A serial reading of Andre Breton, Sigmund Freud, Frantz Fanon, Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster, might give the impression of a direct intellectual lineage. That’s not what I’m going to do here. I’d like to think of this as a commentary from the sidelines; of what would have been possible had these thinkers sat together in one classroom and considered the implications of their writings to discussions about Surrealism, the unconscious, and how they can be reconsidered in light of current anti-racist struggle and decolonization efforts.

Fanon and Freud

Frantz Fanon argued that language imposes a culture on its speakers. The act of speaking entails an unconscious fashioning—almost like contracting a disease—especially when the  language adopted is not the one into which the speaker was born.[1] For Fanon, the Black man who speaks the colonizer’s language is doubly alienated: he belongs neither to the colonizer’s world nor to the world of the colonized. The idea of a liminal existence for the socially-mobile Black man paves the way for Fanon’s indictment of Sigmund Freud in later chapters of his book where he discusses the mental health of black people. According to Fanon, “traditional” psychology was created and founded without thinking about colonial conditions or considering the experience of racially-marginalized people.

While it is true that the condition of the Black person might have eluded Sigmund Freud, it is also true that he was seen as an outsider in Austrian society. He was spurned for discovering the repressed collective inner worlds that did not fit into the self-image of bourgeois society.  In his earnest endeavours in colonial psychopathology, Fanon considered the class consciousness of Freud but took him to task for his inattention to the racial correlates of the mind.       

Fanon found his ideal reader in radical artists and writers today, in the same way that Freud inspired Surrealists. It’s not surprising that artists find affinity for scholars who are themselves outsiders from established society. What seems strange is how critics in the 1980s and 1990s—tastemakers of the art world—resurrected Freudian psychoanalysis, bringing it back to the American art scene. By way of French post-structuralist thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jaques Derrida in the 1970s and ‘80s, Rosalind Krauss is largely credited for making Freud almost de rigueur for talking about art history in the 21st century.[2]

Rosalind Krauss
            The ideas in Optical Unconscious both critique and recover Surrealist conceptions of modern art. Krauss understands the surrealists’ imagery as a trace, an index, of the dreamer’s unconscious, in a postmodern reading that actively represses the inconvenient qualities of the Freudian unconscious—its experiential nature, notions of aura, myth and authentic forms of identity—while at the same time remedying some of modernism’s more flagrant repressions of surrealist history.[3]  In opposition to Greenberg, Krauss looks to Surrealism as an example of anti-modernist vision, and turns to Ernst in her 1989 article “The Master’s Bedroom.” She cites one of Ernst’s early collages, and its overpainting, as exemplifying the Surrealist critique of modernist vision.[4] In so doing she first compares the formal structure of Ernst’s collages to the Freudian unconscious, where the readymade character of Ernst’s ground—he painted over printed pages from a variety of catalogues—relates to the equally ready-made condition of the unconscious and of memory.

Krauss brings up Freud’s fascination with the Wunderblock to illustrate this point, by comparing overpainted parts of Ernst’s found images to “a kind of slate wiped clean.” She notes how even if the lines drawn on a Wunderblock “are no longer available to view, the lines that have been pressed onto it are in fact retained by the waxen support, where they form a permanent network of traces, [5] as is true of the material lodged in the unconscious. Similarly, the given grounds of Ernst’s collages retain buried material that defiles the “purity” and “immediacy” of modernist vision, propped up by Greenberg. Her use of Klein groups and L schemas—instruments of structuralist theory— basically argued that not only is the ground of the image already written, but so is the unconscious that Ernst’s technique attempts to access.[6]

Fanon, Freud, Breton, Hal Foster
            The will to change the world that links Fanon to Freud to Breton is the belief that the practice of visual arts can be an antidote to convention, that it can present a different perspective on an entrenched reality. Fanon saw it in language, as did Breton with his verbal games and writing exercises. Freud looked curiously at the products of artistic imagination and philosophical intuition. He often found knowledge in them that he himself had tracked down in painstaking detailed scientific work; in “talking cures” with patients and in the hours of self-investigation. Breton’s definition of Surrealism as a kind of art that presents “the actual functioning thought” also rests primarily upon the verbal or the written word.[7]
            The Surrealists were undoubtedly inspired to expose the complacency of middle-class culture without needing much encouragement from Freud. Francis Picabia’s Machine Fantasies subvert conventional ideas of logic and progress. He portrays the act of love in Machine Turn Quickly (1918) as an elaborate meshing of gears. Marcel Duchamp tried to break the bank at Monte Carlo by issuing debentures guaranteeing an interest of 20 percent. He humiliates art collectors and says art is dead. Advertisements are displayed as anti-art objects to show how they can be profoundly revealing of social ills.

These works resonate with Freud’s The Uncanny (1919). In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle?” Hal Foster explicates Freud’s idea of the uncanny as the return of the familiar “made strange by repression;” an uneasy feeling of seeing something one cannot quite describe because the object or event feels strangely familiar.[8] Doubling is a primary example of the uncanny for Freud. Krauss writes about it in “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism”.[9] Fanon’s discussion of liminal identities can be enriched by revisiting Freud’s description of the relation between two people who are “considered identical because they look alike.”[10] The doubling effect could stem from one person identifying with someone else to the point of a merging of selves. “In other words, there is a doubling, dividing and interchanging of self.”[11] This Freudian understanding of the “uncanny double” is key to understanding how the double is considered in relation to photography.[12]

Krauss incorporates some of Freud’s ideas in discussing the notion that doubling within an artwork complicates the original image. She discusses how the duplicate of an image relies upon the original, “but in being seen in conjunction with the original, the double destroys the pure singularity of the first. Through duplication, it opens the original to the effect of difference, of deferral, of one-thing-after-another, or within another: of multiples burgeoning within the same.”[13] 

Rotimi Fani-Kayode, The Golden Phallus, 1989, archival c-type print, 51 x 61 cm. Courtesy: Autograph ABP

Fanon and Krauss

Fanon is not known to have read Freud’s treatise on the uncanny[14] but we can speculate how he would consider how it functions through duplicity and multiplication in photographs of Black artists. It’s not hard to imagine how marginalized artists might be the inheritors of the revolutionary aspirations of the Surrealists, who saw themselves as outsiders.

Rotimi Fani-Kayodé (1955-1989) directly referenced Black Skin, White Masks in his artist statement. “On three counts I am an outsider,” the Nigerian artist said in relation to his postcolonial position in the world.[15] “In matters of sexuality; in terms of geographical and cultural dislocation; and in the sense of not having become the sort of respectably married professional my parents might have hoped for.”[16] Born to a wealthy Yoruba family, he moved to England as a refugee from the Nigerian civil war. After his studies in fine arts and economics in the US he returned to London where he worked as an artist until his death in 1989 due to an HIV-related illness. In The Golden Phallus (1989), the artist shows an athletic Black man posing naked on a platform wearing a white beak mask and looking into the camera. His penis is gold-plated and held up with a white string. The work strangely reminds me of the controversial Lynda Benglis advertisement in Art Forum which responded to the Robert Morris photograph taken by Rosalind Krauss. Fani-Kayodé does the same in exploring Black sexuality in relation to a Black subject being gazed upon by the world. In the same manner that Benglis stood on Feminist principles, Fani-Kayodé challenges Fanon’s suggestion that male homosexuality only exists for the enjoyment of the white man by attaching the subject’s penis to a string and showing that he is not readily sexually available. Along with the mask, it signals that he will remain inscrutable and not a puppet to anyone’s desires. The work further challenges straight assumptions of homosexuality. In light of this discussion, I read it as a cogent Surrealist response.


Breton, André, 1896-1966. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.

Fanon, Frantz, Charles Lam Markmann, Ziauddin Sardar, and Homi K. Bhabha. Black Skin, White Masks. 2008.

Foster, Hal. Compulsive Beauty. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1993.

Freud, Sigmund, 1856-1939 and A. A. 1874-1948. Brill, The Interpretation of Dreams. London: New York: G. Allen & Unwin, ltd., 1915.

Freud, Sigmund, David McLintock, and Hugh Haughton. The Uncanny. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Krauss, Rosalind E. The Optical Unconscious. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1993.

—. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1985.

Zaya, Octavio. “On Three Counts I Am an Outsider: The Work of Rotimi Fani-Kayode.” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 4 (1996): 24-72. muse.jhu.edu/article/422467.

[1] Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Mask, 8 “…To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this language, but it means above all to assume a culture.”

[2] See Danto, Arthur C. Artforum (Summer 1993), 31(10): 97-98. for a review of Optical Unconscious.

[3] Krauss, Rosalind, Optical Unconscious, 54.

[4] ibid., 54-65

[5] Ibid., 57

[6] See Kavsky, Samantha, Notes for Historiography of Surrealism in America or the Reinterpretation of the Repressed, Journal of Surrealism and the Americas, 6:1, (2012), i-ix for an extensive discussion of attempts by other American critics to reconsider Freud and his influence on Surrealism.

[7] Breton, Andre, Manifestoes of Surrealism, 26.

[8] Foster, Hal, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle?” Compulsive Beauty. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), 7.

[9] “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism.” October 19 (1981): 3-34.

[10] Freud, “The ‘Uncanny,’” 210. I am thinking about how Fanon is used in the analysis of mestisajes, ladinos, and about native peoples of color who came to resemble the colonizer through the gradual lightness of skin and their manner of dress; the result of centuries of intermarriage which complicated the “caste” system put in place by the Spanish empire.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Krauss, Rosalind, “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism,” 25.

[13] Ibid., 110.

[14] See, Robert J.C. Young, “Fanon’s Uncanny,” Oxford Literary Review, Volume 42, Issue 2. (2020).

[15] Zaya, Octavio, “On Three Counts I Am an Outsider: The Work of Rotimi Fani-Kayode,” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 4 (1996): 24-72.

[16] Ibid.

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