Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Unexpected Imagination of Tom Seidmann-Freud

(6) Photo courtesy of Max Halberstadt 1921

When a person hears the name "Freud" I would imagine that a very specific image  comes to mind.

This one. The stern, bearded face of  Sigmund Freud, famed father of psychoanalysis.

Yet I'd argue that as intriguing as Sigmund Freud was, he was by no means the only member of the extensive Freud family worth learning about.

I was meandering my way through the Weinstein Collection of vintage and rare children's books (which I have the honor of working with  through my position with the Center for Teaching Through Children's Books in Skokie, Illinois).   There were many distracting treasures.  And then I saw this:

Everything about it piqued my interest, not the least of which was the mysteriously free-floating orange fish and the author's name--Tom Seidmann-Freud.

Tom was born in Austria in 1892 under her  given name Martha Gertrude Freud. (7)  Her mother, Mitzi, was Sigmund Freud's younger sister and her father, Moritz, was Sigmund and Mitzi's cousin. (7)

Before World War II Tom enjoyed a privileged life, growing up in Berlin and later attending art school in London. (1)  Tom abandoned her given name "Martha" as a teenager in hopes that using a masculine name would smooth her path as an artist. (1).  Many sources claim that Tom also dressed in men's clothing, although there are family members who dispute this. (1)

A number of sources I found described Tom as a sensitive, nervous child who grew into an adult with emotional issues and a tendency towards eccentricities, including her name change, mens clothing and heavy smoking. (2)(3)

(1) Angela and Tom Seidmann Freud
When Tom was 28 years old she fell in love with Jakob Seidmann, marrying him a year later and giving birth to their daughter, Angela, a year after that. (1)  Throughout this time Tom created a number of children's books including "Peregrin and the Goldfish", published in 1929. (1) Her books received favorable reviews, but sadly many of Tom's creations--books as well as works of art--were destroyed when Hitler came into power. (2)

In 1922 Tom and her husband decided to partner up with the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik to create a publishing company called "Ophir". (1)  They put their trust in the wrong person however. Bialik betrayed them, refusing to contribute his share of funds to the fledgling publishing company. As a result Tom and her husband were left penniless. (1) Jakob was unable to come to terms with this failure. He committed suicide in 1929; Tom followed a year later, starving herself to death. (1)  They left behind their daughter Angela, who was seven years old. (1)

Tom's  books and artwork that survived the Nazi purge point to a complex, tremendously creative woman.  The book I was lucky enough to stumble across is a testament to her talent.

"Peregrin and the Goldfish" begins with a boy named Peregrin who falls asleep beneath a tree and begins to dream.

The dream  begins softly--Peregrin sees himself carrying his pet goldfish, Nickeling, in a bowl as he  makes his way through a skewed world of tilted, rainbow-hued houses.

And then he falls down, dropping and shattering the bowl on the ground.

 Nickeling the goldfish swells up to huge proportions.

Freed from his bowl (and now appropriately large), Nickeling encourages Peregrin to accompany him to "...go out into the world together, for there is much to see.  Come with me!"

Nickeling brings Peregrin to yet another strange land.  Peregrin feels frightened and out-of-place, but soon enough he begins meeting an array of children who reach out to him.

Peregrin joins the children, helping them with their various daily tasks--picking fruit, selling the fruit at market, building houses, studying books.

Finally, exhausted and homesick, Peregrin calls out to Nickeling to bring him home.

Nickeling appears, takes Peregrin into his mouth.  The fish carries Peregrin into increasing darkness, finally diving down into the water until Peregrin wakes up.

The story and writing style (albeit translated from the original German) is simple and almost musical at times.

However the tale has an underlying darkness that I can imagine children delighted in as well as feared.  The images of odd landscapes, unknown people and an eventual plunge into darkness are the stuff from which  fears and troubling, thrilling dreams rise.

These dark undertones  seem all the more obvious when paired with Tom's crisp artistic style (a stencil and layering method called 'pochoir' (2)), the clean lines and pure jewel tones of the colors almost like folk art.  While not all of Tom's work follows this style, many of her books certainly do.

The tragic lives of Tom Seidmann-Freud, her husband and daughter  are but one piece of the troubling story of the entire Freud family.  Tom's mother, Mitzi, outlived her daughter  only to be put to death in a Nazi Concentration Camp in 1942. (7)  Four of Sigmund Freud's five sisters died in Concentration Camps, the rest of the Freud family splintered apart in their search for refuge. (7)

Reflecting upon Tom's life, I find myself wondering how much of her   unique sensibilities snuck onto paper through story and art.  The bright surfaces of Tom's art seem to  hide intricate and unexpected secrets, and I find myself unable to look away.

Although many of Tom's books and works of art were destroyed in the Nazi purge during World War II, enough (now very rare) copies survive to give us a peek into Tom Seidmann-Freud's volume of work that includes fairy tale books, moving picture books, counting books as well as illustrations completed for other writers. (2)

As I hold this copy of "Peregrin and the Goldfish" in my hands,  I can only feel gratitude for the chance to learn about Tom, and sadness for all that was lost.









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