How Freud's dog and a jade screen reveal his fascination with China

Jade and gold brooch (detail) part of the Freud and China exhibition at The Freud Museum, Hampstead, 2022

A jade and gold brooch which Sigmund Freud bought for his daughter Anna is on display at The Freud Museum, Hampstead - Credit: Karolina Heller

Sigmund Freud's interest in China extended to his collection of antiquities - and even his choice of dog.

A new exhibition at his former Hampstead home spotlights his relationship with the country through the books, objects - and pet - he brought with him when he fled Nazi-occupied Vienna.

Freud and China offers visitors a close up of the figurines, objects and jewellery that were part of his collection, including a jade screen which was one of two items he chose to be smuggled out of Austria when he thought his possessions would be seized.

Jade screen owned by Sigmund Freud

This pierced jade scholar screen was one of two items Freud opted to be smuggled out of Vienna in a handbag when he thought the Nazis would confiscate his possessions - Credit: Karolina Heller

"It was a tense situation," said exhibition curator Craig Clunas, emeritus professor at the University of Oxford. "There were stormtroopers on the staircase, and when he thought the Nazis would seize his entire collection he got his his friend Marie Bonaparte to smuggle two objects out of Vienna in her handbag. They were things that sat on his desk and really mattered to him; a bronze of Athena and a little jade table screen." 

In the event, with Bonaparte's help, Freud managed to bring his books, furniture and antiquities when he came to England as a refugee in 1938. Joining him were family members including daughter Anna and his Chow called Lun. The dog was celebrated by the British press when he emerged from quarantine and is buried in the garden of the Freud Museum in Maresfield Gardens.

Two previous Chows included Yug and Jo-fi who would sit with Freud when he saw his patients in Vienna.

Sigmund Freud and his Chow dogs

Sigmund Freud and his Chow dogs in Vienna, 1933. - Credit: Freud Museum London

"Freud's pet dogs were a key part of his emotional life, mentioned often in his diaries," adds Clunas. "Previously he was not a doggy person, but they became extremely important to him in the last decade of his life. It's a breed that Europeans have the idea are extremely Chinese and he gave these dogs names that sound vaguely Chinese."

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While Freud had previously collected Egyptian, Greek and Roman objects, his interest in Chinese antiquities also developed in later life. The 19th century jade screen sat directly in front of him on his desk in Vienna and Hampstead, and was designed to be placed on a scholar’s desk, ideally by a window overlooking a garden, to allow the scholar to contemplate the simplicity of the natural world. It features the Chinese character of ‘shou’, meaning ‘long life’.

Figure of a camel part of Freud in China Exhibition at Freud Museum Hampstead

Figure of camel early 20th century imitation of Tang dynasty style - Credit: Karolina Heller

But Clunas revealed that what Freud thought were ancient objects were often fakes "manufactured in China for a collector's market" and that his interest in them was largely decorative.

"The Chinese antiquities make up a small part of his collection but were extremely important to him, he increasingly starts to buy Chinese things in the 1930s but a high percentage were not genuine pieces. The curator he showed them to knew about ancient Egypt but not much about China. Freud wanted to own Chinese things but it's more about buying the objects than reading extensively about them first. It's almost something he wanted to have but not know about. It's an emotional interest in China. But they are very beautiful objects including the fakes."

Chinese figurines from Freud's desk

Group of female Chinese figures from Freud’s desk. - Credit: Karolina Heller

He added: "It's been a privilege to work with the Freud Museum on exploring the Chinese dimension of Freud's collecting and an intriguing opportunity to examine the ways in which Freud's occasionally puzzling engagement with ideas about China affected his thought, as well as his surroundings.”

Freud and China also looks at the reception of Freud's ideas in China, and Freudian themes in Chinese writing and artworks. Clunas says that by the 1920s many of Freud's major works had been translated into Chinese.

Freud's Study at The Freud Museum

Freud's Study at The Freud Museum - Credit: K Urbaniak

Freud Museum director Carol Seigel added: “We had known about Freud's Chinese objects but we have not known a great deal about them before. This exhibition enables us to bring out individual pieces and recognise the story that they tell. Before Professor Clunas, no one had looked at them with real understanding of their context and the exhibition is imbued with these insights. In recent years, interest in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy has grown tremendously in China, forging new learning and new links with the western world. The public programme which accompanies our exhibition explores this flourishing new relationship.”

Freud and China runs until June 20 at the Freud Museum and is accompanied by a programme of seminars, talks and events, including a conference on Buddhism. Both the catalogue and exhibition text are written in English and Chinese.