Ownership Dispute over Prinzhorn Collection – art work by the mentally ill – Brief Article
The Prinzhorn Collection, which consists of more than 5,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures and textiles created mostly by schizophrenic patients between roughly 1890 and 1920, is scheduled to open to the public in a permanent installation next spring at the University of Heidelberg, home of the psychiatric clinic where the collection was originally formed. Last April, the university announced plans to present the collection in a renovated 19th-century lecture theater adjacent to the university’s neurological department. But a German advocacy group for the rights of the mentally ill is fighting to have the collection moved to Berlin, to be the centerpiece of a commemorative museum dedicated to the victims of Nazi euthanasia.
The bulk of the collection, largely amassed by psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn, has been an important inspiration for numerous European artists. It began as a group of some 127 artifacts assembled for an eventual “museum of pathological art” by Karl Wilmanns, head of the Psychiatric Clinic at the University of Heidelberg. When Prinzhorn came to the clinic as an assistant, he was put in charge of expanding that collection, and in 1919-20 acquired items from clinics across Europe, particularly in German-speaking countries, and as far afield as Japan and Peru. In 1922, a year after leaving the clinic, Prinzhorn published his still definitive Artistry of the Mentally III, which became required reading in avant-garde circles. Max Ernst took the book to Paris, where it became the bible of the Parisian Surrealists. The works caused a sensation in Germany and France during the ’20s, only to be forgotten after WWII and rediscovered in the ’60s.
Contributing to the current controversy is the use made of some of the Prinzhorn works by the Nazis. In 1937, four years after Prinzhorn’s death, Carl Schneider succeeded Wilmanns as director of the Heidelberg clinic and lent works for the Nazi’s “Degenerate Art” exhibition in order to help illustrate the Nazi thesis of the pathology of modern art. Furthermore, Schneider played an instrumental role in the Nazi euthanasia program, helping to send more than 20,000 mentally ill patients–including the authors of some of the works in the Prinzhorn collection–to the gas chambers.
This link between the University of Heidelberg and the Nazis is why Rene Talbot, spokesperson for a German advocacy group for the rights of the mentally ill, wants to have the Prinzhorn collection transferred to the Berlin museum. He claims that Prinzhorn “was the one responsible for implanting this notion of the existence of a pathological art. In this way he laid the foundation for the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition.” Talbot is counting on support from a number of Social Democrat politicians who are apparently sympathetic to his effort.
Christoph Mundt of Heidelberg University, who is currently in charge of overseeing the collection, dismisses the Berlin initiative. “The collection was gathered in the years 1919 and 1920, a generation before the euthanasia took place. The initiators at the time, Karl Wilmanns, the director of the hospital, and Prinzhorn, held clear anti-National Socialist attitudes,” says Mundt. He argues that the Prinzhorn collection should stay at the clinic. “The collection is one of the very rare examples by which psychiatry can tell the public not only about mentally ill patients, but about the condition humaine in general. More than that, it fascinates by its beauty and esthetic challenges. Therefore I strongly vote for the collection’s residence in close attachment and connection with the hospital which cares for the patients.”
A selection of works from the collection, organized by the Drawing Center in New York, where it was seen last spring, is on view at the Armand Hammer Museum in L.A. through Sept. 17.
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