Hans Prinzhorn: Curating the Art of Mental Illness

51CQV6NIzLL._On the 6th of June 1886, German psychiatrist and art historian  Hans Prinzhorn was born in Hemer, Westphalia. After obtaining a doctorate in art history and philosophy from the University of Vienna, he decided to train in England as a singer, but ended up studying medicine and became an Army surgeon in WWI.  In 1919, he became assistant to Karl Wilmanns at the psychiatric hospital of the University of Heidelberg. He soon took over the task of building up Emil Kraepelin’s earlier collection of art created by the mentally ill of the hospital. When he left in 1921 the collection had reached more than 5000 works by about 450 “cases”.

In 1922, as a result of his research,  he published his first and most influential book, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill), abundantly illustrated with examples from the collection he had helped develop. His medical colleagues were dubious about Prinzhorn’s area of interest, but the emerging avantgarde art world was enthusiastic. The artist Jean Dubuffet, a supporter of ‘low art’ or, ‘untrained art’ was greatly inspired by the works, and the term Art Brut was coined as a result of the ‘raw’ nature of expression in this form of art. Prinzhorn’s book was essentially concerned with the borderline between psychiatry and art, illness and self-expression. It was one of the first ever attempts to analyse and assemble the work of the mentally ill. The works he promoted were shown in many contemporary exhibitions, and several artists and schools, including Max Ernst and the Surrealists, were strongly influenced by the collection. In the 1930s, Nazi propaganda abused the works of Prinzhorn’s protegees, a systematic process of censorship which culminated in the 1938 Berlin show “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) which juxtaposed art from mental patients with paintings from banished artists such as Paul Klee or Oskar Kokoschka. The reasoning behind these parallels was to annihilate the latter artists’ reputation by showing them alongside art by the deranged, so to speak. With the war, the collection fell into neglect and was largely forgotten until the early 1970s, when it was restored and catalogued.

0520217403.1.zoomVera Lind writes that, “The works themselves cover a wide range of techniques, media, and themes: From accurate mechanical drawings, colourful pastel pictures, neatly assembled chronological calendars  (for example a “Murderer’s Calendar” and a “Headsman’s Calendar,”), graphic sexual scenes, and picture stories, to a handmade, stuffed, anatomically correct male dummy. Looking at the works is fascinating and disturbing at the same time. Inge Jadi in her essay knowingly speaks of the “radical otherness” formulated here, which “is our own, and yet inaccessible to our consciousness”; [there are] serious shortcomings in understanding the complexity of how to deal with a collection of art from mental patients.

Hans Prinzhorn was a self-dramatist, mainly interested in proving his aesthetic theory via the art of the patients. Still, he enabled the patients to be recognized as artists in their own right. Artistically, one can spot influences of the contemporary intellectual climate in the collection (for example the many technical drawings and the central theme of female sexuality), yet these works are unique. Almost necessarily, the works become aestheticized and are easily considered” beautiful” when they are shown in an environment familiar to society, like at an exhibition. But Inge Jadi reminds us from a psychiatric viewpoint that this art resulted from great pain and is part of the personal catastrophe of each producer.”(Vera Lind, review of Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis: Works from the Prinzhorn Collection by Bettina Brand-Claussen; Inge Jádi; Caroline Douglas Review, in German Studies Review, Vol. 23, No. 2, May, 2000). Jadi speaks of the “patient-artist”, as a form of recognition of the producers of visual work resulting from very personal psychological trauma or dysfunction.

51lj7XTqBnL._Mike Jay, the author of The Influencing Machine (2012) discusses one specific example of such a “patient-artist”. He claims that “Prinzhorn preserved several works by Jacob Mohr, who was confined in Heidelberg’s psychiatric clinic in the years around 1910, producing extraordinary diagrams filled with black boxes radiating electric currents and hypnotic rays. In the scrambled but oddly techno-savvy text that accompanies them, Mohr presents himself at some points as the omnipotent ‘Ruler of the World’, at others as the helpless victim of a ‘wireless-organic-positive-polar’ device that torments and paralyses him.” (Mike Jay, from ‘The Art of Mind Control’, Raw Vision, 2007). See the feature image to this article for an example of a Jacob Mohr diagram, or discover more fascinating art by the psychiatric patients featured in the Prinzhorn Collection at http://www.rzuser.uni-heidelberg.de/~gf7/galerie/index.shtml .