This article discusses a ‘scale’ implied in Hans Prinzhorn’s pioneering text ‘Artistry of the Mentally Ill,’ on the characteristics of pictorial configuration. These characteristics arise from an artist’s inner psychic world instead of the customs and objects in external reality. This research aims to understand the qualities that inspired the forerunners of surrealism and art brut – potentially providing an improved understanding of visionary art (I would recommend reading the previous article for context!)
The previous article examined how Prinzhorn’s Artistry of the Mentally Ill is relevant to this project’s discussion. Based on the evidence that Prinzhorn’s publication played an active role in influencing the forerunners of various art movements (surrealism and art brut) – it seems appropriate to follow this path of inquiry.
You might be asking: why are you re-focusing on this historic text? It seems crucial to focus on this text, as the original publication was presented as a ‘picture book’ to many surrealists and artists could not read the German text. Due to this, many ideas that arose from Prinzhorn’s research, was not based on the actual psychological theories discussed within it – potentially causing the current inconsistencies and problematic associations. Therefore, this article aims to investigate Prinzhorn’s theories on the psychological foundations of pictorial configuration to see if it could clarify the topic.
Artistry of the Mentally Ill
In the second chapter of his text, Prinzhorn identifies six interrelated tendencies or ‘impulses’ that inspire an individual to create; he labelled these tendencies as the expressive urge, the urge to play, the ornamental urge, the ordering tendency, the tendency to imitate, and the need for symbols. Prinzhorn believed that these tendencies could help classify the large variety of visual expression typical in psychotic art more effectively than diagnostic categories. According to MacGregor, this approach effectively removed the art of the insane from the realm of psychiatry, as the six tendencies were in no sense pathological (MacGregor, 1992).
In the third chapter of his book – titled The Pictures – Prinzhorn organised the vast collection of drawings into five categorical types: (one) unobjective and unordered scribbles, (two) playful drawings with a predominant ordering tendency, (three) playful drawings with a predominant copying tendency, (four) visual fantasies, and (five) increased symbolic significance. These categories develop according to the increased complexity of the configuration and the artist’s ability to express a unique vision. Prinzhorn stated, “the more completely a picture’s individual expressive content ripens into a more commonly understandable and communicative configuration (which it does independently of skill), the higher we will rank it as a creative achievement” (67).
Point- Zero: Unobjective and Unordered Scribble
‘Unobjective and Unordered Scribbles’ is described by Prinzhorn as the predecessor of drawing, he states that it “is the nearest to the zero-point on the scale of composition” (ibid. 41). The only intention of the artist when engaging with this configuration type is to satisfy the expressive urge. This category presents itself as random dramatic gestures without any formal elements. According to Prinzhorn, the primary motivations behind any image making activity is the “expressive urge” which presents itself as a “dark involuntary impulse” to create. Prinzhorn bases this idea on Ludwig Klages’ Theory of Expression (1921). According to this theory, expressive gestures have the potential to enable the realization of psychic elements. Prinzhorn describes:
From the purposeful movement of the arm, the gesture provoked by joy or anger, to the ‘oral gesture’ of the word and its manifestation in writing or a picture, the individual-psychological element is always communicated to us simply and directly, instead of by rational association (ibid. 12).
With regards to pictorial composition, the expressive urge is intricately linked with two other impulses: the playful urge and the decorative urge. These primary impulses present themselves as “unobjective and unordered scribbles” when there is no relation to formal tendencies. Prinzhorn compares this style to a young child who scribbles, between the ages of 2 and 4. He describes: “to a child scribbling is a game of movement, and nothing could be further from his mind than the possibility that it could actually be made to represent something” (ibid. 271).
‘Unordered and unobjective’ scribbles is an informal configuration characteristic that is seen most in Abstract Expressionism, particularly in the practice of ‘Action Painting’. This style of abstraction emphasized the physical act of painting and focused on a creative process which was instinctual and direct. Artists of this type engaged with a spontaneous application of dramatic, sweeping brushstrokes and the chance effects of dripping and spilling paint unto a canvas. These frantic and scattered brushstrokes can be seen throughout the Expressionist Art movement. For example, Michelle West’s Dancing Figure (Fig. 1.1), Joan Mitchell’s Lady Bug (Fig. 1.2), and Lee Krasner’s Icarus (Fig. 1.3). This type of configuration within the field of Fine Art is abundant and seemingly endless, it is therefore understandable that this category is the simplest on the scale.
Point-One: Playful Drawings with a Predominant Ordering Tendency
‘Playful Drawings with a Predominant Ordering Tendency’ refers to pictorial configurations which combine formal tendences to unobjective and unordered scribbles. Alongside the expressive urge, it conveys a dominant playful urge producing ornamental and decorative features, and/or a rhythmic movement of line. This type of configuration is more complex than the previous category and can be interpreted as point-one on The Scale of Creative Achievement.
Prinzhorn describes ‘play’ as an activity which follows certain rules but fulfils no purpose, other than to entertain and pass the time. According to him, play is an intuitive activity of which the “whole personality resonates sympathetically” (ibid. 16). This playful urge presents itself as an incorrect perception of an object in undefined forms, such as seeing shapes in clouds or faces in abstract patterns. This free association game is called ‘Pareidolia’ and is a common human tendency in which naturally occurring or playfully created forms are not accepted for their objective face value.
Suppose that one scribbles aimlessly on a sheet of paper while averting his eyes, and covers as much of the sheet as possible with a confusion of lines of variously strong and variously projecting curves, and only then, looking for the first time, lets himself be inspired by to some composition or other, whether figure or landscape (ibid.19).
According to Prinzhorn, the playful urge is a psychological fact which stems from the fantasy function. He believed it was crucial to “underline the relationship of fantastic activity in its many ramifications to that simple playful urge which appears in every child and in all kinds of adults when they compose something” (ibid. 18). Prinzhorn believed that the inspiration that arises from Pareidolia is not limited to childish drawings but also expresses itself in Great Art. To prove this point he quotes Leonardo da Vinci, who in his lifetime discussed a “newly invented kind of seeing which may appear narrow and almost ridiculous” but nevertheless inspires the mind to invent.
It consists of this, that you look at many walls which are covered with all sorts of spots, or at a mixture of… stones” or “into… the ashes in the fire, into the clouds of mud – if you observe them closely you will discover wonderful inventions in them: compositions of battles, of animals and men; terrifying things like devils… streams, rocks,; lively arrangements of peculiarly strange figures, facial expressions, dress and uncounted things which you can bring to completion… through entangles and undefined things the mind is opened to new inventions (ibid. 18).
Ornamental and decorative features can arise as formal elements from playful activity. Prinzhorn labels this as the ‘ornamental urge’ which is the desire to enrich the outer world by the addition of visual elements. He describes it as “the urge in man not to be absorbed passively into the environment, but to impress on it traces of his existence beyond those of purposeful activity” (ibid 21). This urge can be seen when we cover a piece of paper with doodles, when a child arranges colourful pebbles and when we plant flowers in our garden.
This ornamental urge presents itself as decorated objects that are created without any consideration for its practical purpose. These objects are dominated by rules and order, but these rules do not derive from the real and objective world but rather, from abstract order. Prinzhorn describes how the precise meaning of the ornament is “that it first decorates” and secondly it “is governed by an intrinsic law, an order not dictated by the object but by abstract formal principles”. These formal principles include “linear arrangement, regular pattern, symmetry and proportion” (ibid. 21). An example of this, in the field of Fine Art can be seen in Paul Klee’s Red, Green and Violet Composition (Fig 2.1) and Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition 8 (Fig. 2.2).
In addition to the strict and measurable order of ornaments Prinzhorn distinguishes a free and autonomous order which he called ‘rhythm’ – a living uniform movement of line which is only comparable to the pure melody of music. According to him, this rhythmic flow can create a stronger effect than all other formal elements. This ‘rhythm’ presents itself as a gradual development of lines which is separate from the mechanical and exact uniformity of mathematical rules.
One might object that such a loose definition of ‘rhythm’ would promote an imprecise use, but the distinction between rhythm, meaning the sequence of similar quantities in similar chronological or special segments, and rules, meaning the exact and measurable sequence of equal quantities in equal of chronological spatial segments (ibid. 23).
This rhythmic flow can be seen in the Georgina Houghton’s (1814 – 1884) Glory be to God (Fig. 2.3). This artist is known most notably for her ‘Spirit Drawings’, an astonishing collection of abstract watercolours produced under the guidance of various spirits and angelic beings. Houghton believed that her images had healing properties which could benefit and influence anyone who encountered them. It is interesting to note that Houghton’s ‘Spirit Drawings’ predates the Abstract Expressionist movement by almost a century.
Point-Two: Playful Drawings with a Predominant Copying Tendency
This category refers to the copying tendency which is not directed towards a real and existing object but draws freely on the fund of preconceptions. This type of configuration marks point-two on the Scale of Creative Achievement.
In this text Prinzhorn uses the term ‘eidetic image’ to explain an individual’s perceptual comprehension of their environment, he considered how through the act of observation, an individual’s perception is strongly shaped by their attitude and personality. He states, “our eidetic image is not formed by the individual real, and external object: instead, we form a personal eidetic image out of this object by applying a personal system” (ibid. 31). Eidetic images can give form to intricate ideas or purely abstract concepts which arise from an individual’s attempts to interpret their experience of the external world through their five senses.
The psychological process of understanding an image is unavoidable, as “perception does not immediately result in the formed image” there also exists, “compulsions running counter to its aims” (ibid. 30). Realistic configurations therefor require an artist to transfer this eidetic image into a spatial and tangible format.
The imitative tendency is characterized by an artist’s inclination towards depicting an eidetic image. Prinzhorn states, “what is of primary psychological importance is that the artist is determined by the eidetic image” and that it is completely secondary “whether the object is painted realistically or abstractly” (ibid. 24). What is of true importance is the artists ability to realize and convey their theme effectively to the viewer.
it is relatively unimportant which real objects are included… everything now depends on whether the formed components in the eidetic image suggest the theme powerfully enough that they bring others to mind by association… the eidetic image is made most intense not by the addition of all parts to be found in memory but through the selection and hierarchal arrangement of the visually most important (ibid. 31).
The imitative tendency presents itself as a representation of an eidetic image using the narrowest realism or the broadest abstraction. Prinzhorn describes “when it comes to objective representation there exists only a simple polarity between a materially bound proximity to nature and a more abstract and formal remoteness from nature” (ibid. 33). He also describes these two configurative processes as “a physioplastic one which sticks to nature, and an ideoplastic one which adheres to conception and knowledge” (ibid. 33).
The polarity depends on whether the playful urge dominates or submits to the imitative tendency. When the artist allows the imitative tendency to dominate, he creates configurations which are intended as a reflection of the natural object or its immediate memory image. Prinzhorn discusses this category with a level of contempt, stating that it has for “far too long… and continues to be the most popular”. He describes how this tendency has been the most important goal in pictorial configuration for millennia and can be seen in Dutch paintings and Realism, which were guided by the traditions of art schools. Prinzhorn states that the “ingenuous imitative urge” matched “the outlook of the times, which were increasingly dedicated to a materialistic ‘reality’ cult, very damaging to artistic culture” (ibid. 23).
However, when the playful urge dominates the imitative tendency the configuration is not directed towards the real and objective world and instead draws freely from the fund of preconceived ideas. In this category mental processes remodel natural subjects, resulting in a more unique and personalized configuration. Popular examples of this type include Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night (Fig. 3.1) and George Braque’s Violin and Candlestick (Fig. 3.2).
Georgia O’Keefe (1887 – 1986) is also a prime example for this category. This artist is known for her unique fusion of realism and abstraction. She successfully pictured her inner experience by playfully engaging with imagery of landscapes, flowers, and other natural objects. Her painting titled Jimson Weed (Fig. 3.3) shows the image of a flower, relatively unedited by abstraction. In contrast, her painting Blue Flower (Fig. 3.4) turns away from the objective image and instead focuses on a unique selection of the most prominent and sensuous characteristics. Both paintings belong to this category as they were inspired by eidetic images of nature.
Point-Three: Visual Fantasies
To reiterate, when the playful urge dominants the imitative tendency, mental processes remodel natural subjects, resulting in a more unique and personalized configuration. When this point is pushed a step further, visual fantasies are depicted. In this category the ‘need for symbols’ begin to emerge. This configuration type is considered more complex than the previous category and marks point-three on the Scale of Creative Achievement.
To grasp Prinzhorn’s comprehension of this category it is important to consider how he defined the ‘symbol’. He declares that symbolic significance can be seen first in an ‘effigy’, the representation or imitation of any object. He uses the relationship between early tribal communities and effigies to consider the relevance of symbolic significance, stating that there exists three variations or relationships.
- The effigy is a personified object which possesses magical powers. The idol is itself a demon; for example, a rock resembling a person who is conceived in such a personal way as to be the subject of abuse if he does not perform to his owner’s expectations.
- The effigy is a part of the model; whatever happens to the image also happens to him who is represented by it. For example, the belief that if I decapitate the effigy, the one whom it represents will also lose their head due to a magically transmitted effect.
- The effigy is the sacred habitat of the demon or soul; the sacredness of the effigy’s location is often decisive whether the soul lives there or not.
In the first two examples, the effigy is an ‘idol’ and possesses magical powers. Whereas the third example is a ‘symbol’, a representation of a force which exists independently from the image; the symbol implies magic. According to Prinzhorn idols no longer exist in modern forms of thought. The symbol, however, “remains alive with minor transformations, together with analogous actions in popular customs and church ceremonies” (ibid. 236).
In this category the external object loses inherent value and is instead a primary material of which to project inwardly directed psychic processes. Prinzhorn describes, “although objects have lost their inherent value and are no longer anything of and by themselves, they serve as bearers and representatives for the psychic movements of the artists” (ibid. 236). According to Prinzhorn this habit of using external objects as a primary material “leads even relatively modest talents into a more or less symbolic but nevertheless firm and consistent language of form – into a personal style” (ibid. 236).
Identifying Visual Fantasies
Prinzhorn states that the more naturalistic the work, the more unlikely it is to have symbolic significance, he continues “if, on the other hand, there appear combinations of forms or familiar objects which are not in common experience, some kind of psychic process must have taken place within their author from which the combination resulted” (ibid.27). Configurations of this type have a strange and eerie quality and, because of the ambiguity it is impossible to attribute any rational meaning to it. Prinzhorn describes, “it crumbles into numerous single motifs, each of which seems to want to say something original without finding the saving expression” (ibid. 68). An example of this type of configuration can be seen abundantly in the Surrealist Art Movement such as Salvador Dalí’s Swans Reflecting Elephants (1918).
This category can present itself in two ways: the artist relies on traditional symbols to convey the meaning, or they create new ones for themselves. In the first instance, churches and popular customs become the source of inspiration for the artists; they move within a customary conceptual world. This style dominated Renaissance Art and can be seen in such works as Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1485), and Leonardo de Vinci’s The Last Supper (1498). A more recent example is Reverend McKendree Long’s The Damned are Cast into the Lake of Fire and Brimstone (Fig. 4.1).
In the second instance the artist is preoccupied with a personal philosophical battle and intends on combining their instincts with cultural forces. Prinzhorn describes this as “obscure and fascinating… they use traditional symbols… spontaneously or, from another point of view intuitively add new meanings to old symbols or even create new ones out of their own conflicts, perhaps with the aid of reading” (ibid. 237). This configuration type can be seen in Peter Birkhauser’s Eternal Youth (Fig. 4.2) and Max Ernst’s Oedipus Rex (Fig. 4.3).
Leonora Carrington (1917 – 2011) is another artist who successfully depicted her visual fantasies by intuitively combining her unique vision with cultural forces. A prime example is her painting titled The House Opposite (Fig. 4.4) which depicts a cut away view of a domestic environment. The multi-chambered dwelling is full of female figures, many of whom are busily engaged in the preparation, presentation, and consumption of food. Carrington is representing the female role in the domestic environment with invented symbolic characters and pre-existing symbols such as the Virgin Mary in the upper left-hand corner.
Point-Four: Increased Symbolic Significance
‘Increased Symbolic Significance’ refers to a category of configuration which depicts purely symbolic content with limited reference to external forces. This category combines emotional and psychic elements through abstraction and symbolic content, marking point-four on the Scale of Creative Achievement.
The previous category explored ‘the need for symbols’ by referencing external and cultural elements, such as the domestic environment in Carrington’s The House Opposite or the natural environment in Dalí’s Swans Reflecting Elephants. Prinzhorn describes this characteristic as “rational content” which increases “the significance of the scene beyond the impression which the drawing alone is able to give” (ibid. 27). He continues by stating that the rational content distracts attention from the pure psychic expression which can only be depicted symbolically, “in the sense that rhythm of lines, the relations between lines, and the symbolism of colors communicate emotional experience to us” (ibid. 27).
This configuration type emphasizes “formal convention, rhythmical solemnity, and the dominance of abstract geometric elements” (ibid. 27). The superiority of the need for symbolic content promotes order and uses conventional or unique symbols to express the artist’s psychic experience. For example, Hilma af Klint’s Dove No.2 (Fig. 5.1) and Carl Jung’s Mandala 107 (fig. 5.2). Another interesting artist who engages with this configuration type is Wolfli, “the quintessential Outsider artist”. Wolfli’s painting Bangali Firework (Fig. 5.3) excludes any rational content, and instead expresses abstract geometric order.
Could this implied ‘scale’ help categorise the large variety of material in outsider art and related genres? Also, can all these categories be considered visionary? To address this question I need to examine various case studies in the perspective of Prinzhorn’s framework. However, that is a job for another day!
Prinzhorn, H. (1922/1995). Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Springer