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Abraham, Karl

    Image Credit: Melanie Klein Trust

    Full Name: Abraham, Karl

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1877

    Date Died: 1925

    Place Born: Bremen, Germany

    Place Died: Berlin, Germany

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): art theory, Italian (culture or style), psychoanalysis, and psychology


    Psychiatrist and disciple of Freud; earliest scholar to employ psycho-analytic method to an artist (Giovanni Segantini). Abraham was born into a wealthy, cultured, Jewish family. His father, Nathan Abraham, initially a Hebrew religion teacher, and his mother were first cousins. Karl Abraham rejected religion early in his life. His early interests in philology and linguistics lead to a life-long interest in humanities. After homeschooling, he entered medical school in 1896 at the universities in Würzburg, Berlin and finally Freiburg im Breisgau. After graduating in 1901, he took a position initially at an asylum in Berlin and then at the Burghölzi Mental Hospital in Zürich under P. Eugene Bleuler (1857-1939) in 1904. He became a devoted Helvetian, embracing mountain climbing and the art of another expatriate to Switzerland, the artist Giovanni Segantini. During that time he met the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung (1875-1961) who introduced him to the psychoanalytic method of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Abraham began writing papers on childhood sexuality and schizophrenia. He married Hedwig Burgner, in 1906. He met Freud the following year. A rift developed between Jung and Abraham and Abraham left Zürich for private practice in Berlin in 1907. An interest in symbols and myths resulted in a 1909 paper on mythology and wish-fulfillment. As Freud experimented with psychoanalytic interpretation of art (his Eine Kindheitserinnerung des Leonardo da Vinci, 1910), Abraham did the same for Segantini in 1911, his book Giovanni Segantini: ein psychoanalytischer Versuch. He employed the same historic approach to a paper on the iconoclast Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten. Abraham was mobilized as the head of the psychiatric unit for the German military in World War I, attached to the 20th Army. There he became interested in war neuroses, but also contracted dysentery which weakened him greatly. After the war, he returned to private practice, psychoanalyzing numerous important patients. Abraham addressed modern art one last time in a paper (never published in his lifetime) [100]. He developed a pneumonia and a lung infection for which he underwent surgery, recuperating–and still mountain climbing–in Switzerland. At age 48 he succumbed to related infections. Shortly after his death, his medical papers were translated into English and published by the Bloomsbury publisher Leonard Woolf (1880-1969). His daughter, Hilda C. Abraham, was also a psychiatrist of note. Abraham is most noted as an early theorist in depression and mental illness. His book on Segantini, like Freud’s, is more an posthumous psychoanalysis of the artist than the art. Abraham’s theories received renewed interest with the art-historical application of the theories of Jacques Lacan in Lacan’s book, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Abraham was known as the most loyal of Freud’s disciples, never deviating from Freud’s classical principles of psychoanalysis. He also collaborated with Freud on research of manic-depression (today known as bipolar disorder), resulting in Freud’s paper, “Mourning and Melancholia,” 1917.

    Selected Bibliography

    [collected medical papers and bibliography:] Selected Papers of Karl Abraham, M.D. London: L. & Virginia Woolf, 1927, bibliography, vol. 4, ; Giovanni Segantini: ein psychoanalytischer Versuch. Leipzig: F. Deuticke, 1911, reissued in French in, “Giovanni Segantini, essai psychanalytique.” in, Rêve et mythe: G. Segantini, Amenhotep IV, études cliniques. vol. 1 (1907-1914) of Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Payot, 1965.


    Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art; de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986 p. 326; Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis. New York: Free Press, 1968, pp. 1-8; Penguin International Dictionary of Contemporary Biography from 1900 to the Present. New York: Penguin Reference, 2001, p. 4; [obituary:] Jones, Ernest. “Karl Abraham 1877-1925.” Journal of Psycho-Analysis 7 (April 1926):155-181.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Abraham, Karl." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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