Freud’s Wall Paper, Fall 2012 – Summer 2013
Hebrew Union College Museum, NYC
Flanked by 2 panels of wallpaper, patterned by the texts of misogynist proverbs, a text by Sigmund Freud presents his incomprehension of women, as he ruminates about multiple gender states:
“Throughout history people have knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity…Nor will you have escaped worrying over this problem — those of you who are men, to those of you who are women this will not apply – you are yourselves the problem.
When you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is ‘male or female’ and you are accustomed to make the distinction with unhesitating certainty. Anatomical science shares your certainty at one point and not much further. The male sexual product, the spermatozoon, and its vehicle are male; the ovum and the organism that harbors it are female. In both sexes organs have been formed which serve exclusively for the sexual functions; they were probably developed from the same [innate] disposition into two different forms. Besides this, in both sexes the other organs, the bodily shapes and tissues, show the influence of the individual’s sex, but this is inconstant and its amount variable; these are what are known as the secondary sexual characters. Science next tells you something that runs counter to your expectations and is probably calculated to confuse your feelings. It draws your attention to the fact that portions of the male sexual apparatus also appear in women’s bodies, though in an atrophied state, and vice versa in the alternative case. It regards their occurrence as indications of bisexuality, as though an individual is not a man or a woman but always both – merely a certain amount more the one than the other. You will then be asked to make yourselves familiar with the idea that the proportion in which masculine and feminine are mixed in an individual is subject to quite considerable fluctuations. Since, however, apart from the very rarest cases, only one kind of sexual product – ova or semen – is nevertheless present in one person, you are bound to have doubts as to the decisive significance of those elements and must conclude that what constitutes masculinity or femininity is an unknown characteristic which anatomy cannot lay hold of.
… The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’”
- Sigmund Freud, lecture, “On Femininity”, 1933
This text has been pulp-painted in a sheet of translucent paper along with commentary by the artist; the spaces between the letters are cut out, allowing the words to tangle and transform.
The nature of femininity is in many ways a post-1960’s concept, one that only more recently unites members of this biological sex. Earlier, women as a gender were more often than not metaphorized into problems, or into constructs of labor or function of society, as evidenced in the old proverbs that have been made into wallpaper patterns:
When the wife wears the pants, the husband washes the floor. – (Hebrew)
A woman’s work is never at an end. – (Hebrew)
For Freud, women are objects not subjects of research – they are never asked the “great” question, since this gender is the problem.