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Artists and authorship: the case of Raphael
Artists and authorship: the case of Raphael

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2.3 Critiques of Vasari, by Freud, and Kris and Kurz

Vasarian biography is still a powerful model in art history, despite a deep sense of scepticism about the heroic artist that began to find expression in the twentieth century. One blow was delivered by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis of Leonardo, written in 1910. Freud was motivated by distrust of idealised narratives about artists that, in his words, ‘present us with what is in fact a cold, strange, ideal figure, instead of a human being to whom we might feel ourselves distantly related’ (quoted in Soussloff, 1997, p. 125).

Freud based his essay on what Leonardo had written about an early childhood memory of a kite (a type of bird which Freud, following a mistranslation of the original Italian into German, understood to be a vulture). Psychoanalysis led Freud to characterise the artist’s sexual identity as ‘ideal’ or ‘sublimated homosexuality’: Leonardo possessed homosexual inclinations but, according to Freud, had no active sexual life. Leonardo’s well-known love of scientific research had become ‘compulsive and a substitute for sexual activity’ (Freud, 1984, p. 27). Freud’s bold entry into the sexuality of the artist was deeply shocking at a time when the cult of Leonardo as universal genius was flourishing, especially in a newly unified Italy in search of national heroes.

Freud’s method of ‘psychobiography’ – reading into works of art to uncover the secrets of an artist’s unconscious mind – never entered the mainstream of art-historical research. A decade later, however, the fellow-Viennese Julius von Schlosser pioneered a much more influential method of deconstructing the myths of artistic biography in his book Die Kunstliteratur (Art Literature) of 1924 (von Schlosser, 1924). Von Schlosser’s work considered texts about art and artists from a philological perspective, asking how they were governed by literary conventions and rhetoric. Two of his students, Ernst Kris (who had studied with Freud) and Otto Kurz, developed these ideas in their Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist (Kris and Kurz, 1979 [1934]), a study of the patterns and leitmotifs that are repeated over and over again in artists’ biographies.