On my recent trip to Germany I was able to visit the source of the field of Outsider Art, the Prinzhorn Collection in the lovely University town of Heidelberg. My interest in the subject was reawakened by an exhibition I saw earlier this year, but it goes back to my father who showed me a book, “Bildnerei der Geisteskranken” (Artistry of the mentally ill) published in Germany in 1922, by Dr. Hans Prinzhorn (1886 -1933).
Prinzhorn was born in Westphalia and studied Philosophy and Art History earning his doctorate in Vienna; later he studied medicine and psychiatry and served as an army surgeon during WW I.
In 1919 he worked as an assistant at the psychiatric hospital at the University of Heidelberg and there he expanded the collection that had already been started of artwork created by the mentally ill. It became his passion. He believed that one could learn about the inner workings of the mind through the creative power in everyone. He related it to children’s art and folk art. . His 1922 book was highly influential, particularly in the art world, and Dubuffet latched onto his ideas, defining Art Brut (outsider art).
Patients and psychiatrists alike from Europe and America sent Prinzhorn images. By the time he left Heidelberg in 1921 the collection had an inventory of 5,000 pieces. Each work that came in was carefully catalogued with a number, the name of the patient (artist) and where it came from.
Prinzhorn was not just interested in the traditional analysis of patients through their creations but he was fascinated by the relationship of scientific study of mental disorders and artistic composition He felt they were all the result of the same psychic expression. Regarding the works made by the mentally ill in the same manner as works by recognized masters, he leveled the playing field, allowing others to experience the work.
After Prinzhorn’s death in 1933 the collection was stored at the Heidelberg psychiatric clinic. In 1938 some works were taken out and included in Hitler’s “Degenerate Art” exhibition to show how the insane and the Jews were synonymous!
The museum is located where it all began in the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Heidelberg. Although it is quite small, though there are plans for expansion, it has regularly changing exhibitions drawn from the collection and often focusing on a particular artist.
When you walk in there is a monitor on which, upon request, they play a 15-minute video which is a recreation of scenes of Prinzhorn interviewing patients and asking them to explain the meaning of their works. Many images from the collection are shown, some of them illustrated here.
As I was leaving I enquired whether they continued to build the collection and the answer was, “selectively”. I asked whether the works of art were collected from artists who were considered insane and the lady replied, “not today”. I hesitated and asked, “how about disturbed”, and she nodded, “yes”!
During my visit I had the feeling of falling in love. Sadly I had discovered another field of art that I could neither afford nor make room for.