The Couch: Thinking in Repose
Sigmund Freud Museum
5 May - 5 November 2006
A simple piece of furniture has become synonymous with psychoanalysis. The exhibition traces the various threads of significance tied to this everyday household object. Like no other piece of furniture, the couch opens a wide spectrum of experience between dreaming and waking, between dissoluteness and moral control. It serves as a therapeutic instrument, as a site of free association and as a vehicle of poetic production. In a prone position, the clear certainties of thought can be diverted from their course into a twilight state of drowsiness and further into the anesthetized state of sleep or into the depths of illegitimate sexuality.
By means of science, art and literature, the exhibition surveys the mental spaces that arise in a position of repose. In this way, psychoanalysis is linked not only to artistic and scientific experiments conducted on the couch, but also to the history of a household furnishing. During Freud's era, the invitation made by this piece of furniture to assume a horizontal position also formed an experimental arrangement for aesthetic productivity. On the divan, art abandoned itself to moments of mental absence, while in Surrealism prone figures were also used to demonstrate measures of medical and social discipline.
In late nineteenth-century psychiatry, rest cures involving protracted periods spent lying down were developed into one of the central treatment methods for nervous disorders. However, the Viennese neurologist Sigmund Freud was not interested in taking a body-oriented approach toward therapy, but in analyzing the associations and fantasies that arise while lying down in a relaxed position. The divan became part of a therapeutic arrangement in which information relating to the causes of neurosis was sought.
From the couch it is also possible to pose questions regarding the state of psychoanalysis today: Is the couch still of significance for current psychoanalysis? What commonalities and what differences exist between psychoanalytic practice today and one hundred years ago? What is an analysis today?
The couch exhibition is an attempt, beyond veneration or stereotypical Freud critique, to focus on something that seems like a minor detail. It was Freud, after all, who recommended directing attention toward trivialities as a methodological principle. "The Couch" will be presented in the rooms of the Sigmund Freud Museum and in a flat on the building's first floor, which is being opened to the public for the first time. A variety of furniture for reclining is displayed, ranging from the wooden divan of the 1873 World Expo to a daybed designed by Otto Wagner. Patented models from the turn-of-the-century era demonstrate the emerging discussion regarding ergonomics and relaxation. Everyday objects and images from the former Purkersdorf Sanatorium and the Baumgartner Höhe Hospital are combined with historic psychiatry films to depict typical treatment methods during Freud's era, which are contrasted with his office and consulting room, where antiquities and oriental carpets awaited his patients. Use of the couch in current psychoanalytic practice is illustrated by excerpted interviews with psychoanalysts and photos by Shellburne Thurber. Artworks by Paul Gavarni, Félix Vallotton, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Andy Warhol, Rachel Whiteread and Spencer Finch demonstrate the couch's path from bourgeois interior design into the gaze of the avant-garde and contemporary art.
Due to the exhibition's duration, certain objects can only be shown for a limited time. Film screening every Sunday at 3 p.m.: "Couch" by Andy Warhol (1964)
Conception: Lydia Marinelli
in cooperation with Thomas Hübel, Birgit Johler
Curatorial Assistance for the Art Section: Ralph Ubl, Barbara Wittmann
Exhibition Organization: Birgit Johler
Advisors: Dario Gamboni (Geneva), Irene Chambers (Washington), Michel Tort (Paris), Ralph Ubl (Basle), Barbara Wittmann (Berlin)
Partner: Freud Museum London, Filmarchiv Austria, supported by the Kunsthistorisches Museum
Press: Sigmund Freud Foundation
Exhibition Installation, Folder Graphics: Abbott Miller, Pentagram
Catalog Design: Abbott Miller; Execution: Richard Ferkl
On the occasion of the exhibition a book is being published by Prestel under the same name.