The German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn collected not only case histories, but also works created by his patients. In the summer of 2015, his world’s largest collection of works from over a century ago visited Heidelberg.
The exposition touched upon a question that worries the world of contemporary art: what is the norm, and what is the deviation from the norm? It’s worth taking a look at the answers, as well-known artists from Paul Klee to Max Ernst did.
The largest exhibition of its kind for the last 35 years in Germany. Do you want to talk about it?
The exhibition “The Miracle in the Shoe Insole” includes 120 drawings, watercolors and sculptures. The works show how psychiatric patients have used art in an attempt to fit into “normal” life. This collection was gathered by the German psychiatrist Carl Wilmanns together with his assistant Prinzhorn.
The Prinzhorn Art Collection, exhibited since 2001 at the Heidelberg University Gallery, has five thousand paintings, collages and sculptures created by patients in German psychiatric clinics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The oldest of the pieces date back between 1880 and 1890.
Most of the doctors’ authors were diagnosed with schizophrenia. After the death of Prinzhorn, the collection was supplemented by works by artists from Japan, Poland, France, Italy and Austria.
The collection was once advertised by the Austrian writer and illustrator Alfred Kubin, who was invited by Professor Wilmanns to look at one of the paintings.
Deeply amazed, Kubin wrote in his essay about the art of the mentally ill as “miracles of the mind of an artist whose work has gone beyond the depths of our understanding.” Such are the works of August Natterer, whom Hans Prinzhorn introduced to the world as an artist.
Hans Prinzhorn outlined the story of this patient under the pseudonym “Noether” in his book The Artistic Work of the Mentally Ill (1920).
The famous artists of that time were generally fascinated by the originality and immediacy of the collection. Paul Klee saw in the works an “intermediate area”, something outside of “normal” perception. Max Ernst, who attended lectures on psychiatry and explored the limits of madness in art, was also inspired by them.
Some of the collection’s works were shown at the famous Nazi “degenerate art” exhibition in 1937. They were used for indicative comparison with the works of the impressionists and neo-expressionists objectionable to the regime.
By the way, the artist Kirchner, after two months as a volunteer at the front of the First World War, could not cope with mental discord. Panic attacks, drugs, clinics, the label of “degenerate art”, the removal of hundreds of works from German museums and the very exhibition where his works were placed. The finale was suicide. This artist was also talked about at the exhibition and draws parallels with other works presented at it.
Art historians talk about the influence of Else Blankenhorn’s work on Kirchner’s work. She lived for many years in a specialized sanatorium, painted strange pictures and believed that she was the “Kaiser’s bride”.
After 1945, the collection sank into oblivion and was rediscovered only in 1963 by one of the curators.
Anti-cultural art or “art brut”, in terms of the French artist and sculptor Jean Dubuffet, matured as a phenomenon in the 40s of the last century. The author of the concept denoted by him the creativity of people with mental disorders. Soon, the search for all other outcasts was added to it. No wonder this direction is also called Outsider Art.
Adolf Wölfli, diagnosed with schizophrenia, was one of the first in history to be included in the list of outsider artists. His life was spent almost entirely in a psychiatric clinic, so he turned his ward into a studio – here he painted and created collages. Today, they are ready to pay several hundred thousand dollars for them.
Judith Scott was born diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome, which did not stop her from living to 61 and creating works that are now popular among collectors – sculptures from umbrellas, bicycles, thread and furniture.
A complete mess!
One of the oldest mental hospitals in the world, founded in the XIV century in London under the name of the monastery of the Order of the Star of Bethlehem (Bethlehem – hence the popular name Bedlam) enjoyed a bad reputation – few people managed to leave its walls.
One of Bedlam’s patients was the famous artist Louis Wayne (1860-1939), who painted anthropomorphic cats and one day pushed his sister down the stairs. Over time, the clinic began to introduce art therapy, encouraging patients to be creative. His results are stored today in a small museum of the clinic. One of the series of paintings – Wayne’s 5 works – is now used as an illustration of progressive schizophrenia. Collectors are chasing these “fractal cats”, and postcards with their image are also a favorite subject for art dealers.
Having lost his mind, the artist killed his father – “the incarnation of the devil”, and was placed in Bedlam – the Bethlem Royal Hospital. There he painted his works that became famous, and by order of the chief manager for 9 years (1855-1864) painted the canvas “on a fairy tale theme.” By the way, Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke was one of the favorite paintings of rock musician Freddie Mercury.
Ovartaci is a Danish museum located on the territory of a psychiatric clinic and has the largest collection of paintings by psychotic artists in Europe. It is named after one of the patients, a graphic designer who spent 56 years of his life within the walls of the clinic.
Among the world’s recognized geniuses, there are many people who suffered from mental disorders. The first name that comes to mind is Vincent van Gogh, for whom the clinic in Arles became a second home. Here he was treated for a whole bunch of mental disorders, including epilepsy and schizophrenia.
It is also not surprising that Edvard Munch. the creator of the famous painting “The Scream”, who was regularly subjected to panic attacks, was also given a disappointing diagnosis – “depersonalization disorder”.
“Illness, madness and death are black angels who stood guard over my cradle and accompanied me all my life,” he wrote.
It is noteworthy that all the works of the Prinzhorn collection were created “without the influence of psychotherapy and medication.” And, perhaps, the audience remained confused whether geniusness is still a disease.