This article introduces the psychiatrists from the late 19th century and the early 20th century who played a crucial role in shifting the perspective that a patient’s art was only significant as a diagnostic tool to an eventual appreciation of artistic achievement and merit. This video emphasizes Hans Prinzhorn’s text Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922),
At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century there was a cultural and artistic shift that had been building for at least one hundred years. This artistic revolution presented a different perspective on how creativity in the form of pictorial configuration functioned in human life. Images reflecting early primal drawings, naïve and folk painters, children’s art, and art of the insane became viable and valuable products that was worthy of serious consideration.
An important text discussing this topic is John MacGregor’s The Discovery of the Art of the Insane (1992). In this book MacGregor draws on his training in art history, psychiatry and psychoanalysis to describe the evolution of attitudes and the significant influence of the art of the mentally ill on the development of modern art as a whole.
My focus is on the characteristics of pictorial configuration discussed by Hans Prinzhorn – which suggests a ‘scale’ that could prove beneficial for categorising visionary artworks within art criticism. However, to understand the validity of this text it is important to briefly introduce the psychiatrists who played a key role in shifting the psychiatric perspective that a patient’s art was only significant as a diagnostic tool to an eventual appreciation of artistic achievement and merit. These psychiatrists and their respective texts will be discussed chronologically: Paul Max Simon (1899-1961), Walter Morgenthaler (1882-1965) and Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933).
The Discovery of the Art of the Insane
The French psychiatrist Paul-Max Simon is described by MacGregor as “the father of the study of psychiatry and art” (MacGregor, 1983, p. 8). Simon is reportedly the first psychiatrist to undertake a serious and extensive analysis of the drawings and paintings of the mentally ill patients. His contribution was published in the form of two journal articles originally presented in French: Imagination in Madness (1876) and The Writings and Drawings of the Insane Person (1888).
During the late nineteenth century official psychiatry was preoccupied with the systematic descriptions of mental disorders and diseases, as opposed to developing cures or methods for therapy. Simon collected material from his patients and attempted to describe and classify the drawings in terms of the standard classification of diseases. He approached his research as a scientific observer and never referred to the creative material as ‘art’. MacGregor describes how “it is doubtful that his interest in the drawings of these people were motivated by any therapeutic considerations beyond diagnosis” but, “his approach to drawing represents the beginning of the method of investigation still used today” (MacGregor, 1992, p. 108).
Simon made significant observations which attracted the attention of future students paving the way for contemporary art therapeutic techniques. He recognized that the drawings of the mentally ill externalized their “delusional preoccupations” (MacGregor, 1992, p. 109). He also observed how his patients used symbolism and allegory within their drawings. This investigation of reoccurring symbols provided the first indication that the drawings of patients could possess symbolic significance, that with effort could be interpreted. However, Simon did not proceed in this manner.
The Swedish psychiatrist Walter Morgenthaler published his text The Artist as Patient: Adolf Wolfli (1921) which has since been republished as Madness and Art: The Life and Works of Adolf Wolfli (1992). This publication was a serious presentation and commentary on the work of a mentally ill patient. The book was a monograph and biography that attracted enormous attention in European artistic circles. With this text Morgenthaler brought into focus aesthetic questions about the art of the mentally ill, preparing the way for Prinzhorn’s broader and more theoretical perspective of the topic. This text was pioneering as it turned away from viewing the art of the insane as a diagnostic tool and instead presented a patient as an individual artist with impressive creative capabilities.
Morgenthaler was Wolfli’s primary physician from 1908 to 1910 and again from 1913 to 1920. He ensured that his patient was supplied with all sorts of creative materials, particularly large sheets of newsprint and colored pencils. The psychoanalyst Aaron Esman describes how Morgenthaler “sought to understand his work in the light of what were then new developments in psychiatry – in particular, the new psychoanalytic concepts of Freud and Jung” (Esman, 1992, p. viii). This text brought artistic fame to Wolfli who has since become known as “the quintessential outsider artist” (Maizels, 2002, p. 92). MacGregor provides us with an important quote from Morgenthaler, which frames his perspective and motivation for engaging with this project on Wolfli.
The mentally ill, from whom the veneer of convention has fallen away, would provide one with an opportunity to see deeper into the structure of humanness, and to penetrate the psyche more deeply, than would be possible healthy people (MacGregor, 1992, p. 209).
Hans Prinzhorn, the author of Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922) was fully trained in art history and psychiatry, his text has proved to be a valuable contribution to both fields of study. On the first page of his book, Prinzhorn points out that “most of the reports published to date about the works of the insane were intended for psychiatrists” (Prinzhorn, 2019, p. 1). Prinzhorn’s study, however, was aimed at a far broader audience and was intended as a foundation upon which he might begin to construct a general psychology of art that would be relevant to all forms of human expression. He pursued a “basic, universal, human process behind the aesthetic and cultural surface of the configuration process” (Prinzhorn, 2019, p. xviii).
The appearance of this book created great excitement amongst artistic circles, triggered by Max Ernst and Jean Dubuffet. The text was originally published in German, so Ernst was the only surrealist who was able to read the text and to “understand its revolutionary significance, not only for psychiatric investigation of schizophrenic art, but for the development of modern art and aesthetics” (MacGregor, 1992, p. 279). Ernst brought the book to Paris and presented it to Paul Éluard in the year it was published, MacGregor describes how “it is not impossible that this was the first copy of the book to reach the surrealist circle in Paris” (MacGregor, 1992, p. 279).
Likewise, Prinzhorn’s publication influenced Jean Dubuffet and his advancement of the Art Brut movement, and it turn Outsider Art. Contemporary theorists of Outsider Art have made this connection such as Wojciek and Rhodes. Wojciek states simply that Dubuffet was “influenced by Hanz Prinzhorn’s 1922 Artistry of the Mentally Ill” (Wojcik, 2016, p. 38). Rhodes, however, informs us that Dubuffet could not read the German text so his interest sprung solely from the rich illustrations (Rhodes, 2000, p. 44). The lack of consideration of Prinzhorn’s psychology and textual research could potentially explain why definitions of ‘outsider art’ and ‘visionary art’ have become muddled. It seems relevant to refocus on Prinzhorn’s text and images to bring some clarity to the topic.
Prinzhorn’s Artistry of the Mentally Ill
Before the age of 25, Prinzhorn had distinguished himself in two areas of study. In Vienna he studied philosophy and art history, which was followed by two years in London studying music and voice training. In his late twenties Prinzhorn embarked on his medical education which positioned him as an army surgeon during World War 1. Psychiatrist James Foy suggests that “it is likely that his early interest in psychiatry took hold during his military service” (Foy, 2019, p. x). In 1918 he obtained an assistant role in the Heidelberg psychiatric clinic in Germany. Here, he worked under the chief psychiatrist, Karl Wilmanns who had already began a collection of paintings and drawings by the mentally ill patients. He persuaded Prinzhorn to enlarge the collection and to undertake a systematic research investigation. Prinzhorn spent three years amassing over 5,000 pieces of artwork from institutions in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands.
Prinzhorn’s approach to the study of psychotic art was split into two goals which are reflected in the subtitle of the book, “A Contribution to the Psychology and Psychopathology of Configuration”. His method involved “a descriptive catalogue of pictures couched in the language of natural science and accompanied by a clinical and psychopathological description of the patients” (Prinzhorn, 2019, p. xvii). MacGregor declares that “this approach was almost certainly dictated by Professor Wilmanns, who original conception of the project was purely clinical” (MacGregor, 1992, p. 196). Prinzhorn’s other goal was to carry out “a completely metaphysically based investigation of the process of pictorial composition” (Prinzhorn, 2019, p. xvii). This goal was personal and was most likely influenced by his art history and philosophical education.
Prinzhorn believed that man was torn between two conflicting tendencies: the self-assertiveness of conscious life and aims, and the self-surrender of “his deeper nature to the life-giving forces” (Foy, 2019, p. xi). Foy states that, like Jung, Prinzhorn believed that religious values and attitudes provided “partial healing of essential human conflicts” (Foy, 2019, p. xi). Both men believed that there was a widespread drive to sacrifice self in creative effort for some collective ideal, a human impulse, which is not reducible to sexuality or inferiority feelings. Prinzhorn was not strongly associated with the Psychoanalytical circle but there is evidence that he was interested in the field, MacGregor describes:
Prinzhorn usually referred to himself as a psychotherapist, but all his later books and articles contain extensive discussion of psychoanalysis. A certain ambivalence in his relation to it would suggest that he was not so much an adherent as an interested outsider (MacGregor, 1992, p. 345).
MacGregor states that Prinzhorn’s familiarity to Jung can be traced back to his student days in Vienna. It is also documented that Prinzhorn spoke on the topic of the drawings of the mentally ill in 1921 at the famous Wednesday meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society. It is suggested that Jung was present at this meeting (Hoerni, Fischer, & Kaufmann, 2018, p. 25) and possessed a copy of Prinzhorn’s text in his personal library (ibid. 30).
Prinzhorn declares his position by stating that “a purely psychiatric approach is insufficient; a psychoanalytical one is rewarding particularly in thorough interpretations of symbols, but only when the analyst has a great deal of knowledge and critical ability” (Prinzhorn, 2019, p. 240). He continues “attempts at interpretations which are insufficiently documented therefor only run the risk of causing confusion in other current research. We must therefore be temporarily satisfied with a survey which badly needs amplification by a more knowledgeable hand” (ibid. 240).
Prinzhorn’s collection of drawings
The drawings and paintings which Prinzhorn collected and analyzed were the products of untrained individuals who were often long-term residents of mental hospitals. His vast collection of drawings consisted of approximately 5,000 pieces by 450 individuals from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and Holland. His initial intention was clearly described in a letter that was circulated around hospitals asking for “productions of pictorial art by mental patients, which are not simply copies of existing images or memories of their days of health, but intended as expression of their personal experience” (Rhodes, 2000, p. 60). This request resulted in a collection of work from individuals who “worked more or less autonomously, without being nourished by tradition or schooling” (Prinzhorn, 2019, p. 269).
Most of the images collected originated from schizophrenic patients. Prinzhorn describes that it is the schizophrenic whose “artistic qualities attract the observer so powerful by their variety, charm and abundance that the rest are used only for comparison” (ibid. 38). Prinzhorn describes the schizophrenic outlook as follows:
(the schizophrenic) creates for himself an entirely different, richer world out of sense date of his environment… a world who reality he does not establish for himself by logical conventions or reconciles with the impressions of others but which remains raw material for his inspirations, his arbitrariness, and his needs (ibid. 39).
Prinzhorn states that “pictorial creative power is present in every creative person” and that we have to view “tradition and training as external cultural embellishments of the primary configuration process” (ibid. 279). He believed that this creative power could break forth in every individual under the right conditions. In this way, individuals in the confused states of schizophrenia provided rare access into the psyche as they were unaffected by the impressions of the outside world.
Esman, A. (1992). Introduction. In W. Morgenthaler, Madness & Art: The Life and Works of Adolf Wolfli (pp. i – xviii). Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.
Foy, J. L. (2019). Introduction. In H. Prinzhorn, Artistry of the Mentally Ill (pp. ix – xv). Eastford: Martino Fine Books.
Hoerni, U., Fischer, T., & Kaufmann, B. (2018). The Art of C.G. Jung. London: W. W. Norton & Company.
MacGregor, J. (1983). Paul-Max Simon: The Father of Art and Psychiatry. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 8-20 Issue 1.
MacGregor, J. (1992). The Discovery of the Art of the Insane. Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Maizels, J. (2002). Raw Vision: Outsider Art Sourcebook. Herts: Raw Vision Ltd.
Prinzhorn, H. (2019). Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Eastford: Martino Fine Books.
Rhodes, C. (2000). Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Wojcik, D. (2016). Outsider Art: Visionary Worlds and Trauma. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.