Susan Flavell: Freud’s Desk at Turner Galleries

Early in 2013, six Australian artists made a pilgrimage of sorts. They left a sweltering southern summer for the gray frigidity of London, where they spent three weeks working on-site at the Freud Museum; Susan Flavell and I were among their number.

At the museum, we encountered the shrine-like space of Sigmund Freud’s study, preserved as it was in the final year of his life, after his family had fled Nazi Austria. Even then, the study already had a museum-like quality, having been transported from Vienna and remodeled as faithfully as possible on the original. Here, Freud created something of a gesamtkunstwerk: a collection of the world and a self-portrait all in one room. The iconic couch is there, of course, as well as the unsettlingly anthropomorphic chair, but almost every square inch is occupied by Freud’s obsessive collection of antiquities from the ancient Mediterranean and Asia. The treasures of his collection were displayed on his desk, an intimate pantheon that he would contemplate while writing, caress while consulting patients, and greet like dear friends. They bear witness to vanished civilizations and archaic religious rites, but also the birth of psychoanalysis, Freud’s flight from Nazi persecution, and his death in the study after a long battle with cancer. As such, these objects are entangled in a complex web of histories and mythologies both global and personal.

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Susan Flavell. Freud’s Desk, 2013; installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Turner Galleries.

This is irresistible fodder for an artist like Flavell, who is fascinated by the systems through which we attempt to make sense of the world and give form to things beyond our comprehension, mythology and psychoanalysis among them. One of her ongoing interests concerns the ways that humans represent and act upon the animal world, and the autonomy of nonhuman creatures in spite of these attempts to enculturate them. The animal-human hybrids on Freud’s desk have spurred the production of “unquiet objects” that amalgamate and improvise upon the disparate cultural and historical currents at work in his collection.


Susan Flavell. 68, 2003; bronze. Courtesy of the Artist and Turner Galleries.

Freud’s Desk features around 100 objects that embody Flavell’s idiosyncratic aesthetic, in which animal, human, vegetable, and abstract forms commingle. Drawing on Freud’s writings, the psychosexual element is foregrounded, monstrous and humorous at turns. Phallic, fecal, and mammary forms cluster around motifs recognizable from Freud’s case studies and the historical sources that he borrowed from: pierced saints, sphinxes, horses, and wolves. This copious assembly of forms reflects Flavell’s interest “in objects that have an ‘agency’ of their own, objects that can ‘act’ on others, and how a person’s collection… reflects their internal world” (Flavell 2011). The artist examines the rich resonances of Freud’s collection in its individual components and as a self-portrait en masse, and responds by spawning her own body of autonomous, unquiet objects.


Susan Flavell. Freud’s Desk, 2013; installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Turner Galleries. Photo: Thea Costantino.

Freud’s Desk is on view at Turner Galleries through December 14, 2013.