Inspired by ‘insane art’

Contrasting two very different exhibitions in Bristol and Heidelberg

A few weeks before Christmas, while visiting friends in Germany, I came across an intriguing little museum in Heidelberg. Its sole purpose is to house and display works of art created by people who spent time in mental hospitals, at the turn of the last century.

Steven Edgar’s homage to Charles West

The current exhibition at the Prinzhorn Collection Museum, in Heidelberg’s University Hospital, coincided with the ‘Looking To The Light’ project based at the Glenside Hospital Museum in Bristol. The exhibition’s title was inspired by a photograph taken in 1897 of bearded local furniture salesman Charles West looking towards the sky during a short stay at the hospital. He features in several of the artworks, which range from drawings and photographs to textiles, and installations.

The Glenside exhibition featured works by ten artists who drew their inspiration from the Museum which catalogues the development of mental health treatments, as well as the patients and staff of what began in 1861 as a municipal lunatic asylum.

They were taking part in project called ‘New Dialogues’ run by the national arts charity Outside In, at Glenside and museums in Wakefield and Glasgow.

Hans Prinzhorn, art historian,
psychiatrist, writer

The Heidelberg exhibition focused on a collection of works by a variety of asylum inmates, put together by art historian Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933). In the days of the German Empire (1871 – 1918) there had been a rapid expansion in ‘lunatic asylums’ to house those considered unproductive or otherwise inferior as a result of medical, mental or intellectual impairments.

There was some academic interest in the artistic endeavours of some of those shut away, often for life, in these huge institutions. It was thought their artworks might offer clues to what had caused their psychological problems. Some of these collections were housed at the Heidelberg Hospital where Prinzhorn worked after serving as an army surgeon during the First World War

He had taken up psychiatry after his second wife became ill, having originally studied art history and philosophy before training in England to become a professional singer. Combining his interests Prinzhorn continued to expand the hospital’s collection and, in 1922, produced his seminal work, ‘Artistry of the Mentally Ill – a contribution to the psychology and psychopathology of configuration‘. There would not be an English translation until 1972.

The ‘Miracle Shepherd’ (1911-13)
by patient August Natterer (1896-1933), an electrician and mechanical engineer

His book was a sensation at the time, but not for being a breakthrough in the treatment of mental illness. Prinzhorn was more interested in the aesthetic value of artefacts made by patients rather than in their diagnostic potential. Instead it influenced the artistic movements of the early 20th century, especially Dadaism and Surrealism, and gained notoriety among the fascists of National Socialism.

It became a source of inspiration among the avant-guarde when multi-talented German artist Max Ernst showed it to his contemporaries in Paris. Many who were fascinated by the then fashionable theories of Sigmund Freud saw the collection as a window into the subconscious. This ‘art of the outsider’ led French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet to form the ‘Art Brut’ movement, a term that also came to chime with Hitler’s notion of ‘degenerate art’. 

Max Ernst (1891-1976) echoed the earlier work in his 1931 cover drawing ‘Oedipe’
As did Koga Harue (1895-1933)
in his 1929-30 painting ‘Endless Flight’

‘Modern art’ was despised by Nazis who sought to promote an heroic form of German culture. Examples of the new movements – Cubism, Dada, Expressionism, Fauvism Post-Impressionism, Surrealism, and Symbolism and even some of Prinzhorn’s collection – would later be put on display as part of the Nazi’s notorious Entarte Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in 1937.

It was a prelude to and a pretext for censorship and the destruction of artworks.

Was Alois Dallmyar, murdered by Nazi doctors in 1940, trying to disguise his homosexuality by portraying himself as a woman?

Another sickening consequence was Aktion-T4, the 1939 Nazi policy to eradicate those who did not fit their notion of ‘the norm’. More than two dozen of the artists featured in Prinzhorn’s book would be murdered in ‘nursing homes’ set up to kill those regarded as unfit to be citizens of the Third Reich. Up to 300,000 patients were murdered.

Bristol artist Liz Crow explored this in her short film ‘Resistance’

The psychiatric patients’ fate was sealed when Prinzhorn was replaced at Heidelberg Hospital in 1921 by Carl Schnieder, a Nazi sympathiser. Prinzhorn, now seeking to find a new role for himself would throw in his lot with the National Socialists, evidence perhaps of his naïveté. Although he travelled and wrote widely, he was not regarded as successful either as psychotherapist or a writer. His third marriage would fail, and he would die of typhus, a recluse, just as Hitler came to power in 1933.

In 1921 Genzel donated his ‘Donkey Pieta’ (left) and many other of his sculptures to Heidelberg Hospital, where they are now on display.

Patients in the German asylums would use any materials they could get their hands on to express themselves. The bricklayer and peddler Karl Genzel (1871-1925) made use of available wood and clay to carve and sculpt extraordinary figures, reminiscent of the ‘tribal art’ that would inspire Picasso and Modigliani.

It may be clearer today that they were trying to communicate with or about the outside world, an essential human trait when locked away from family and society.

Irish Republican prisoners during the Troubles in Northern Ireland smuggled out messages written in minute handwriting on cigarette papers and sheets of toilet paper. We only know the thoughts of Bobby Sands MP during the first 17 days of his fatal hunger strike because he kept a diary on toilet paper that he hid in his body.

Several German patients used toilet paper to express their artistic talents, but Joseph Heinrich Grabbing (1879-1940), a former merchant, instead wrote a treatise about the history and potential of the ubiquitous material during his incarceration. He was another victim of the Nazi’s involuntary euthanasia programme.

Around the time the first English edition of Prinzhorn’s book was published, some of the artworks he collected went on display at a series of exhibitions in Europe. Then at the turn of the new century, the idea for a special museum exploring the art of psychiatric patients resulted in a further revival of his collection. A variety of interest groups including patients themselves, local residents, and medical professionals, led to creation of a permanent exhibition space in the Heidelberg University Hospital Museum.

The artworks prepared for Glenside’s ‘Looking To The Light’ exhibition in 2022 added meaning to the structure, history, and artefacts of the museum. They are reflective pieces based on what the artists saw and thought about while visiting the museum. 

The image of former patient Charles West featured in several of the artworks, which ranged from drawings and photographs to textiles, and installations. And yet, despite its specificities and many dissimilarities, there are some extraordinary resonances between the Outside In project and items from Prinzhorn’s collection. 

On the reverse side of Anna Rathbone’s quilt, made from cut-up images photographed in the museum, is a poem stitched into an NHS sheet:

The Glenside quilt by Anna Rathbone

from the tangle of infinite fragmented echoes we tug at the threads of what might be stories fraying with each retelling trying to stitch a knotted history of a person, a place, a thing into a fabric of guesswork unravelling as we sew fibres pulled loose by time, memory, perspective leaving a single strand of truth How can we ever really know?

Anna Richter jacket, full of memories.

The concept and the content reminded me of a handmade jacket on display in the Prinzhorn Collection. By Agnes Richter (1844-1918), it is embroidered inside and out with memories from her life.

Elfriede’s 1929 ‘Female profile’
Her ‘The Mental Seeing Is’ in 1933

Like Bristol artist Denis Reed (1917-79) who sketched his fellow patients while he was in hospital, artist Elfriede Lohse-Wächler (1899-1940) drew portraits during her two incarcerations.

Forcibly sterilised during the Nazi period she was eventually murdered in a ‘euthanasia facility’.

Natasha Harrison’s ‘Going to the chapel but we are not getting married’ refers to the gender segregation when Bristol patients attended services.

There is great wit in the Glenside artists’ pieces as there is in many of the Prinzhorn artefacts. The fact that some of their creators were commenting on the madness of the world outside the asylum appears to have been lost on their art historian curator.

Wilhelm Werner (1898-1940) put away as an ‘idiot’ while only a child, drew many sketches pillorying the Nazis’ sterilisation programme. They put this “feeble-minded babbler’ to death under the hideous Aktion-T4 campaign.

The complex cartoons of Erich Spiesbach (1901-56) often mocked those who were supposed to be caring for him. He died while trying to escape.

Altogether the artworks in both exhibitions raise fascinating questions about the nature of inspiration and imagination and, like all art, leave the viewer with the unenviable task of interpretation.

This column would not have been possible without the English version of the Introduction to the Prinzhorn Collection edited by Ingrid von Beyme and Thomas Röske, and the Looking to the Light catalogue, available from the Glenside Museum

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.


  1. I think the way the artists work is integrated into the musum displays at Glenside causes them to resonate with the artefacts on display and enhances and adds depth to both.
    PS exhibition is now extedended to 31 March.

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