Wolf Man Paints

By Harold Parker
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 14, 2010

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Rat Man. Wolf Man. Little Hans. Dora. Katharina. Anna O. These names may bring a sideshow to mind, but they’re instantly recognizable to any student of psychology—they’re the pseudonyms of the celebrities of psychoanalysis, the “famous cases;” the most famous of all was Sigmund Freud’s patient Sergius Pankejeff—the Wolf Man.

Pankejeff got his moniker from his dream of white wolves in the trees outside his window—a dream that was key to Freud’s budding theories about sexuality and the unconscious. Now for the first time, a show at the Slought Foundation presents a collection of the Wolf Man’s paintings and drawings.

Pankejeff, who died in 1979, was a 23-year-old Russian aristocrat when he came to Vienna in 1910 seeking out Dr. Freud for treatment for his depression. During his time with Freud, he brought up the dream which would become famous upon Freud’s publication of “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis”:

I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in my bed … Suddenly the window opened of its own accord and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree … the wolves sat quite still … and looked at me. It seemed as though they had riveted their whole attention upon me.

Spoiler alert: It's all about sex. Pankejeff’s dream, the doctor concluded, was an encoded memory of a time in very early childhood that his patient had toddled in on his father shtupping his mother a tergo (that’s the polite Latin word for doggy style). It was the first appearance in a case study of the idea of the “primal scene.”

Thankful for the relief Freud was able to give him at the time, Pankejeff gave Freud several paintings of his dream. But he later expressed mixed feelings about both his “cure” and his semi-celebrity, because though his case study was used as one of the biggest arguments for the validity of psychoanalysis, Pankejeff returned to psychoanalysis again and again for the rest of his life.

Further, due to his status as “the most famous patient,” his relationships with Freud’s circle and other psychoanalysts would come to be almost codependent. Many doctors, including Freud, helped Pankejeff out financially when he lost his fortune in the Russian Revolution, many by buying his art—much of the work in this show can be traced back to Vienna-trained psychoanalyst Dr. Muriel Gardiner, who worked with Pankejeff, helping him write his memoirs and buying dozens of his paintings, which she gave to local psychoanalysts when she lived in Princeton.

More interesting than the rather straightforward renderings of wolves in trees is an untitled sketch, perhaps a self-portrait, of a sleeping male figure before a bare landscape of a few horizontally-ordered trees. The drawing recalls themes of the gaze present in the famous dream. Freud interpreted the wolves’ stare as a displacement of young Pankejeff staring at his parents having sex; it’s displaced one more degree as viewers take on the role of the wolves, staring in at the dreaming man through the window of the picture frame.

It’s all about the eyes and the gaze in the self-portraits, too. Painted with piercing black cores, his eyes are the eyes of Oedipus, cursed by investigation into his origins. Pankejeff termed the way artists put some of their personality into a painted object abfärben , or staining. Here it’s most evident in the landscapes, interiors and still lifes, but also appears in one of Pankejeff’s self-portraits, with green and white panels giving the face a zombie-like glow. This is a true self-portrait—one that stages the conflict between the privacy of the self and unavoidable self-representation for the public eye.

Wolf Man Paints

Through Jan. 22. Slought Foundation, 4017 Walnut St. 215.701.4627. slought.org

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