Project 4-1: Freud, Oedipus and Castration

Read, and make notes on, the essay by Freud The Dissolution of the Oedipal Complex.

Buchanan (2010) argues that the Oedipus complex is the central organizing myth of psychoanalysis. In ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (1913), Freud, discussed how his clinical experience led to the conclusion that experience as a child had a major determination on the adult lives of his more neurotic patients.

Freud’s idea of the Oedipus complex originated from his self analysis of his own dreams – his jealousy of his father and affection for his mother reminded him of the Sophocles play ‘Oedipus Rex’. In the play, Oedipus, not knowing the identity of either, kills his father and marries his mother. On finding out the truth he blinds himself. Freud concluded that the themes of ‘Oedipus Rex’ continued to resonate after 2500 years because of their universality and that it also encapsulated childhood development:

“Psychoanalysis holds that all children develop a love attachment to the parent of the opposite sex, thus, the little boy loves his mother and wants to usurp his father.” (Buchanan, 2010: 351)

Macey (2000) agrees that the Oedipus complex is a cornerstone of psychoanalysis and a way of describing the child’s sexual attraction to the parent of the opposite sex and jealousy of the parent of the same sex. It assumes a primal state where only maleness exists – a girl does not have a penis due to castration, which is symbolised by the blinding of Oedipus, a girl may believe she has been castrated by a jealous mother who resents her sexual feelings toward her father. Conversely, a boy fears castration by a jealous father. For a boy, the dissolution of the Oedipus complex occurs when this truth is accepted and he begins to identify with his father. For a girl, the Oedipus complex begins to dissolve when her desire to regain the penis she has lost is replaced by the desire to have a baby.

Pooke and Newall (2008) state that a child enters the Oedipal phase at around 5/6 years old when the child’s relationship with their parents becomes the focus of their sexual development. Boys recognise their sexual anatomy matches their fathers, but their mother does not have a penis. This results in anxiety that desire for the mother will result in castration by the father as well as triggering the urge to kill the father who they now see as a rival and a threat. On noticing genital difference, girls perceive they have already been castrated which leads to the acceptance of passive sexual role.

Freud recognises that the two natures of masculine and feminine are present within each individual, proposing that everyone is inherently bisexual. Failure to fulfil the early stages of sexual development lead to the emergence of neuroses: this can be inhibited behaviour patterns or regression to an earlier stage of sexual development with aspects of sexual identity incompletely developed, for example, fetishism or narcissism.

Minsky (1995) adds that castration anxiety is compounded by parental threats to remove the penis in relation to the young child’s masturbation.

Freud defended reactions against his ideas of the Oedipus complex as being proof of their validity: he believed the myth would not provoke such outbursts if it did not reveal an inner truth. (Buchanan, 2010: 351)

Look at Edvard Munch’s Ashes (1894) and make notes as to how Freud’s ideas help you to understand this image.


Edvard Munch: Ashes (1894)

In ‘Ashes’ (1894) Munch depicts two characters in a woodland setting. An apparently male figure is shown in the bottom left, his body hunched over, hand on top of his head. He is clearly in some form of distress or perhaps regret, his clothes and hair are almost entirely black which echoes his mood. Behind him, a female figure is standing upright, both hands on her head, her expression is difficult to read but it appears to suggest some sort of drama. Her appearance is dishevelled – her red hair is wild and flowing, her dress is unbuttoned revealing a red undergarment – a flash of colour in the otherwise sombre palette of the rest of the painting.

If we read the painting on a literal level, it would seem to depict a sexual encounter between the two characters. The drama and seeming regretful melancholy of the scene would suggest this has not been a happy occurrence – the liaison may have been illicit (a reference to Oedipus?) and what we are seeing is the aftermath of regret, or, the advances of the female character have been spurned by the man. The dynamic pose of the woman and use of red to signify passion seems to contrast starkly with the repressed pose of the man.

The atmosphere of the painting suggests either heightened reality or a dream state , perhaps the male character’s inner thoughts, dreams or memories. His placement in the bottom left seems significant as it separates him from the background which would align with this view. If we assume that the picture represents the symbolic rather than literal a number of conclusions can be reached: this is the memory of an illicit liaison, regret for being unable to consummate a sexual encounter, recognition of the male characters sexual repression which could also be read as confusion over sexuality. All of these readings would fit with Freudian concepts of unresolved sexual development in childhood leading to neuroses in the adult.

Once you know about Munch’s unremittingly bleak biography it is hard to separate this from his work. Yet, the title of the painting ‘Ashes’ would suggest the subject of the painting is death. “Illness, madness and death were the dark angels who watched over my cradle and accompanied me throughout my life” he wrote. (Hudson, 2012) Both his mother and elder sister died from tuberculosis, he said the image of his father praying for days on end after the death of his mother, kneeling in anguish, left him terrified at five years old. His younger sister was diagnosed with mental illness so it could be her hysteria that is being depicted here.

Munch’s failed relationship with Tulla Larsen, a beautiful, independently wealthy but also powerful and controlling woman, could also be an influence – the male character being Munch himself and the woman Tulla. Unable to commit to Tulla (Munch believed he was unfit to father children and that solitude fuelled his art) their on-off relationship eventually came to an end when she married one of Munch’s younger colleagues. Ironically, Munch felt betrayed by this and is said to have brooded for years about it. With this knowledge ‘Ashes’ can be read as a portrait of both Munch’s regret about not being able to fulfil Tulla’s passionate needs, his own sexual repression (as opposed to Tulla’s passion) and his fear of a strong female partner.

Castration anxiety  may  help  to  explain  the  images  featuring  a  dominatrix or simply a large woman and a small man. Seaside postcards of the so-called humorous variety often feature this sort of image. Find two or three images of this or some other genre that might be explained in part at least by Freud and by annotation show how.

Richard Billingham: Ray’s a Laugh


Freud would have had a lot to say about Richard Billingham, his childhood and his family situation. He would have had even more to say about his ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ photographic series: snapshot images of his disfunctional family intended to be the basis for paintings for Billingham’s degree course. The pictures were never intended for publication but eventually became both a critical and commercial success. They show his highly unconventional home life: his father Ray, a chronic alcoholic, fuelled by the home brew a neighbour supplied, drinking then sleeping – unable to tell if it is day or night. His mother Liz: a large woman with arms covered in tattoos, obsessed with animals – her flat full of pets and assorted brightly coloured kitsch items, her own ‘psychological space’ that was ‘carnivalesque’ and decorative. (BBC)

In Billingham’s own words:

“I was living in this tower block; there was just me and him. He was an alcoholic, he would lie in the bed, drink, get to sleep, wake up, get to sleep, didn’t know if it was day or night. But it was difficult to get him to stay still for more than say 20 minutes at a time so I thought that if I could take photographs of him that would act as source material for these paintings and then I could make more detailed paintings later on. So that’s how I first started taking photographs.” (BBC)

And from the back of the book jacket of ‘Ray’s a Laugh’:

“This book is about my family. My father Raymond is a chronic alcoholic. He doesn’t like going outside and mostly drinks homebrew.

My mother Elizabeth hardly drinks but she does smoke a lot. She likes pets and things that are decorative. They married in 1970 and I was born soon after.

My younger brother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now back with Ray and Liz again. Recently he became a father. Ray says Jason is unruly. Jason says Ray’s a laugh but doesn’t want to be like him.”

In the chosen picture, Liz is shown side on to the right of the frame, side on and facing Ray who is seated. Her fist is clenched and she is clearly unhappy at Ray, so much so that it appears the scene could burst into a physical attack. Stylistically, Liz is out of focus and overexposed due to the use of flash and being closer to the camera. This emphasises her angered state and the heightened nature of the scene. Ray is sitting low in the frame emphasising how small and weak he is in comparison to Liz. He is looking away apparently impassive, who knows what transgression has prompted the confrontation? Ray’s lack of response is pitiful and sums up his relationship to both Liz and life in general.

Charlotte Cotton, in her essay RAL, sees as ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ as a way Billingham has used creativity to reconcile himself with his chaotic and dysfunctional childhood. It seems to me that propositions such as this are presented by critics and commentators who cannot comprehend a family life that was merely a reality for Billingham. Despite the conflict presented in the picture here, there is also a theme of love and acceptance that runs throughout the series – my hunch is that this is how Billingham truly felt about his family.

Anders Petersen: Café Lehmitz (1967-1970)


This image by Anders Petersen is from a series of photographs of the regulars at a bar in Hamburg, Café Lehmitz, he frequented in the late 1960s. A man, shirt off and eyes closed, is held in an embrace by an older woman. His eyes are closed as his head rests on her neck, her mouth is wide open, laughing which strongly contrasts with his seeming serenity. We know nothing of the relationship between these two, although the woman appears older than the man. The pose suggests a mother/son rather than sexual relationship – it is possible that the woman is comforting the man somehow? Her wide open mouth gives the image a sinister edge however – this is not something the man would see having succumbed to her embrace. It is almost as if the look by the woman is some sort of celebration of finally getting the man into her clutches – where he sees a warm, motherly act of tenderness she has different motives and has used this as a way of drawing him in.


My first encounter with Freud was with the second project in the course and I distinctly remember feeling shock at the language and subject matter of the essay. I also failed to see how a paper over a hundred years old was anything other than of historical interest – I certainly did not see how this was relevant to the study of visual culture. Approaching this project however, I felt  much more comfortable tackling Freud and engaging with the notion of the Oedipus complex (despite the much more shocking connotations this has as opposed to fetishism.) Maybe all of this reading is starting to sink in?


BBC (N.D.) Photography – genius of photography – gallery – Richard Billingham available at: [Accessed on 6 September 2016]

Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

Billingham, R. (2014) Ray’s a laugh. New York: Errata Editions.

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Butler, J. (2006) Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Cotton, C. (2014) RAL. in Richard, B. (2014) Ray’s a laugh. New York: Errata Editions.

D’Alleva, A (2012) Methods and Theories of Art History (2nd Ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Freud S. (1924) ‘The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex’ pps. 313-322 Freud, S. (1991) On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. London: Penguin.

Hudson, M. (2012) Edvard munch: Images from the depths of the soul In: The Telegraph (28th June 2012) available at: [Accessed 29 August 2016]

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Minsky, R. (1995) Psychoanalysis and gender: An introductory reader. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.