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The Art of Madness (or On Madness in Art)


A book explored the artwork of the mentally ill and profoundly influenced artists from Klee, Ernst, and Dubuffet, to Picasso and Dalí.

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.

—Henri Bergson

The history of human thought seems to have insisted on finding an infinite sanity within madness. One place where this has been most evident is in art. Sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate the artist from the madman, the deranged from the clairvoyant. A book, today all but unknown, explored precisely that relationship between mental illness and creativity, and it introduced the issue —and the aesthetics arising from it— into the imaginations of the greatest artists of its time.

In 1922, Westphalian-born Hans Prinzhorn published a book that was the first of its kind: Expressions of Madness: The Art of the Mentally Ill (Bildnerei der Geisteskranken: ein Beitrag zur Psychologie und Psychopathologie Der Gestaltung). The book is a record of individuals on whose cases the author had worked, patients whose creativity had led them to the production of art. The book gave voice to the artistic practices of disturbed minds in psychiatric institutions —a fact which, of course, caused discomfort among those within the realms of high culture, among those who decide what’s art, and what’s not.

Karl Brendel was a bricklayer who suffered from schizophrenia. He made sculptures with chewed bread. August Neter drew his hallucinations. Franz Pohl, a locksmith who suffered from paranoia, precisely dated all his drawings which oscillated, obsessively, between realism and fantasy. Heinrich Welz was a lawyer who believed he could control the movement of the stars. Joseph Sell assured everyone that, through telepathy, he could hear every sound being made in the world all in one instant. They’re but some of the protagonists of this unique book.

The aesthetics depicted in Prinzhorn’s book caught the attention (to the point of fascination) of artists like Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Jean Dubuffet. In fact, Dubuffet coined the term art brut (today more commonly called outsider art), to refer to such practices. He also amassed a collection of this type of work which is today dispersed to institutions and museums around the world.

Prinzhorn studied art history, philosophy, and music, and later, medicine. He specialized in psychiatry. Over the years, his research on patients included not only their clinical diseases, but also their artistic works. Prinzhorn amassed a collection of more than 5,000 works; the paintings, drawings, and carving of his patients. Most of them had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. This gave rise to Artistry of the Mentally Ill  in which one can see reproductions of some of the work of Prinzhorn’s patients, (now part of the public domain), along with brief profiles of the patients. Based on his research, Prinzhorn identified six universal drives (applicable not only to the patients analyzed therein) and from which the impulse toward the making of images derive. These include an expressive impulse, a playful impulse, an ornamental impulse, a tendency toward order, a tendency to imitate, and a need for symbols.

Prinzhorn’s approach is comparable to the approaches expressed, at the time, by artists like Kandinsky and Dubuffet: artistic creation is a human need whose practice doesn’t require specific training, nor a particular place in society. That is, one needn’t be part of any complex and frivolous art world to make art. Such ideas, revolutionary at the time, would be taken up and modified by many later thinkers and artists. Among the best-known is perhaps Joseph Beuys, who once assured us that “every human being is an artist.”

Although Hans Prinzhorn’s book was soon forgotten, its effect, on both the elitist sphere of high culture and the avant-garde of his time, is a gift that survives even to this day. It was perhaps a first step toward making art a more inclusive place, especially for the voiceless and for those on the margins of that universe.

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