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Eros and Death at the Freud Museum

15 February 2015

What is the meaning of life… modelling? Maybe more a question of psychology than philosophy. I’ve mulled the matter previously on this blog: which flicked-switch in my mind, and the minds of those like me, drives us to a profession that most would shrink from in horror? I still don’t know; but it was time to go to a psychoanalyst’s.

So I went to the home of Sigmund Freud. It was after dark as I approached the only well-lit building in an otherwise shadowy residential street. I spotted gifted artist and occasional model Farida reading a noticeboard in front of the house. Simultaneously emerging through the gloom from the opposite direction was actress, model, milliner and star of burlesque, Ava Iscariot.

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Ava Iscariot, drawing by @silveraj – © Aaron Jacob Jones

Together the three of us entered The Freud Museum.

The Freud Museum, at 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead, was the home of Sigmund Freud and his family when they escaped Austria following the Nazi annexation in 1938. It remained the family home until Anna Freud, the youngest daughter, died in 1982. The centrepiece of the museum is Freud’s study, preserved just as it was during his lifetime.

It contains Freud’s remarkable collection of antiquities: Egyptian; Greek; Roman and Oriental. Almost 2,000 items fill cabinets and are arranged on every surface. There are rows of ancient figures on the desk where Freud wrote until the early hours of the morning. The walls are lined with shelves containing Freud’s large library.

We had converged on the last residence of Sigismund Schlomo Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, not to discover our true natures but to be part of another legendary Art Macabre Drawing Salon. We found Nikki, aka Raven Rouge, the divine creator of these happenings, already deep in preparations with the museum’s staff.

Ava and I would be half of a four-strong modelling team while Farida would be helping Nikki manoeuvre groups of artists between different rooms of the museum. Soon we were joined by Maya – life model, wordsmith and genius of transformation – whom I had previously worked with on the Day of the Dead.

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Maya, made death

We were shown to a back room with adjacent bathroom – complete with bath – where we could change and prepare. Ava immediately set up camp in the bathroom to begin a hair-to-toes metamorphosis in the style of a grey-painted, winged Weeping Angel. Maya stalked between rooms as she evolved, piece by piece, into an altogether more sinister figure. They would be posing together as Eros and Thanatos: the drive toward attraction and reproduction versus the drive toward repulsion and destruction.

This was our salon theme – FREUD MUSEUM: Eros and Death.

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Maya and Ava, Thanatos and Eros

Our back room complement was completed with the arrival of partners in arts, Aaron and Raquel. Aaron would be on volunteer duties with Farida, and at free times adding more beautiful little masterpieces to his sketchbook. Multi-genre singer and art muse Raquel Merlot would be our fourth life model. As Ava and Maya continued meticulous preparations, Raquel simply got comfortable in a replica of Sigmund Freud’s famous chair and immersed herself in a book. Her poses would be nude and natural.

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Raquel Merlot, drawing by @silveraj – © Aaron Jacob Jones

But while Raquel could be herself, I would be stripped of all ego and identity. I was to wear an expressionless white plastic mask and have white gauze netting draped over my head. For gratuitous embellishment I was given a necklace of tiny skulls and silver crosses, and Aaron painted my left arm white from shoulder to fingernails. Why not?

Throughout the hour we were getting ready I was rather keen to make swift use of the toilet. With our sole unisex bathroom continuously occupied by semi-naked women, however, it seemed poor form simply to wander in and express myself. Eventually I made pleading noises to a member of staff, who mercifully showed me to facilities on an upper floor. When I returned, the others had already gone to their pose spaces.

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The eyes of Maya

Maya and Ava were facing-off in the first-floor Exhibition Room, Raquel was nursing a skeletal baby in Anna Freud’s Consulting Room, and I was to be in the front hallway posing before the sculpture ‘Remember that we sometimes…‘ by Rachel Kneebone (2014). The museum folk took pains to emphasise the desirability of me not breaking, touching, breathing-on, or in any way unnerving this valuable piece of art.

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In front of ‘Remember that we sometimes…’, Rachel Kneebone (2014)

Nikki had divided her 65 artists into five colour-badged groups. These would be rotated around our poses every 15 to 25 minutes. At any given time two groups would be with Ava and Maya, one with Raquel, one with me and one sketching artefacts in Sigmund Freud’s study. When everyone else was in place Nikki came for me. She led me down carpeted stairs and left me in a standing pose with a skull and a small plastic hand.

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How one artist imagined that small plastic hand…

The business-end of my evening had begun. Artists surrounded me, sitting on chairs or on the floor, or standing in the hallway or on the stairs. My poses were to be lithe, perhaps provocative, but not strenuous. As I found at Mediæval Monsters, however, there’s something rather claustrophobic about posing in a face mask for a complete session. By the end of the evening it was running with condensation from my breath.

Artists changed rooms between poses. Once they had settled, Nikki would walk from group to group, explaining to each the history of the space they were now in, and the significance of our life modelling in context. For example, during my second standing pose in the front hallway she drew attention to the multiple limbs and ‘phallic tendrils’ of Rachel Kneebone’s sculpture, and suggested the artists might like to incorporate similar ideas into their work.

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Tendrils afoot

My third pose was seated on the floor; my fourth pose was laying down with one arm raised; my final pose returned to standing, once more clutching the skull and the little hand. There was no artistic need to vary my poses as it was a different pool of artists each time, but it didn’t do my circulation any harm to change limb positions when the chance arose.

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Me drawn by @silveraj – © Aaron Jacob Jones

As the fifth pose ended, so did the evening’s art. I remained in my mask and draping but was otherwise still nude as I attempted a slow, dignified retreat to our back room. When the first floor was clear of artists we re-emerged to get a few photos whilst still in character. Nikki and Aaron had some shots of artworks too, but alas this wasn’t a venue where time permitted drawings to be laid out for all to admire.

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Eros and roses

Back at the bathroom those of us in body paint crowded round the sink and tub. With just one arm needing a rinse, I dipped in and out as quickly as possible so Maya and Ava could continue their more thorough ablutions undisturbed.

Raquel, Aaron and Farida had left by the time the rest of us were ready. Nikki, Maya, Ava and I grabbed some last photos outside the museum before departing south and north: Ava and Maya to Finchley Road, Nikki and me to Finchley Road & Frognal.

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Nikki indicates where her own blue plaque belongs

Later Nikki would reflect:

When I studied Freud at A Level psychology, I don’t think I could have imagined that one day I’d be creating art at Freud’s study and home with nude models!

What a privilege tonight was! 65 artists capturing our 4 models posing throughout the rooms of Freud’s past home and workplace, alongside amazing art such as Rachel Kneebone sculpture.

I replied in kind:

And who knew when I was studying physics that one day I’d be a 6’4″ naked mannequin, draped like Mother Teresa, in Sigmund Freud’s front hallway?

I’m still no closer to arriving at a true meaning, but for now it’s better to travel.

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