‘Uncanny’ in art is a concept that describes a strange and anxious feeling evoked by familiar objects placed in unfamiliar or unsettling contexts.
The concept of the ‘uncanny’ was originally introduced by German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch in his 1906 essay, ‘On the Psychology of the Uncanny’. Jentsch described the uncanny, known as ‘unheimlich’ in German, as something new and unknown that often initially carries negative connotations.
Sigmund Freud's 1919 essay, ‘The Uncanny’ redefined the idea as the experience when something can be both familiar and alien simultaneously. He posited that ‘unheimlich’ stood in opposition to ‘heimlich’, which could mean homely and familiar but also secret, concealed, or private. Freud argued that ‘unheimlich’ not only signified the unknown but also revealed something that was hidden or repressed. He referred to it as "that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar."
Artists, particularly those associated with the surrealist movement, drew upon uncanny in art to create artworks that combined familiar elements in unexpected ways to provoke uncanny sensations.
Today, the term ‘uncanny valley’ is also applied to artworks, animations, or video games that reproduce places and people so accurately that they generate a similar strange feeling.