was the other one.) Freud’s antiquities, most of them of tabletop size, had shared his study and his consultation room in Vienna. In London they once again crowded like a small army onto his desk and shelves, silent witnesses to the last year of his life.

For Freud these figures, retrieved from the ancient world, were the embodiment of the richest of metaphors; some of them seem to be visual, tangible reminders of the fantasies, fears and preoccupations that he had uncovered in his own excavations of the human psyche.

This fall an exhibit taken from his collection, subtitled Fragments from a Buried Past, begins a two-year tour of the United States to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freud’s death. It includes 65 pieces selected from his cache of about 2,000 pieces of Greek, Egyptian, Roman and Asian art. Although the quality of his collection is uneven, the pieces that were culled for this show are, for the most part, of museum caliber.

Over the years Freud collected a number of statues and paintings of Eros, Oedipus and the Sphinx, works in which he found particularly relevant symbolic connections to his own theories of the human psyche. But he also acquired pieces simply because they pleased him, including Roman glass jars and bottles, Greek vases and seals.

His favorite object was a four-inch-high first- or second-century A.D. bronze statue of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war. The statue was only an undistinguished Roman copy of a Greek original. But it carried a considerable personal value for Freud—he had arranged for one of his colleagues to smuggle the Athena out of Vienna ahead of the rest of the collection because he wanted to make sure that she, at least, escaped the Nazis. In London, as she had in Vienna, she always took the place of honor on his desk, in front of a 19th-century Chinese table screen.

Freud also owned a tiny bronze figure of Imhotep, the Egyptian god associated during Greek times with the deity of medicine and the healing power of dreams. He had half a dozen Eroses, including a charming Greek version in terra-cotta (150-100 B.C.) of the god of love winging through space.

A small marble baboon of Thoth, the Egyptian god of intellectual pursuits, was another of Freud’s favorites. Every morning he made a point of patting his living pet chows and Thoth.

Freud once told one of his most celebrated patients (who enjoyed a certain kind of fame as the “Wolf Man”) that the “psychoanalyst, like the archaeologist in his excavations, must uncover layer after layer of the patient’s psyche, before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures.” This exhibition, which was two years in the preparation, is an absorbing reflection on the ways in which Freud’s love of antiquities related to his obsession with the mind.

The Sigmund Freud Antiquities was organized by Lynn Gamwell, who is director of the art museum at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and Richard Wells, director of the Freud Museum in London. The exhibit opened at the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia and will remain on view at the University of South Carolina in Columbia through Nov. 26. During 1990 the show will travel to Binghamton, Chicago, Boulder, Colo., Miami, and Irvine, Calif.

An excellent catalog, including an informative introduction by Gay (Abrams, $29.95), accompanies the show.