The Uncanny Children’s Book Illustrations of Sigmund’s Freud’s Niece, Tom Seidmann-Freud

In 1919, Sig­mund Freud pub­lished “The ‘Uncan­ny,’” his rare attempt as a psy­cho­an­a­lyst “to inves­ti­gate the sub­ject of aes­thet­ics.” The essay arrived in the midst of a mod­ernist rev­o­lu­tion Freud him­self unwit­ting­ly inspired in the work of Sur­re­al­ists like Sal­vador Dali, Andre Bre­ton, and many oth­ers. He also had an influ­ence on anoth­er artist of the peri­od: his niece Martha-Gertrud Freud, who start­ed going by the name “Tom” after the age of 15, and who became known as children’s book author and illus­tra­tor Tom Sei­d­mann-Freud after she mar­ried Jakob Sei­d­mann and the two estab­lished their own pub­lish­ing house in 1921.

Seidmann-Freud’s work can­not help but remind stu­dents of her uncle’s work of the unheim­lich—that which is both fright­en­ing and famil­iar at once. Uncan­ni­ness is a feel­ing of trau­mat­ic dis­lo­ca­tion: some­thing is where it does not belong and yet it seems to have always been there. Per­haps it’s no coin­ci­dence that the Seidmann-Freud’s named their pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny Pere­grin, which comes from “the Latin, Pere­gri­nos,” notes an exhi­bi­tion cat­a­logue, “mean­ing ‘for­eign­er,’ or ‘from abroad’—a title used dur­ing the Roman Empire to iden­ti­fy indi­vid­u­als who were not Roman cit­i­zens.”

Uncan­ny dis­lo­ca­tion was a theme explored by many an artist—many of them Jewish—who would lat­er be labeled “deca­dent” by the Nazis and killed or forced into exile. Sei­d­mann-Freud her­self had migrat­ed often in her young life, from Vien­na to Lon­don, where she stud­ied art, then to Munich to fin­ish her stud­ies, and final­ly to Berlin with her hus­band. She became famil­iar with the Jew­ish philoso­pher and mys­tic Ger­shom Scholem, who inter­est­ed her in illus­trat­ing a Hebrew alpha­bet book. The project fell through, but she con­tin­ued to write and pub­lish her own children’s books in Hebrew.

In Berlin, the cou­ple estab­lished them­selves in the Char­lot­ten­burg neigh­bor­hood, the cen­ter of the Hebrew pub­lish­ing indus­try. Seidmann-Freud’s books were part of a larg­er effort to estab­lish a specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish mod­ernism. Tom “was a typ­i­cal exam­ple of the busy dawn of the 1920s,” Chris­tine Brinck writes at Der Tagesspiegel. Scholem called the chain-smok­ing artist an “authen­tic Bohèmi­enne” and an “illus­tra­tor… bor­der­ing on genius.” Her work shows evi­dence of a “close famil­iar­i­ty with the world of dreams and the sub­con­scious,” writes Hadar Ben-Yehu­da, and a fas­ci­na­tion with the fear and won­der of child­hood.

In her 1923 The Fish’s Jour­ney, Sei­d­mann-Freud draws on a per­son­al trau­ma, “the first real tragedy to have struck her young life when her beloved broth­er Theodor died by drown­ing.” Oth­er works illus­trate texts—chosen by Jakob and the couple’s busi­ness part­ner, poet Hay­im Nah­man Bialik—by Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen and the Broth­ers Grimm, “with draw­ings adapt­ed to the land­scapes of a Mediter­ranean com­mu­ni­ty,” “a Jew­ish, social­ist notion… added to the texts,” “and the dif­fer­ence between boys and girls made inde­ci­pher­able,” the Sei­d­mann-Freud exhi­bi­tion cat­a­logue points out.

These books were part of a larg­er mis­sion to “intro­duce Hebrew-speak­ing chil­dren to world lit­er­a­ture, as part of estab­lish­ing a mod­ern Hebrew soci­ety in Pales­tine.” Trag­i­cal­ly, the pub­lish­ing ven­ture failed, and Jakob hung him­self, the event that pre­cip­i­tat­ed Tom’s own trag­ic end, as Ben-Yehu­da tells it:

The del­i­cate, sen­si­tive illus­tra­tor nev­er recov­ered from her husband’s death. She fell into depres­sion and stopped eat­ing. She was hos­pi­tal­ized, but no one from her fam­i­ly and friends, not even her uncle Sig­mund Freud who came to vis­it and to care for her was able to lift her spir­its. After a few months, she died of anorex­ia at the age of thir­ty-eight.

Sei­d­mann-Freud passed away in 1930, “the same year that the lib­er­al democ­ra­cy in Ger­many, the Weimar Repub­lic, start­ed it fren­zied down­ward descent,” a biog­ra­phy writ­ten by her fam­i­ly points out. Her work was burned by the Nazis, but copies of her books sur­vived in the hands of the couple’s only daugh­ter, Angela, who changed her name to Avi­va and “emi­grat­ed to Israel just before the out­break of World War II.”

The “whim­si­cal­ly apoc­a­lyp­tic” illus­tra­tions in books like Buch Der Hasen­geschicht­en, or The Book of Rab­bit Sto­ries from 1924, may seem more omi­nous in hind­sight. But we can also say that Tom, like her uncle and like so many con­tem­po­rary avant-garde artists, drew from a gen­er­al sense of uncan­ni­ness that per­me­at­ed the 1920s and often seemed to antic­i­pate more full-blown hor­ror. See more Sei­d­mann-Freud illus­tra­tions at 50 Watts, the Freud Muse­um Lon­don, Kul­tur­Port, and at her fam­i­ly-main­tained site, where you can also pur­chase prints of her many weird and won­der­ful scenes.

via 50 Watts

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sig­mund Freud Speaks: Hear the Only Known Record­ing of His Voice, 1938

Ralph Stead­man Cre­ates an Unortho­dox Illus­trat­ed Biog­ra­phy of Sig­mund Freud, the Father of Psy­cho­analy­sis (1979)

Enter an Archive of 6,000 His­tor­i­cal Children’s Books, All Dig­i­tized and Free to Read Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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