Hans-Christian Dany, 5.97


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 characteristics.
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 gone astray.
(1) Catalogue:
Beyond Reason, Art and Psychosis, Cornerhouse Publications, London 1997 (German: Wahnsinnige Schönheit, Wunderhorn, Heidelberg 1997)

Erschien in Siksi, Helsinki
Übersetzung: Aileen Derieg