Browsing art blogs, I found a post that led to an amazing archive of raw emotion and insanity. I know that sounds like a pretentious review for some throwaway indie band or flavour-of-the-week poet, but go and look at the Prinzhorn Collection website anyway. It may reawaken your respect for art’s transformative potential.
The work that caught my attention was by a female psychiatric patient, Agnes Richter. The Collection website didn’t give me any more information (though it did tell me that only 20% of the works in the collection were by women) but another post by a visitor to its archives filled in some gaps. Agnes was a seamstress before her incarceration in the 1890s. She embroidered words all over her hospital uniform jacket, inside and out, sometimes so intensively and minutely that they are illegible. She wasn’t trying to decorate or sloganise – the words told the story of her life. She spent her days transforming a mental institution’s uniform – the symbol of her depersonalisation – into a profoundly personal record of her journey.
I haven’t been able to find out why Agnes was committed. Many of the patient records for mental institutions in Europe in the 19th century are patchy, or completely lost. From her work, we know she was confined in a place called Hubertusberg, on the ground floor. Her laundry number was 583. She wore white stockings. She had a sister, and children are mentioned. Tatters of her life are stitched into her jacket.
Perhaps she was trying to hold them in place, to prevent them disappearing. Perhaps her work was an attempt to make some sense of what had happened to her. Maybe she was trying to regain her hold on normal, everyday life by clinging to the skills that had given her livelihood in the world outside the asylum. Whatever the cause, her response is touching and compelling, combining urgency and simplicity. To wear her own life put it firmly in view, but I wonder if anyone really looked at poor mad Agnes for long enough to find the meaning behind those delicately embroidered words.
The collection, housed in a former lecture hall at the Psychiatric University Hospital in Heidelberg, consists of around 5,000 pieces created by 450 patients in psychiatric institutions between 1880 and 1933. The artists, who came not only from Germany but as far afield as Poland and Japan, used a wide range of media – drawings, paintings in oils and watercolours, letters, notes, self-written designed and bound books, embroideries, collages and 70 wooden sculptures. The present Collection was based on an existing one, extended and developed by art historian and doctor Hans Prinzhorn when he was an intern at the hospital in 1919, primarily as an aid to diagnosis through analysis of the works.
Prinzhorn exhibited and published on the collection before he left Heidelberg in 1922. His medical and psychiatric colleagues were less than enthusiastic, but the modern art world embraced the power and honesty of the works. A touring exhibition went all over Germany, and to Switzerland and Paris, before Prinzhorn’s death from typhus in 1933.
In 1938, the collection was moved to the attics of the University by then clinical director Carl Schneider, in line with Nazi views that such ‘degenerate’ art reflected moral turpitude. Yet it survived, though a number of recent contributors were murdered by the Nazis. Incarcerated and unable to flee to safer countries as other artists did, they were easy targets.
It’s ironic that the original impulse behind the collection was a denial of the primacy of art itself. The concept of ‘outsider art’ wasn’t widely understood in early twentieth-century Germany. These pieces were collected as a key to pathology, or an element in a cure, rather than being celebrated as a dynamic and powerful expression of individual creativity. But at least the works survive. The artists, like the sculptors who worked on Gothic cathedrals or the cave painters of prehistory, are largely unknown to us, discarded by their own era and wiped out of history, yet the marks they left on time are still there in Heidelberg.