Tom Seidmann-Freud

Tom Seidmann-Freud, selected drawings, photographs, and books, 1902–30, installation view, Grimmwelt Kassel, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Liz Eve

A painter, illustrator, and children’s books author, Tom Seidmann-Freud was born into a Jewish, bourgeois family living in late-nineteenth-century Vienna. She was named Martha-Gertrud Freud. Her mother, Mitzi (Marie), was the sister of Sigmund Freud, “founder of psychoanalysis.” After her family moved to Berlin and at the age of fifteen, she changed her name to Tom and started wearing men’s clothes occasionally.

Freud accompanied her father to London to study art in 1911. During her studies, she wrote and illustrated two books, Wölkchen (The small cloud) and Der Garten des Leidens (The Garden of Suffering). On returning to Berlin, Freud enrolled in the Unterrichtsanstalt des Königlichen Kunstgewerbemuseums where she experimented with graphic design, drawing, decorative painting, engraving in wood, printing in stone, and copper reliefs. Her first major book Baby-Liederbuch was published in 1914; she was responsible for both the text and the images. Freud stayed in Berlin during the First World War and worked on sketches for two further books, Das neue Bilderbuch (Munich, 1918) and David the Dreamer (Boston, 1922).

Soon after the First World War, Freud moved to Munich, where her sister Lilly was living. She worked as a painter and quickly found herself part of a circle of local artists and intellectuals, among them the philosopher Gershom Scholem and the writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon.

In one of the chapters of his autobiography, Gershom Scholem recounts his memories of that time:

“At the end of the corridor of the apartment on Türkenstraße, where Escha Burchhardt moved after Heinz Pflaum’s departure to Heidelberg, draughtswoman and illustrator Tom Freud, a niece of Siegmund Freud(!) and also one of the unforgettable figures of those years, resided across from her room. She was almost picturesquely ugly, unlike her somewhat older sister, Lilly Marlé, who often came to visit her and was the wife of actor Arnold Marlé. The two Marlés belonged to the Kammerspiele ensemble and frequently performed as reciters, especially at Jewish events. Lilly was a beauty of the first degree and looked like the title-hero of the biblical book of Ruth as imagined by contemporary painters and engravers. Tom was a children’s book illustrator (and author of a few) who bordered on genius.”
Gershom Scholem, Von Berlin nach Jerusalem: Jugenderinnerungen. Erweiterte Fassung (Frankfurt am Main: Jüdischer Verlag, 1994), pp. 158–59.

In 1921, Freud married the writer Yankel Seidmann and together they established the publishing house for children’s books, Peregrin (from the Latin, Peregrinos, meaning “foreigner,” or “from abroad”—a title used during the Roman Empire to identify individuals who were not Roman citizens).

Tom’s younger brother Theodor, with whom she had a very close relationship, drowned in Mäckersee, north of Berlin, in 1922. His death was a shock for Tom and affected her a great deal. At this time, she began work on the first book of the newly established publishing house, entitled Die Fischreise (The Fish Journey). It tells the story of a young boy named Peregrin who falls asleep and dreams about a fish that takes him on a journey under the sea to a utopian land, where everyone gets along with each other and all the children are neither poor nor hungry. The book was dedicated to Theodor.

In the same year that Die Fischreise was published, the Seidmann-Freuds met Hayim Nahman Bialik (1873–1934) during one of his travels to Berlin. Bialik, one of the most prominent Hebrew poets and translators at the time, was on a mission to introduce Hebrew-speaking children to world literature, as part of establishing a modern Hebrew society in Palestine. Impressed by the work of the Seidmann-Freuds, Bialik was eager to collaborate with the couple, and they with him. A new publishing house named Ophir (after the biblical land where gold was sourced to build the temple of King Solomon) was founded to translate children’s books into Hebrew.

The artistic style of the Seidmann-Freuds had already taken a turn by then, leaving behind the ornamental, decorative Jugendstil to move in the direction of the emerging New Objectivity, noted for its much lighter, geometrical straight lines and the use of delicate, almost transparent yet rich colors.

This new artistic style corresponded well to Bialik’s vision. Kleine Märchen (1921) for example, presenting fables and fairytales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, was translated into Hebrew and entitled Esser Sihot Liyladim (Ten Stories for Children, 1923)—with drawings adapted to the landscapes of a Mediterranean community. This transformation brought not only a change in style but in content as well; a Jewish, socialist notion was added to the texts. In addition, the figuration in the German edition became abstract and expressive, and the difference between boys and girls made indecipherable.

The Seidmann-Freuds continued to work on different projects, publishing the Buch der Hasengeschichten (1924), innovative “interactive” books such as Das Wunderhaus (1927) and Das Wunderboot (1929), and a series of pedagogical books for children, presenting new methodological approaches for reading, writing, and counting, such as “Hurra, wir lesen! Hurra, wir schreiben!” (Spielfibel, no. 1, 1930). An admirer of the Spielfibel was the philosopher, cultural critic, and essayist Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), who published several articles praising the Seidmann-Freuds’ pedagogical approach.

“The idea of playfully adding a note of levity to the primer is old, and the newest and most radical attempt, the skillful handbook from Seidmann-Freud, does not fall outside the pedagogic tradition. If, however, there is something that distinguishes this primer from the range of all previous ones, it is the rare union of a thorough mind with a light hand. It has enabled the most dialectical analysis of childish tendencies in the service of writing. At its foundation is the singular idea of combining a primer and a copybook. Self-confidence and certainty will be awakened in the child, who writes his notes and characters between the two covers of the book. The objection: but there is no space, is admittedly close at hand. And, in fact, it is not at all possible to learn to write on the space given here—however richly it is measured. But how clever is that!”
Walter Benjamin, “Chichleuchlauchra. Zu einer Fibel,” Frankfurter Zeitung, December 13, 1930.

The collaboration with Bialik failed and Ophir was forced to close. Facing major financial difficulties in the context of the economic crisis of 1929, and in what appears to be a moment of great despair, Yankel Seidmann committed suicide in October 1929. Deeply affected by the death of her husband, Tom quickly deteriorated and took her own life less than four months later. She was just thirty-seven.

A box containing Tom’s entire body of work—sketches, drawings, color tests, and notes—was kept by her sister Lilly, sealed and forgotten for almost fifty years. After Lilly’s death in 1978, Tom and Yankel’s daughter, who lived in Israel and who had changed her name to the much more Hebrew Aviva (from Angela), received the box. Having discovered its contents, she had the chance to trace the quiet, intimate drawings of her mother once again.

​This presentation of the material is dedicated to the memory of Aviva Harari (Seidmann), 1922–2011.

Courtesy of Tom Seidmann-Freud’s grandchildren, Amnon Harari, Ayala Drori, and Osi Gevim, Israel.

Posted in Public Exhibition