“Selections from the Prinzhorn Collection: The Art of the Mentally Ill”

The timing of this exhibition couldn’t have been better, for the ancient dialectic of madness and art has become a major contemporary issue. It increasingly seems that madness alone can save contemporary art from its success, from its tendency to reduce itself to the most common terms to win acceptance and recognition. Here is the one true “outsider art,“ as it in fact was originally designated. Although it is generally regarded more as a symptom of psychosis than high art (a dubious accolade that may be a comedown for it), much “insider art” endorsed by museums and collectors pales in comparison. The greatness and genuineness of the art in the Prinzhom Collection, its esthetic brilliance as well as the complexity of its message, raises the question of the best conditions for the growth of art. The hothouses of the art world and the mental hospital are both artificial environments, but the latter seems to promise a greater independence of spirit, even if that independence is won the hard way—in and through madness.

Most of the works in the collection were produced between 1890 and 1920, by 516 patients, 70 percent of whom were diagnosed schizophrenics; all were chronically ill. The majority were artistically untrained; they began producing art during their illnesses, sometimes after long confinements. The collection was assembled by Dr. Hans Prinzhorn as a diagnostic device. In his book The Artistry of the Mentally Ill (published in 1922, it heavily influenced such Modernists as Paul Klee and Max Ernst), Prinzhorn observed that the effect of these works “corresponds to the effect of a real work of art . . . [They have] undeniable artistic quality.“ This is, I think, because they connote the self at its most extreme. As Sander L. Gilman suggests in his catalogue essay, calling upon R. D. Laing’s conception of “madness as a creative response to an untenable world,” the madness of this art may actually be sanity: the world, not it, is “distorted"; to look at itself in the mirror of this art may be the world’s last hope for the sanity that begins with self-recognition.

It is difficult to analyze and evaluate this art—to know what criteria to bring to bear on it—because of its extraordinary stylistic diversity (even within one work) and aggregate complexity. It is a genuinely polymorphous art, some of it very meticulous and full of obsessional detail—for example, the urban maps of Josef Heinrich Grebing and the religious paintings of Peter Meyer (“Moog“) —and some of it fantastically freewheeling, such as the paper currency of Else Blankenhorn and the ghostly watercolors of Case 411, another woman. The majority of these works are figural and landscapes, although when fess “full dress” (as in the sketchbooks exhibited), they become abstract. All seem to be descriptive of some closely guarded vision, which must be articulated in almost definitive detail to ensure its reality, and therefore that of the artist. The paradox of these works is that while at first glance they seem so disreal, on closer examination they reveal with an astonishing outspokenness a very precise sense of reality: the pleasure principle of art in the service of an advanced case of “realism"—a grand seizure of reality.

The spatial paradoxes that abound—internal shifts in scale that seem quite calculated and imply a space rapidly expanding without losing its intricate coherence—suggest that space is a perverse imposition, manipulable at will. Other works show such a horror vacui as to be virtually spaceless, as though things were being compressed into the vacuum in which they supposedly existed at the moment of creation. The artists have seemingly reinvented visual conventions with spontaneous mastery. For me the extremes of the exhibition are represented by the crowned figures of Karl Brendel and Franz Karl Bühler (“Pohl"), and the landscapes of Konrad Zeuner. The figures have a physical compactness and psychic concentration; the landscapes, a wealth of detail in an impossible space. Esthetically and psychologically—technically and emotionally—these works show an extraordinary consistency that bespeaks a powerful determinism. It is their unexpected level of resolution—the way they maintain contradiction without falling apart—that in the end forces us to take them seriously and raises the question of the inherently artistic nature of the self.

Donald Kuspit