The Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg

Way back in the late 80s when I began to study the various works of Joseph Beuys and moved into a fine art area from having immersed myself in theatre and acting and literature in the first part of the 80s, I found a treasure trove in THE PRINZHORN COLLECTION.  I had come upon ADOLF WOLFLI as one of the first representations of “outsider art” which became a curiosity and an obsession throughout my life.

Between 1919 and 1921 Dr. Hans Prinzhorn and Karl Willmanns, then Head of the Psychiatric University Hospital of Heidelberg sent out circulars to various psychiatric institutions in German speaking countries.  The artistic works of patients they asked for were destined for the creation of a museum of psychopathological art.  In 1922, Prinzhorn published his richly-illustrated publication “Artistry of the Mentally Ill” based on the collection.  This book was received by the art scene at the time with great enthusiasm and excitement and became “the Bible of the Surrealists”.  The book was edited many time and translated into various languages.  To this day, it remains a classic.

In 1911, Max Ernst, painter and student of psychology, began to visit various insane asylums.  He must have been highly influenced by the style and vision of the mentally ill, discovered this publication and the book began making the rounds to various artists such as Andre Breton.  In 1924, Breton would define surrealism as “creative automation unfiltered by rational thinking which frees the human mind.”

In 1938, Carl Schneider, Head of the Psychiatric University Hospital (taking over from Dr. Prinzhorn) ordered that works of the collection be sent to the Nazi touring exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”). The works by the mentally ill were exploited as references to imply the pathological nature of Modern art.  “It is thus fair to say that the Collection was abused by the Nazis for ideological purposes and also materially compromised.”  Curious to find out that Carl Schneider ended up committing suicide by 1945.

Again, a mystery.  I always find with some of these “Nazi Players” in this horror film, that nothing is what it seems.  I read bits and pieces about Mr. Schneider when looking into the Prinzhorn collection.  Nothing “concrete” was stated about what he was doing.  When you have a feeling about someone say like Mr. Schneider, you have to start researching and then you realize wow, this guy was more horrible than what is stated on the proverbial “record”.   Some articles just don’t give the information and rarely, do you find the thorough no less full story!

from sources: Schneider is said to exemplify the descent of a distinguished academic psychiatrist into the Nazi worldview.  Some described him as having shown great empathy in his psychiatric rehabilitation work, and having a great idealism about transforming the ‘horror’ of psychiatric patients thought to be regressed, isolated and backward.  He would sometimes put forward two possible ways of helping a patient – one of them ‘work therapy’, and the other to sterilize or kill them.[3]

Schneider joined the Nazi Party in 1932.  He defined and elaborated the psychological assumptions of Nazi ideology and science.  He coined the term national therapy for ethnic cleansing:  ridding the populace of genetic and blood contaminants threatening the psychological and physical health of the German/Aryan population.[4]  He collected the brains of murdered Jews,[2] retarded children, and other victims, for research in his clinic and for instruction. He taught a technique of replacing spinal fluid with air, to get clearer x-rays of the brain.  Schneider, along with Konrad Zucker, helped Heidelberg become one of the two leading training centres for the killing of children for theoretically scientific purposes, which went on at thirty clinics for three years.

Now,  I was shocked but I guess I should not have been.  Nothing in any of my Prinzhorn research gave this information!!  Nothing of this intricate nature.  I just feel, “some” things are mentioned to give a “general” idea of complicity, but the true breadth of horror is avoided, as if to not disturb the viewer, the guest, the citizen?  Again, there is always this strange unconscious silence or secrecy.  I am not blaming or pointing the finger, I am only sayin!  Something is not right… but it is what it is!

After WW2 the collection was forgotten and only resurrected again in 1963 where a selection was exhibited in Kunsthalle Bern.

In 2001, in a former lecture hall of the Neurological Dept within the Centre for Psychosocial Medicine, the museum for the Prinzhorn Collection was inaugurated.

The “original” collection consisted of about 6,000 works, all created by inmates of psychiatric institutions between 1840 and 1940.

I would say there were “many” (still not really known?) inmates of various institutions who were sent to “healing stations” where they were euthanized.

There is a brilliant book that The Prinzhorn Collection published called TODESURSACHE: EUTHANASIE. (can be bought through the PRINZHORN COLLECTION website, but all in German.  I will be covering some of these artist in future posts, as the stories are truly incredible.  The talent, the works and then the disappearance.  The murders.)

This book describes about 21 patients in various asylums in Germany during the 20s, 30s and ultimately their demise by the NS Regime, most all being murdered in these “Heilstation”/ “Healing Stations”.

I have heard that the Prinzhorn organization continues to research and investigate this theme, as it seems from what I was told, there is a lack of funding and money given they are united with the University.  (I was a bit shocked by this given that this is a tremendous collection, highly respected and hugely recognized all over the world!)  But the director said they struggle and they now will finally expand and hopefully start building an extension, as the gallery that I saw was quite limited.


The exhibit at the time was PAUL GOSCH whose portraits I have included in this post.  I was quite moved by these faces, the verve, the energy and intonation.  Some so gentle and others in this raging eloquence.  Highly sophisticated with a stunning innocence at the same time.  The childish energy moving toward a mad exhilaration with a taste of utter frustration and suffocation.  His life is fascinating, in terms of his artistic hunger, his meeting Sigmund Freud as a student and Rudolf Steiner.  He became part of the NOVEMBER GROUP, and worked with Bruno Taut, the incredible visionary architect.  He had an amazing pedigree in terms of who he met and how he maneuvered in his artistic life.  But his life was haunted and scared by psychotic episodes which also seem quite mysterious.  What is so tragic, is how he was not allowed to draw, to continue his expression and exploration after 1934 when the NS regime transferred him from Gottingen, where he seemed to have some protection as his brother was a doctor there, to Brandenburg where he was forced into manuel labor.  He was murdered around August 22, 1940 maybe in the t4 Brandenburg centre. His demise was unclear.  What an incredible talent.  What a wonder.

I was grateful to have the chance to speak to the director yet briefly.  The discussion was the availability of the collection to the public.  Again, there was the issue of “no funding and no money.”  Which is what I guess everyone says and continues to say.  I do not get it.  I know in America there are huge donors from the “1%” of the billionaires and trillionaires who steal from the common folk and then feel the guilt so they “bequest” the “excess money” they have stolen onto art institutions and various other “charities”.   (Watch BILLIONS, I know what I say is crude, but it is true.  As ugly as I make it sound.)  That is how the “hypercapitalistic” system works, tragically.  But, in Germany, I have seen the most incredible exhibits.  Every artist comrade who comes to Berlin to see art shows always exclaims in excitement of how well the shows are curated, housed and put together.  There is a long history to this.  There is tremendous funding for culture in Germany.   Especially for institutions of art.   And yet, the incessant claim is:  There is no money.

I am hoping with the PRINZHORN that the money comes through and the donors, and the FRIENDS OF PRINZHORN who will help extend the building and allow the public to view and take part in the magic of the collection will come through and thrive.  Even though I have always enjoyed how this collection has attained a veneer of “secret” to it, I truly advocate for all to know it’s incredible story.  There is so much to learn from it’s origins, from the artists, from the history of what happened, etc.  Again, I cannot rave enough about the works and find myself hungry to see everything I can see as I do believe this is a treasure trove of wonder, enlightenment, inspiration and also to keep the respect and memory alive of who these people actually were.   To get to know them!  I think that is the most important piece of the puzzle! Who were they?  For that reason alone, mixed in with cultural anthropological study, art and psychology investigation, there is so much here to still excavate, study and learn from.  This can only be done with more exposure, more students who want to offer their research talents, to help this on-going endeavor.

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