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Art Watch : Hanz Prinzhorn

Art Watch : Hanz Prinzhorn

Hanz Prinzhorn is in focus for our Art Watch for today. This section is brought to you by Art From Us and Divvya Nirula. The Artists we spotlight here can be from any field, across any discipline, and using a variety of media. We share here why we think they are important and worth watching. Be it genius creators of eras gone by. Or the upcoming contemporary artist who is yet to have their first show. All come under the purview of Art Watch.


In 2006 I went to see a show titled “Inner Worlds Outside” at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Little did I know that I would fall in-love with not only the art that was on display but the man who collected it. The late Hans Prinzhorn’s collection of art was on display. The riveting works were the creation of different minds – criminals, the mentally ill, mediums and other ‘outsiders’ who lived on the fringes of society. Prinzhorn was an art historian and collector, focusing on the works created by the patients at the Psychiatric University Hospital in Heidelberg.

It is no surprise or a secret that Prinzhorn lived a life varied. He was born in Westphalia in 1886. He was interested in music and to that end he went to England to receive his voice training, as he aspired to becoming a professional singer. Life took a different turn and Hanz became a student of philosophy and art history instead, before music. His medical training and especially training in psychiatry, was as he had signed up to serve as an Army surgeon during World War I.

The years in war and all that he had seen compelled Hanz to pursue medicine, and further his training as a psychiatrist in 1919. It was really at the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic that he would get his breakthrough as he started his pioneering work. Not only was it a process of observation of his patients but through analysis of their art production. It was a tool that would be highly revelatory to a doctor and perhaps soothing for the patients as well.

Why Hanz Prinzhorn?

Gradually his collection grew to contain over 5000 paintings, drawings, and carvings, gathered from various asylums in and around Heidelberg, mostly from patients afflicted with schizophrenia. It wsa certainly an enviable number and an unusual collection. But he never stopped researching and his studies ran deep into the unlocking of the human mind, its potential and its disorders.

He created Artistry of the Mentally Ill from this archive and Prinzhorn went on to develop his theses. It was actually the creative drive that he studied with great depth and his study revealed – that there were six basic drives that give rise to image making: an expressive urge, the urge to play, an ornamental urge, an ordering tendency, a tendency to imitate, and the need for symbols.

The book when it released certainly created furor, but it was undeniable that he had found something of great value that would benefit future generations.

“When we cover a piece of paper with doodles, when a child arranges colourful pebbles on his mud pie, or when we plant flowers in our gardens, one quality is common to all of these quite different activities, namely the enrichment of the outer world by the addition of perceptual elements. Like the need for activity, it is a final, irreducible psychological fact – an urge in man not to be absorbed passively into his environment, but to impress on it traces of his existence beyond those of purposeful activity.” Says the collector, Hanz Prinzhorn.

The Collection

The book was highly acclaimed in the art world and certainly made many people uncomfortable in the medical world. Perhaps because it bared the breakdown of high culture’s claim to “civilisation”, and clearly exposed the angst and turmoil at the heart of modern life. But his work was not unrecognised and it granted voice and validated the marginalised, those incarcerated, those called insane. Economically too it made a statement – speaking for those who suffered poverty, were untrained and unskilled, and very important – those in the wrong type of institution.

It doesn’t take a genius to understand the ominous aspect of his study that borders on the occult. But then what else could it possibly be – he wa as authentic and close to the subject as he could be.

Unfortunately ( but this couldn’t have come as a surprise) the style that Hanz Prinzhorn identified, would be named, over a decade later with the rise of National Socialism in Germany, as “degenerate” (Entartete). The disturbing truth that the works showed were in opposition to an aesthetic and decorated “original type”. It was a shame against the mythical prototype of Germanness, a beacon of strength, resolute will, and excellent health. Exhibitions, in Munich, in 1937, were set up to name and exhibit these “degenerate” works. Artists such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky were featured, alongside several others, including Prinzhorn’s patients.

There is more to story. Prinzhorn’s archive of art remains a silent testament to a spirit that still seeks to grant a voice to the voiceless. If one looks with the eyes of compassion, the images allow silenced voices to speak again. It is a triumph for the vast range of human emotions and experiences that constitute the human spirit, to be forgotten otherwise and buried by history.


For more Artists handpicked by Divvya Nirula – explore the ART WATCH archive.

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