Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture

The “Stadttempel” Synagogue in Vienna


Curator: Sarah Harel Hoshen

Few figures have had as decisive and fundamental an influence on the course of modern cultural history as Sigmund Freud. Yet few figures also have inspired such sustained controversy and intense debate. Freud’s legacy continues to be hotly contested, as demonstrated by the controversy attracted by this exhibition even before its opening. Our notions of identity, memory, childhood, sexuality, and, most generally, of meaning have been shaped in relation to — and often in opposition to — Freud’s work. This exhibition examines Freud’s life and his key ideas and their effect upon the twentieth century.

Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture is composed of three major sections.

Section One: Formative Years

The Formative Years section begins in late nineteenth-century Vienna, the milieu of Freud’s early professional development. The cultural ferment, ethnic tensions, and class conflicts of fin-de-siecle Vienna were part of Freud’s daily existence. The city was a hothouse for radical innovations in politics, philosophy, the arts, and sciences. Freud chose early to concentrate on research in neurology, a field in which the frontiers of knowledge were changing dramatically. Financial concerns eventually led him to pursue clinical work with patients. His analyses of patients and of himself became the chief sources for his professional writings.

Section Two: The Individual: Therapy and Theory

This section examines key psychoanalytic concepts and how Freud used them in some of his most famous cases. Like many doctors, writers, and philosophers working at the end of the nineteenth century, Freud grew increasingly interested in the unconscious. He took the unconscious to be a dimension of human life at once inaccessible and important as a source of thoughts and actions. In his efforts to decipher the meanings of hysterical symptoms and other neglected mental phenomena that seemed beyond conscious control (such as dreams and slips of the tongue), Freud moved further away from his neurological training. Committed to the idea that apparently meaningless behaviors actually expressed unconscious conflict, he developed techniques for determining what the behaviors might mean. This section—divided into six parts—introduces us to some of Freud’s most famous patients and the key concepts with which he tried to make sense of their symptoms and their lives.

Section Three: From the Individual to Society

The third section explores the diffusion of psychoanalytic ideas, and Freud’s speculations about the origins of society and the social functions of religion and art, and how crises reveal fundamental aspects of human nature. As Freud expanded his sphere of inquiry to include basic questions about moral and political life, he inspired intellectuals and artists to take his theories about conflict, desire, and the unconscious into new areas. These theories seemed to many to open promising new avenues for understanding the successes and failures of modern society. Others thought that these routes led straight to deception — or worse. The first part of this section deals with the professional expansion of psychoanalysis and the critical reaction to that expansion. Next the exhibition examines Freud’s theories of society, from his speculation on its origins to his views of the contemporary world. The violent crises that shook the world at the end of Freud’s life are the subject of the final part of this section.

Throughout the exhibition, words and images — often contentious, sometimes humorous —attest to the impact of Freud’s ideas on the twentieth century. Freud’s thinking emerged in the wake of Marx and Darwin, both of whom emphasized struggle as the engine of change. Freud’s thought developed in a century in which violent conflicts reached unheard of dimensions. The conflicts that Freud stressed were within the psyche: people at war with themselves and sometimes with the cultural authorities they had internalized. But he thought that the way we managed (or failed to manage) those conflicts had everything to do with the explosions of violence that marked the modern world. Although much has changed since Freud first formulated his theories, today’s concern with the disruptive power of sexuality and aggression has only intensified. Freud did not propose solutions to how one might escape this violence. Instead, his writings on the connection of culture and conflict identified fundamental problems for the twentieth century — problems that show no sign of disappearing as we move into the twenty-first.
The exhibition has been organized by the US Library of Congress in cooperation with The Sigmund Freud Museum, Vienna and The Freud Museum, London.
The Exhibition was made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of the following:

Austrian Embassy in Tel Aviv

Austrian Ministry of Education

Bank of Austria

Casinos Austria International

City of Vienna

Helmut Zilk-Fonds fuer Internationale Beziehungen Wiens

Israeli Munistry of Foreign Affairs –

Joshua Rabinovitch

Oesterreichische Nationalbank

R. Steindling

Wiener Staedische