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Works from the Prinzhorn Collection

Heinrich Mebes, "The Brooding Partridge or Ruling Sin", undated, pencil, ink (brush and pen) on paper
Adolf Schudel, "Steep Path", 1907, pencil on sketch paper, rubbed
August Klett, "Sheet 20: Wormholes", 27 March 1919, pencil and watercolours on sketch paper
Carl Lange, "Several Millions Worth. The Photographically Provable, Overlapping, Miracle Pictures Revealing a 15 year old Crime in the Shoe Insole of the Victim", ca. 1900, pencil on sketch paper
Franz Bühler, "Untitled", between 1909 and 1916, grease crayon on sketch paper
Gustav Sievers, "The Correction Facilities near Göttingen 1918", 1918, pencil and watercolours on writing paper
August Natterer, "Satana", 1911, pencil and gouache, varnished, on cardboard
Joseph Schneller," Untitled", undated, pencil and grease crayon on sketch paper
Karl Genzel, "Woman and Man or Adam and Eve (Hermaphrodite)", before 1920, wood, painted
Louis Umgelter, "Brain Paralysis", 22 January 1906, pencil and wax crayon on drawing cardboard
Rudolf Morgenstern, "Untitled", 7 April 1904, pencil on file paper

The Miracle in the Shoe Insole: Works from the Prinzhorn Collection


27/11/2014 – 06/04/2015 Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg, Berlin


‘’SURREALISM, noun, masc., pure psychic automatism by means of which one intends to express, either verbally, or in writing, or in any other manner, the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, free of any aesthetic or moral concern.’’ (André Breton, First Surrealist Manifesto, 1924)


It was in 1922 when the book “Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Contribution to the Psychology and Psychopathology of Configuration” by the German physician and art historian Hans Prinzhorn was first published that Max Ernst brought it to offer it as a gift to his friends Paul and Gala Éluard in Paris and it immediately became a sort of “bible” for the surrealists.


Prinzhorn tried to investigate the psychological roots of creativity and to develop a theory on the need for expression in an effort to systematize the principles of configuration and its tendencies. For this he collected and studied on behalf of the psychiatric clinic of the University of Heidelberg approximately 5000 works by 450 inmates of psychiatric clinics at the German speaking areas.


The exhibition “The Miracle in the Shoe Insole” symbolically borrows its title from a series of works made by the merchant Carl Lange, who recorded the appearance of faces created by his sweat on his insoles, in order to place side by side the selection of 120 works from the Prinzhorn collection in a correlation with the artistic practices of the same period especially under the influence of the surrealism. This thematic approach is reinforced by the fact that in the same building is exhibited the permanent collection of Scharf-Gerstenberg under the title ‘’Surreal Worlds’’ which focuses on the surrealist movement but offers a broader view starting from its precursors over to Dubuffet’s art brut. The relation between reason and insanity, rationality and irrationality, consciousness and the unconscious that runs all the works from Piranesi, Goya, Redon, Ensor, Klinger up to Magritte, Ernst, Bellmer and Dali is noted by the curator of the collection Scharf-Gerstenberg Κylikki Zacharias at the accompanying text of the catalog for the Prinzhorn exhibition that is also her conception.


It wasn’t just the surrealists who were charmed and declared madness as one of their ideals. The expressionists already were in search of the emotional and psychological aspects of artistic expression, while the symbolist Kubin had already visited the Prinzhorn collection on its first steps in 1920 where in awe he published the text ‘’Art of the insane” analyzing the genius in many of the works and discerning a ''freshness of the mind”. It was such his admiration for the work “World Collision” by Oskar Herzberg, which was made on the eve of the First World War, that he made a similar and trade it with some of the works by other patients of the collection.


The exhibition of the Prinzhorn collection consists of drawings, paintings, sculptures, collages, texts, textiles and is divided in sections according not only to the form of the works but also to the motivations under which they were possibly created. Indicatively in the section Gazes on and into the body we observe the need of mapping the body with its pathogenesis and the patient’s obsessions, while in the category Phenomena and magical powers we notice the need to record visions, phenomena of divine apparitions and symbols, which is a characteristic motif that comes up often in the works of the collection. According to his “schema of the tendencies of configuration” Prinzhorn considered scribbling as one of the starting points of the creative production. In this context there is a collection of text-drawings that bring in mind the surrealistic automatic writings by Breton in cooperation with Soupault, while on the other hand some inmates created certificates, testimonials and paper money in an effort to exorcise the bureaucracy and the authority structures that haunted them. Naturally images of strange and anxious situations are present, as would be expected, but even then in most cases becomes apparent an uncanny tranquility, order and clarity.


The exhibition section Interstitial Beings is dedicated to the sculptural work of Karl Genzel, one of the ten “schizophrenic masters” analyzed at length by Prinzhorn in his book, where his wood sculpted hermaphrodite figures and strange almost mythological beings recall the interest of the cubists and expressionists for primitivism. It is worth to mention that the wood sculpture hermaphrodite “Woman and Man” or “Adam and Eve” along with other of his works were part of the 70 works from the Prinzhorn collection that were presented in the travelling Nazi exhibition “Degenerate Art” in 1938. As a comment on this there is on view across the exhibition the film installation “Rotations” (2012) by Javier Téllez wherein with a double projection this specific sculpture of Genzel is presented in comparison to “Prometheus” of Arno Breker which was exhibited in the Great German Art Exhibition (1938) in Munich, while historical and documentary material from the period of the degenerate art is displayed at the entrance.


There is no doubt that the collection presents works that through the different manifestations of mental illness and the biographies of the patients reflect social and political conditions, the everyday life, fears and perversions. For example the detailed drawings of the draughtsman Joseph Schneller shown in the exhibition have mostly a sadomasochistic theme considering acts between women with the usage often of complicated machines describing a peculiar futuristic fetishism. These drawings are part of a larger project by Schneller which he entitled “Sadistic Lifework”. On the other side the weaver Gustav Sievers illustrates the monotony of his surroundings. For example in his work “The Correction facilities near Göttingen” he draws a persistent repetition of the view through his window at the institution without any changes like a multiplayed frozen time still. In the case of the work “Wormholes” from the wine merchant August Klett, who during his treatment had invented a “colour alphabet” and a colours-numbers-letters system with cabalistic combination procedures, we notice the illustration of the wormholes that he considered had been generated in his head due to his illness.


André Breton in his text “The art of the insane: Freedom to roam abroad” (1948) describing the authenticity of the works of the mentally ill wrote that “The mechanisms of artistic creation are here freed of all such shackles”. The works from the Prinzhorn collection have always drawn the same appeal regardless of time. Or maybe we could say that these works appear so timely because their creators were put on hold by their own time.



Malvina Panagiotidi