Jane McAdam Freud seated on Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic couch, on which all of his patients reclined, at the Freud Museum, London, with some of his own collection of sculpture on the shelves behind.© Colin Davey

Taking Shape: Jane McAdam Freud

22nd May 2009

Sigmund Freud fascinates us all… Freudian slip, a bit Freudian… we bandy his name around as if we owned it. Jill Glenn meets one woman who genuinely does, and for whom the man exercises a long, deep influence – his great grand-daughter, Jane McAdam Freud: conceptual sculptor and multi-disciplinary artist.

I was, I’ll admit, daunted at the prospect of meeting Jane McAdam Freud – how could I presume to discuss the interaction of psychology and art with a woman who is not only the daughter of artist Lucian Freud and the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, but an international artist in her own right?

Despite her eminent antecedents and reputation, though, she lives and works in a surprisingly ordinary suburban street in North Harrow. The sight of it, the unlikeliness of it, was a great comfort to me.

Inside, the house is all light and bright… white walls, pale wood, with a long ‘clean studio’ full of books and papers, and busts, made by Jane, of people that she knows; although they’re not typical of the work she exhibits, she likes to undertake them for practice, just as a pianist might work on scales or arpeggios – “they’re fantastic exercise,” she explains. And they’re company, too; it’s a way of keeping with her people whom she loves but doesn’t always see. Most are in clay, although there’s a wonderful bronze of her half-sister Annabel, cast some 15 or 20 years ago. It’s one of Jane’s own favourite pieces: “I never go off it”.

Escaping from the mad dog, we head out to the garden, where there’s another enormous studio, dusty and cluttered, full of clay, and tables, and intriguingly wrapped objects in varying stages of making. A piece may take three months, or two years. Or longer. The half-finished bust of her stepson was, or will be, a gift for his 18th birthday – a year or so ago. He won’t sit for it though, so it’s still a work in progress… Jane has resorted to taking photographs of his ears in order to move the whole thing on, although when we meet she’s focusing on a large model of William Harbutt, the inventor of plasticine, for James May’s plasticine garden at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Bizarre as this is – I had expected her to be hard at work on something much more esoteric and intellectual – it segues nicely into a conversation about Jane’s background and career. She has, it seems, worked with plasticine before, in Rome, where she spent three years on a scholarship. They use plasticine a lot in Italy, apparently, because the heat causes the clay to dry much too quickly. Her time there was fundamental to her development: “It was heaven… proper teaching, proper old-fashioned training… and a fantastically-funded bursary.”

It was almost inevitable that Jane would be something artistic, something creative. Her mother, Katherine McAdam, was a fashion designer, who worked full-time, and made all her children’s clothes. Jane speaks little about her father Lucian Freud, but the first few years of her life were spent in and out of his studio, painting, experimenting. She recalls what she describes as her “first artistic experience”… at nursery, pushing her hands through water into wet sand beneath “and it was like silk”. She’s been trying to replicate the sensation ever since.

A childhood spent resenting all the people who said “And are you going to be an artist, too?” didn’t stop her in the end. She turned away from painting though, and textiles, and discovered sculpture. She thought she had found something all her own – “no family connections whatsoever” – and didn’t know whether to be dismayed or delighted to learn that Sigmund Freud had been an avid collector of antiquities, with over two thousand sculptures in his possession. If he hadn’t been obsesssed with psychoanalysis, Jane ventures, he might have been a sculptor himself. She describes him as “the bridge” between psychology and art… “He was way ahead of his time, art-wise; he set the course for conceptual art, and he didn’t know it.”

Jane has, by accident, followed in his footsteps. In her work, she explains, the concept is inextricably linked to the process and the medium, but it is the thing that leads the idea; it invokes a feeling beyond the piece. This is where the psychology element comes in… the resulting creation is not just the item itself, but what’s inside coming out. The processes used in art and psychoanalysis are, she thinks, very similar. The space between the art and the observer is the same as the space between a patient and an analyst. Both are about interpreting coded messages.

Jane’s not against analysis, although she’s not had it herself. “I love the idea of it,” she says (that’s the Sigmund in her) although she admits to being rather frightened of the idea, and the risk that she’d be emptying her imagination and objectifying her experiences, instead of plundering them – unconsciously – to tell and find stories in different dimensions.

Over the years (despite not going into therapy!) Jane has become more comfortable, more confident, with the strands of her experience and her artistic development. She has moved on from pigeon-holing herself as a ‘sculptor’… now she’s an ‘artist: 2D, 3D, 4D’; one of her favourite dimensions is, in fact, 2.5D, or relief – a neat fit with the psychoanalytical connection, given that it’s about seeing, but not seeing, the hidden side of something.

I love the playfulness of some of these pieces, even though they are dealing with such big concepts. THIS HERE, for example, hides the words HIS and HER, and, drilling one stage further down, IS and HE. This Here… His Her… Is He? Like much of Jane’s work, is deals with questions about faith and spirituality, and, perhaps, what is at the centre of existence. Or at least, that’s what it says to me.

Jane explains that when she’s generating a new piece of work, more often than not, the process seeks her out. “Sometimes I feel really restless and just get up and make or draw and that is a response to concepts I am mulling over. Other times I sit with an idea for a project and see how important is by seeing if the ideas and desire to make something of them stays with me.”

I’m anxious, as the afternoon moves on, that I’m keeping her from her plasticine modelling; when she starts talking she stops working, leaning forward, using her hands to shape the words and illuminate her point. She’s adamant that I’m not distracting her, though, and it transpires that she doesn’t really like being on her own – conceptual art was a bad choice of career, perhaps, given the need to spend long hours alone with clay and ideas…

She’s renowned world-wide, though, with work currently on show in New York, and she’s not long back from a lecturing trip to Taipei – so the tedium of having to spend so much time by herself is obviously manageable. She may not live a charmed life, but it is an enviable one. Married, with stepsons whom she adores, plus that mad dog, she’s clearly comfortable in her own skin. Sigmund would be proud of her.

Jane’s work can be seen in an exhibition entitled Other Side, at Harrow and Wembley Progressive Synagogue, 326 Preston Road, Harrow. The exhibition runs for three weeks with viewing by appointment (020 8904 8581). All are welcome without appointment to the opening on 24 May between 3pm and 6pm, but please telephone to say you will be there. Other Side will also be at The London Centre for Psychotherapy from January 2010 for three months.

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