Psychiatric Breakthrough When Illness Inspires Great Art

From hermaphroditic wood carvings to stacks of 250,000 papers, a collection showcases the greatest artistic works by German psychiatric patients.

Painting by Else Blankenhorn (1873-1920).
Else Blankenhorn/ Sammlung Prinzhorn

Painting by Else Blankenhorn (1873-1920).


At the start of the 20th century, doctors thought they could use patients' paintings to diagnose their psychiatric conditions. This turned out to be largely untrue, but, even so, painting remains an important part of psychiatric treatment to this day. The act of painting allows patients to come to terms with traumatic experiences, fears and their experiences of illnesses -- and sometimes the results are remarkable pieces of art.

As early as the 1920s, art historian and junior doctor Hans Prinzhorn recognized the talent in his patients at the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic, and began collecting their works. The world-renowned Prinzhorn Collection at Heidelberg's University Hospital now contains over 5,000 drawings, oil paintings, wood carvings and textile works.

"Art allows patients to release their inner tension," says psychotherapist and art historian Georg Franzen, director of the Institute for Art Psychology in Celle. A hundred years after Hans Prinzhorn began his collection, art has become an integral part of psychiatric care: Today, almost all clinics offer art therapy in addition to psychotherapy and medication.

A Growing Phenomenon

"Patients are able to express inner pictures with a brush and a pencil in a way they wouldn't be able to with words," Franzen continues. The works serve as a starting point for conversations between therapists and patients, as they discuss the color and form of the feelings and thoughts they've put to paper. Franzen explains, "Creative work improves patients' concentration, emotional competence and feeling of self-worth."

Canvases of Emotion
Alexandra Galinova/ Sammlung Prinzhorn

Alexandra Galinova (1936-Present)
"The Oppressed Human", 1986, Inv. Nr. 8077/2, ©Sammlung Prinzhorn
Fear, alarm and grief are recurring themes in Alexandra Galinova’s work. For many years, she was affected by a childhood trauma in which her father played a central role. She rediscovered memories of this event during a stretch in a psychiatric institution when she was 23, after which they continued to haunt her for many years. Art finally gave her a way of coming to terms with that period of her life.

August Natterer/ Sammlung Prinzhorn

August Natterer (1868-1933)
"Miracle Shepherd II", 1911-1917, Inv.Nr.176, ©Sammlung Prinzhorn
August Natterer was similarly inspired by his illness. At 38 he began to suffer from increasing restlessness, insomnia and fatigue. His suffering soon culminated in a psychotic attack in which the whole world was explained to him in the space of half an hour via 15,000 pictures. It was this material which he tried to retain to in his own works, which were created during his 26 years in a psychiatric institution. He died in 1933.

Gustav Sievers/ Sammlung Prinzhorn

Gustav Sievers (1865-1941)
Untitled [Dance], undated, Invr.Nr.22, ©Sammlung Prinzhorn
Gustav Sievers was placed in a "lunatic asylum" at age 35 because he had tried to commit suicide after the end of his marriage. He spent years in the institution and would later become convinced that freemasons were behind his institutionalization. He believed they were envious of his invention of a groundbreaking new weaving loom, which he believed would usher in the "3,000-year epoch of the flying weaving loom." Besides painting, Sievers was known to break window panes, threaten guards, plan escapes as well as an assassination attempt on the institutions' director. In 1941, Sievers was killed as part of the Nazis’ euthanasia program for psychiatric patients.

Else Blankenhorn/ Sammlung Prinzhorn

Else Blankenhorn (1873-1920)
Untitled, undated, Inv.Nr. 4267, ©Sammlung Prinzhorn
Else Blankenhorn was kept from being placed in a psychiatric institution for a long time by a diagnosis of "chronic fatigue." She instead spent many years in a private sanatorium for wealthy patients where she began painting, taking photographs and making music. She was an exceptionally gifted painter. She also believed herself to be the Kaiser's wife and painted banknotes to pay for the redemption of all lovers who had been buried alive. For financial reasons she was moved to a psychiatric unit in Baden, southwest Germany in 1919.

Josef Forster/ Sammlung Prinzhorn

Josef Forster (1878-1949)
Untitled (Man without Gravity), after 1916, Inv.Nr. 4494, ©Sammlung Prinzhorn
Josef Forster spent many years in a Regensburg institution. He wanted to become a "noble being" and believed this only to be possible by living in autarky, which for him meant eating only his own bodily excretions. He wanted to hover above the earth, freed from any body weight and expressed his philosophy in scores of paintings and texts. His idiosyncrasies made him a loner within the institution, but he received lots of support from his doctor for his art. The text in the right-hand top corner of the picture reads, "This is supposed to show that if one no longer has any body weight it is necessary to weigh oneself down and that one can walk through the air at great speed."

Karl Genzel/ Sammlung Prinzhorn

Karl Genzel (1871-1925)
"Woman and Man, Adam and Eve," before 1920, Inv. Nr. 134, ©Sammlung Prinzhorn
When Karl Genzel ended up in prison in his mid-thirties, for fighting, it wasn’t his first time behind bars. But during this imprisonment, Genzel experienced extreme fear of the prison chaplain and was convinced that someone might be trying to poison him. He was transferred to a psychiatric institution where began carving wood and expressing his theory of life. His first figure was made of bread and his later wooden carvings came to focus on hermaphrodites. As he saw it, woman and man are incapable of doing without each other yet unable to harmonize with one another.

Vanda Vieira-Schmidt/ Foto: Klinger

Vanda Vieira-Schmidt (1949-heute)
"World Peace Project," 1995-2005, ©Sammlung Prinzhorn
Berlin resident Vanda Vieira-Schmidt draws for world peace and against the evil in the world. She has expressed her concerns for the welfare of humankind in black and white on over 250,000 sheets of paper. Her immense art collection was found in the cellar eight years ago, when the residence for former psychiatric patients where she lives was forced to move to a different location.

Friedrich Boss/ Sammlung Prinzho

Friedrich Boss (1989-1977)
"Untitled," 1952, Inv.Nr. 8074/13 (2003), ©Sammlung Prinzhorn
Friedrich Boss also filled out thousands of sheets of paper. When he was in his mid-fifties, Boss suddenly closed himself off to the world. Instead of speaking to others he began collecting thoughts, compiling lists, notes and collating newspaper cuttings -- and at regular intervals bind his collected materials as bundles and seal them with wax. He created more than 100 such bundles over the course of 20 years. They chronicle his loneliness and remain unopened to his day.

Gudrun Bierski/ Sammlung Prinzhorn

Gudrun Bierski (1925-2006)
"Lützow’s Hunt" undated, Inv.Nr. 8075/14 (2006), ©Sammlung Prinzhorn
Similarly to Boss, Bierski’s biography is poorly known. Her works were only found after her death in 2006, when her apartment was cleared. She had spent the previous 30 years living in isolation and behaving eccentrically. A psychiatrist had diagnosed her with schizophrenia.

Gudrun Bierski/ Sammlung Prinzhorn

Gudrun Bierski (1925-2006)
"Gudrun at the Academy (self-portrait)" undated, Inv.Nr. 8075/16 (2006), ©Sammlung Prinzhorn
Bierski’s only heirs are two of her nephews. They found her oil paintings and hand-woven carpets in her chaotic, rubbish-strewn apartment.

Dietrich Orth/ Sammlung Prinzhorn

Dietrich Orth (1956-heute)
"Supervision on the Way to Psychicological Independence," 1989, Inv.Nr. D 8076/4 (2007), ©Sammlung Prinzhorn
Like the other psychiatric patients featured in the Prinzhorn Collection, Dietrich Orth is unlikely to have become such a renowned artist without the breakdown he had in his late twenties. He began drawing and painting thanks to art therapy at the Kaufbeuren psychiatric clinic. His work was hugely popular on the 1990s art market, where he was celebrated as a talent to watch. His work continues to be exhibited to this day.

It's not unusual for former psychiatric patients to establish a living for themselves as artists. So-called "outsider art" is a now a permanent fixture on the art market, and even if illness is often is the driving force behind the artists' work, it can then take a backseat to their creativity.

These days, open workshops used by artists with mental health issues are attracting ever more notice. "Art colleges visit them regularly to experience their unique, creative atmosphere," says psychologist and art historian Thomas Röske, director of the Prinzhorn Collection since 2002. Since 1980, a further 12,000 works by patients past and present have been brought into the collection, which continues to grow.

Jana Hauschild is a psychologist and works as a freelance journalist in Berlin.

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Inglenda2 11/28/2013
1. This article from Jana Hauschild wakes memories!
It is pleasing to observe, that Psychiatric Clinics in Germany, have noticed how fantastic some works of art from mental patients can be. Some beautiful, but also some very shocking paintings and tapestries can be seen at the Bishop Nathan hospital complex, in Branitz/Branice in Upper Silesia (now part of Poland). Bishop Nathan, despite being threatened by the Nazis and later deported by the communists – who were assisted by cardinal Hlond – left behind a heritage well worth examining. He was one of the first people of any importance, to realise the positive advantages of allowing mental unbalanced persons to use whatever talents they had.
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