The Artistry of the Mentally Ill: The 1922 Book That Published the Fascinating Work of Schizophrenic Patients, and Influenced Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky & Other Avant Garde Artists

It’s an endur­ing irony of art his­to­ry: artists whose work has come to define high cul­ture are often char­ac­ter­ized by var­i­ous men­tal health issues. But the art­work of ordi­nary, anony­mous peo­ple who strug­gle with those same issues is regard­ed as ther­a­py, maybe, or a diver­sion, or a mean­ing­less form of busy work. Though the art world has cre­at­ed a mar­ket for “out­sider art,” it can seem like such work and its cre­ators get viewed through an ethno­graph­ic lens rather than human­iz­ing por­traits of the artist.

As Michel Fou­cault demon­strat­ed in Mad­ness and Civ­i­liza­tion, insti­tu­tions sprung over the course of mod­ern Euro­pean his­to­ry to quar­an­tine cer­tain class­es of peo­ple from the rest of soci­ety, even if it is trou­bling­ly clear to many of us that the dis­tinc­tions can­not hold—hence, per­haps, the mor­bid fas­ci­na­tion with the mad­ness of famous pro­fes­sion­al artists. In 1922, Ger­man psy­chi­a­trist Hans Prinzhorn chal­lenged this reign­ing ortho­doxy with the pub­li­ca­tion of Artistry of the Men­tal­ly Ill.

The book, writes the Pub­lic Domain Review, “reflect­ed a break­down of high culture’s claim to ‘civ­i­liza­tion,’ expos­ing the mis­ery and tur­moil at the heart of mod­ern life.… Against the grain, the book grant­ed voice to the pre­vi­ous­ly mar­gin­alised: those incar­cer­at­ed, those deemed insane, those suf­fer­ing under pover­ty, those untrained, those in the wrong type of insti­tu­tion.”

It grant­ed those artists an audi­ence, more to the point, of appre­cia­tive fel­low artists like Paul Klee, Max Ernst, and Jean Debuf­fet (who would coin the term Art Brut in response). As should be abun­dant­ly clear from the small sam­pling of images here from the book, mod­ernists took much from the images they saw in Prinzhorn’s book, most of it the unat­trib­uted and anony­mous work of schiz­o­phrenic artists, some of whom them­selves draw from ear­li­er mod­ernist trends.

When the Nazis held their “Degen­er­ate Art” exhi­bi­tions in 1937, a por­tion of Prinzhorn’s col­lec­tion of “over 5000 paint­ings, draw­ings, and carv­ings” was includ­ed next to the avant-garde artists it influ­enced. Art his­to­ri­an Stephanie Bar­ron argues that “one quar­ter of the illus­tra­tion pages in the [Degen­er­ate Art Exhibiton’s] guide fea­tured repro­duc­tions of the work of these psy­chi­atric patients.” Mod­ernists iden­ti­fied, in com­pli­cat­ed ways, with those exclud­ed from civ­i­liza­tion, and they were sub­ject­ed to the same treatment—“the insane and the avant-garde were here equat­ed, both equal­ly pathol­o­gized.”

Prinzhorn’s book reced­ed into obscu­ri­ty, along with the artists it care­ful­ly col­lect­ed and pub­lished. It deserves to be far bet­ter known, both for its own sake and for its sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry avant-garde, and hence all sub­se­quent avant-garde art. The book takes the work it presents seriously—not as child­like attempts or ther­a­peu­tic inter­ven­tions, but as expres­sions of six basic dri­ves “that give rise to image mak­ing,” as the Pub­lic Domain Review sum­ma­rizes.

Those uni­ver­sal dri­ves include “an expres­sive urge, the urge to play, an orna­men­tal urge, an order­ing ten­den­cy, a ten­den­cy to imi­tate, and the need for sym­bols. For Prinzhorn, image mak­ing is dri­ven by our intense desire to leave traces.” Art, wrote Prinzhorn, rep­re­sents “an urge in man not to be absorbed pas­sive­ly into his envi­ron­ment, but to impress on it traces of his exis­tence beyond those of pur­pose­ful activ­i­ty.”

The the­o­ries of artists like Kandin­sky and Debuf­fet expressed some sim­i­lar ideas. The for­mer ascend­ed to the realm of spir­it and sym­bol, and the lat­ter acer­bical­ly cas­ti­gat­ed the emp­ty, out-of-touch ven­er­a­tion of high cul­ture. Who knows what the artists here had in mind when cre­at­ing their work? In Prinzhorn’s analy­sis, the­o­ret­i­cal con­cerns may be large­ly irrel­e­vant. The cre­ation of art, by any­one, is a uni­ver­sal human dri­ve that requires no spe­cial train­ing, no social sanc­tion, no web of bro­kers, cura­tors, and col­lec­tors. Maybe this is a threat­en­ing mes­sage to peo­ple who police the bound­aries of cul­ture.

The mid­dle class­es of his day, wrote Debuf­fet, were “con­vinced that [their] fash­ion­able knowl­edge legit­imizes the preser­va­tion of their caste. They work at per­suad­ing the low­er class­es of this, at con­vinc­ing some of them of the neces­si­ty to safe­guard art, that is to say arm­chairs, that is to say the bour­geois who know with which silk it is prop­er to uphol­ster these arm­chairs.” Reduc­ing art to a sta­tus sym­bol turns it into so much fur­ni­ture, he argued; a “recourse to antique styles takes the place of good taste.” In the “raw art” of the men­tal­ly ill, Debuf­fet and oth­er mod­ernists saw a renew­al of a pri­mal human dri­ve, the cre­ative act.

Prinzhorn’s neglect­ed book is out of print, though you can pur­chase an expen­sive 1972 edi­tion on Ama­zon, and even an expen­sive Kin­dle ver­sion. See much more of this incred­i­ble art­work at the Pub­lic Domain Review and read brief pro­files from the ten schiz­o­phrenic artists Prinzhorn iden­ti­fied in a lat­er sec­tion of the book. Artists like Karl Bren­del, an amputee for­mer brick­lay­er from Turingian, who carved haunt­ing wood sculp­tures and began his art career sculpt­ing with chewed bread, and August Neter, to whom 10,000 fig­ures once appeared in a sin­gle vision that lat­er became the sub­ject of enig­mat­ic pen­cil draw­ings like World Axis and Rab­bit, below.

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Artist Draws Nine Por­traits on LSD Dur­ing 1950s Research Exper­i­ment

Sun Ra Plays a Music Ther­a­py Gig at a Men­tal Hos­pi­tal; Inspires Patient to Talk for the First Time in Years

A Uni­fied The­o­ry of Men­tal Ill­ness: How Every­thing from Addic­tion to Depres­sion Can Be Explained by the Con­cept of “Cap­ture”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Travers Huff says:

    I find this kind of art fas­ci­nat­ing because of the unex­plored regions of the human mind that it rep­re­sents. Frag­men­ta­tion is a big ingre­di­ent in many of these pic­tures , just as it was with music in the age of Ger­man expres­sion­ism. Our eyes are bet­ter trains in our ears,.

  • David Thomas Roberts says:

    One of the most impor­tant art books ever pub­lished.

  • Eric T says:

    This is pret­ty eye open­ing, as some­one who has recent­ly begun paint­ing and draw­ing. I have always been reluc­tant to pur­sue art because of the ideas that peo­ple are either born with a tal­ent for it, need to go to school for it or are dri­ven to it by some mys­te­ri­ous mys­ti­cal dri­ve. And I have been hes­i­tant because of the elit­ist aspect of art, and the ivory tow­ers from which peo­ple look down on untrained and unschooled artists. No more. Its all bull­shit and always was. I won­der what sort of hells those peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness went through and what they expe­ri­enced, in life and in their minds, in order to get those images onto paper or can­vas. I won­der how much cred­it they were giv­en by the artists that were “inspired” by them.

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