Hans-Christian Dany, 5.97
REVISIONS OF INSANITY
The origins of the collection that has become relatively well known as the
"Prinzhorn Collection" go back to the inventory of the "Museum
for Pathological Art" of the psychiatric clinic at the University of
Heidelberg. Around the turn of the century, the drawings and sculptures
created by patients began to be regarded not merely as products of insanity,
so the process of their creation was observed and the works were archived.
In 1919, Hans Prinzhorn, a doctor and art historian, was employed by the
clinic to oversee the collection. In the visual expressions of "schizophrenic
consciousness", he recognized more general signs indicating the mood
of Europe traumatized by the first industrialized war. Within a year, he
had expanded the inventory from 400 "cases" to over 4000 items.
To this day, there is no permanent place of exhibition for this collection,
although Prinzhorn had repeatedly insisted that one should be created. However,
a new branch of the collection was established to include works by prison
inmates, and this addition supports the articulation of the conditions of
institutionalized care. Thus, an empirical basis was established early in
Heidelberg for the study of analogies between the clinic and the prison,
which Michel Foucault was later to address in greater detail.
Another comparative branch that was central to Prinzhorn's theses consisted
of examples of "primitive art and children's art." These additions
to the collection with its psychiatric perspectives also pave the way for
aesthetic and anthropological questions, so that this collection is quite
different from projects in England or Sweden. From today's perspective,
Prinzhorn's analogy to "primitivism" is problematic, as it assumes
a colonialist notion of the primitive "wild man."
The collection was restructured within a brief period of time. After only
two years, Prinzhorn left Heidelberg to devote his attention to his book
"Artistry of the Mentally Ill" in Dresden. This extensive volume
was published the following year.
Prinzhorn's endeavors and the attention drawn to them by his book were followed
by a period of inactivity. Due to a re-interpretation, the collection was
caught up in the whirlwind of the Third Reich.
Precursors of the German phantasm of selection and purity had been skeptically
observing the collection since the early twenties. After they seized power,
selected exhibits from the collection were placed in the service of propaganda.
The Nazis' aim was to equate art, particularly expressionism, with pictures
from mental institutions in order to discredit it. At the same time, pictures
from psychiatric institutions with their representations of "distorted
faces" and "deformities" of reality were used to sway opinion
for the euthanasia program. In the "Degenerate Art" exhibition
in Munich in 1937, pictures from the Prinzhorn Collection were hung next
to pictures by Klee or Kokoschka. The aim was to construct a biologism affirming
an affinity between the artists and mental illness. This was taking the
19th century bourgeoisie notion of the relationship between genius and madness
to an extreme. For the Nazis, the logical consequence was to attempt to
exterminate both in order to "purify the body of the German people"
from "harmful" elements. It was not long after this exhibition
that the killing of tens of thousands of psychiatric patients and many artists
began in the death factories of Auschwitz and Treblinka.
The carefully prepared catalogue (1) for the exhibition of a selection from
the Prinzhorn Collection, which has been shown recently in London and Osnabruck,
illuminates two details of this "misuse." Although the skulls
of patients in the Heidelberg psychiatric clinic had been dissected in the
futile search for evidence of the theories of race, the "diagnostic
material" of the Prinzhorn Collection remained almost completely intact.
The authors also critically examine Prinzhorn's behavior: although he had
taken a clear stance against racist interpretations of the collection in
1921, by the end of that decade he said nothing more against the increasingly
virulent Nazi propaganda. By that time, he was already caught up in the
current of cultural pessimistic dandyism and concerned himself with exotica
withdrawn from the world. This was not an untypical career for intellectuals
who had turned to an anti-cultural avant-garde around 1920.
Prinzhorn did not live to see the exhibition "Degenerate Art";
he died in 1933 at the age of 47. The collection was found gathering dust
in a closet after World War II. Inge Jadi, who took care of the collection
for 25 years, was able to call attention to it again. At the same time,
she stressed two aspects that Prinzhorn had neglected. On the basis of her
ideas, compositions created in the clinic were set to music and an initial
publication of selected texts from the collection was achieved.
In 1968, "Springer-Verlag" in Berlin published a new edition of
Prinzhorn's book. Not only the tremendous absorption and evident fascination
that are perceptible in the way Prinzhorn writes about the "Artistry
of the Mentally Ill", but also several questionable interpretations
appear to be related to Prinzhorn's own biography. He had wanted to become
an artist himself, but failed and quit the training he had begun as a tenor
singer. Then he also quit his study of art history and went on to study
medicine. The doctor in training felt himself drawn to the torn image of
humanity represented in expressionism emerging at that time and the concomitant
search for authentic expression. Since he was not able to achieve this as
an artist himself, he projected it onto an artistic production outside the
realm of the "normal", onto the art produced by the institutionalized
"insane". However, his fundamental assumption that anyone in a
mental institution must be "sick" cannot be maintained. He also
overlooked the fact that only 16% of the exhibits in the collection were
created by women, although women represented a greater percentage of the
patients kept in psychiatric institutions around the turn of the century.
The fact that women expressed themselves less in artistic imagery is an
indication of the way women were conditioned at the end of the 19th century.
The production of schizophrenic pictures has never been at all independent
of social conditions in general. However, in conjunction with Prinzhorn's
erroneous conclusions, it must be noted that psychiatric research has yet
to successfully develop a conclusive definition of schizophrenia. Many of
the "cases" in the collection were still diagnosed as "dementia
praecox", premature senility. During the 1920's, this clinical description
fell into disuse and must generally be regarded as a false diagnosis of
schizophrenia. Despite his orientation to Sigmund Freud, who completely
neglected schizophrenia, Prinzhorn treated the patients' symptoms in a carefully
searching manner. In psychiatry today, it is assumed that schizophrenia
generally involved a false diagnosis of manic-depressive patients. Because
of the typical way that manic depression swings back and forth between extremes,
the persons affected experience themselves as being separated into a series
of different identities. This analysis of symptoms appears very convincing
in some of the pictures in the collection, which shift between very different
Regardless of all the revisions that are possible today, Prinzhorn's book
remains a fascinating work that breaks with various views regarding art
and psychiatry. In "Ten Life Histories of Schizophrenic Artisans",
he devotes his attention to the creators of art that seem most strongly
to him to have found a form. He makes detailed notes of their life histories,
statements on their work and its aesthetic forms. The way he writes shifts
between the perspectives of a doctor, an art historian and an anthropologist.
By purposely covering different points in this way, the author intentionally
moves away from the form of scholarly discourse that aims to achieve definitiveness.
At the same time, he is also able to consider aspects of research on schizophrenia
from new perspectives. This is most clearly evident with what the psychoanalyst
Victor Tausk called the "apparatus of influencing".
The collection contains an abundance of drawings in which human figures
are intertwined with machines, fastened in nets or interwoven with written
characters. Some of the patients with technical skills attempt to examine
and partially deconstruct these usually half-fantastical apparatuses of
influencing in their drawings.
Indeed, one notices a whole series of scholarly-like studies, such as that
by August Neterers, who separates his hallucinations into steps of development
similar to a storyboard. Often, manic uncontrolled drawings alternate with
grotesque systems of order by the same person. The grotesqueness frequently
caricatures the absurdity of systems of order like calendars, time clocks
or atlases, about which a social consensus exists.
The Prinzhorn Collection appears particularly interesting again today, as
the images of inner journeys which comprise it clash with a lack of introspection
in our accelerated, extroverted society. The veil of nostalgia covering
drawings that are mostly over a hundred years old allows for a certain distance
with regard to the often threatening character of these inner worlds turned
inside out. Out of the state of a forced imprisonment inside oneself, a
sometimes universal definition of forms for the inner mirror of the external
world emerges. The drastic urge to produce images also highlights the deficiencies
of many works in the ordinary art business. However, attempts such as that
of "Art Brut" to declare schizophrenic picture production as art
are also problematic. One consequence of this separation of schizophrenic
picture production from its context frequently leads to a cult that usually
ends in the creative voluptuousness of bleating, hippie-type epigones, but
most of all, it aestheticizes the suffering of mental illnesses.
The need for inner journeys and their concomitant counter-worlds is demonstrated
in works by a number of younger artists, such as Bjarne Melgaard, Nicole
Eisenman, Kai Althoff or Matthew Barneys. What is astonishing about these
are the analogies to the "Artistry of the Mentally Ill" from a
hundred years earlier.
Yet the Prinzhorn Collection also continues to be provocative because of
its medical aspects and the associated ethical questions. It would no longer
be possible to compile a collection like this in any clinic in Europe. There
are, of course, still collections of patients' works today, but these usually
lack the same complexity and tension. The extreme experiences and sufferings
of schizophrenic and manic-depressive patients today are so channeled and
calmed with psycho-pharmaceuticals that their artistic expressions usually
have the characteristics of occupational therapy.
In terms of cultural history, the Prinzhorn Collection represents a documentation
of the repression apparatus of European modernism, not only with regard
to the repression of pain, but also of the torturous paths taken by minds
Beyond Reason, Art and Psychosis, Cornerhouse Publications, London 1997
(German: Wahnsinnige Schönheit, Wunderhorn, Heidelberg 1997)
Erschien in Siksi, Helsinki
Übersetzung: Aileen Derieg