The Prinzhorn Collection

By Jones, Ronald | Artforum International, November 2000 | Go to article overview

The Prinzhorn Collection


Jones, Ronald, Artforum International


DRAWING CENTER, NEW YORK

It was 1920 when Hans Prinzhorn wrote to asylums in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland informing them that he intended to assemble "drawings, paintings and sculptures by the mentally ill, which are not merely copies or memories of better days, but rather expressions of their own experience of illness." This last line summarizes how he plotted the reception of the collection that would ultimately bear his name. Under the rubric Bildnerei (image-making) rather than Kunst, the collected works were to be assigned, not to diagnoses, but to "creative urges" that were evinced by the visual output of psychotics and, Prinzhorn believed, artists too. It was this version of separate but equal that the Heidelberg psychiatrist and art historian exercised in his influential Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (1922) published in English as Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Of course, it's a truism that the historical reception of any collection is central to its meaning, but where the Prinzhorn Collection is concerned, it is necessary to voice this early. From the National Socialists, who hung the "patient art" in the infamous "Degenerate Art" exhibit, to a host of modernists, who adored it for its purported example of unmediated creativity, the ethical dimensions that shaped the reception of the Prinzhorn Collection are diverse, intricate--and troubling.

Between the catalogue for the recent Drawing Center show and another from a 1996 survey at the Hayward Gallery in London ("Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis"), there are eight lengthy essays, with more than 250 footnotes, grappling with the legacy of Prinzhorn's collection: what to do with work that was never intended for an audience outside the asylum. Hal Foster provides some of the most illuminated writing when he suspends the whole of the collection in doubt, by asking from where the motives for this work originally sprung, patients or their doctors. "Although some works do show affinities with Symbolist, Expressionist, or Dadaist art," Foster writes, "few of the patients were trained in any way. Indeed, few were interested in art at all before they were encouraged, institutionally, to take it up."

Can one translate an expression of mental illness into an aesthetic declaration, and if so, without ethical trespassing? Is it art at all, or has it been improperly conscripted to bear witness on behalf of deeply held convictions, from the Brown Shirts to Brut? Take Willhelm Maasch's ca. 1910 Finkenhammer der Buchweizen-handler (Finkenhammer, the buckwheat factor). Without question, this drawing of a plant form is vital and impressive; it would be at ease beside Odilon Redon's 1896 The beasts of the sea, round like water-skins or even Terry Winters's Schema 61, 1985-86. Drawing, the most routine of media, immediately registers Maasch's picture as "artistic" to our eyes, and the knowledge that he meant to reveal his insight into the souls of plants only gives the image the visionary patina habitual to the history of modern art. …

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