Hans Prinzhorn

Collection Hans Prinzhorn

The Heidelberg Collection is named after the art historian and physician Hans Prinzhorn (Hemer i. Westf. 1886 –1933 Munich), who came to the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Heidelberg as an assistant in 1919. The clinic director Karl Wilmanns had commissioned him to expand an already existing, yet small collection of artistic works by psychiatric patients by adding works from other psychiatric institutions, and to evaluate these works in a scientific study. This resulted in Prinzhorn's book "Artistry of the Mentally Ill. A Contribution to the Psychology and Psychopathology of Configuration" (1922), which made this field accessible to a wider public for the first time, especially with the help of lavish illustrations.

Collections like the one Prinzhorn found in Heidelberg also existed in other psychiatric hospitals in Europe at the time. They were part of the archives of these institutions, and the artifacts kept here were viewed exclusively from a diagnostic point of view. Prinzhorn's undertaking, therefore, is almost without precedent. Although the French psychiatrist Paul Meunier (1873-1957) had appreciated works of psychiatric patients from an aesthetic point of view as early as 1907 in his book "L'art chez les fous", published under the pseudonym Marcel Réja, this approach received little attention at the time. In contrast, the 1921 study "A Mental Patient as Artist" by the Swiss psychiatrist Walter Morgenthaler, which presented Adolf Wölfli, who lived in the Waldau psychiatric hospital in Bern, attracted more attention.

Prinzhorn's perspective, however, was broader than Meunier's and Morgenthaler's. He was able to draw upon much more extensive material, took an impressive number of aspects of the field into account, and arrived at questions that still occupy researchers today. This is also reflected in his double doctorate as a philosopher (1909) and as a physician (1919). In addition, Prinzhorn, as a trained singer who also drew and had manual skills, had his own experience with artistic design. His interest in works by psychiatric patients, as well as his methods of analysis, can be traced back to psychologically-oriented currents in art history and philosophy that he had encountered during his studies in Tübingen, Leipzig, and Munich between 1904 and 1909 (especially under August Schmarsow and Theodor Lipps).

In his book, Prinzhorn first develops an expressive theory of design. With the help of a complex model of various partial motives, he attempts to explain the phenomenon of "Bildnerei" ("artistry" – he deliberately avoids the judgmental term "art") in terms of the psychology of design. In the second part of the book, he then deals with the pictorial works by schizophrenic patients and devotes individual descriptions to ten of these artistically active persons. Although insights into the respective life histories and personalities are also given, the analysis of the works with the help of empathy (Prinzhorn also speaks of "Wesensschau" or "grasping the essence") is clearly in the foreground. The third part deals with diagnostic questions and parallels to other forms of artistic creation. Here, Prinzhorn draws not only on the art of the so-called primitives and children's drawings for comparison, but also on contemporary art. He explains the similarities to patient works in the latter with his contemporaries' "schizophrenic feeling for the world", which for him essentially corresponds to an "ambivalent dwelling on the state of tension before decisions", also describing the mentally ill. The comparable striving, however, does not lead to the same success in the artistic sense, since the spontaneous creation from the unconscious is largely absent in the healthy mind. Thus, Prinzhorn contrasts the "genuine" works of the schizophrenics with the "rational substitute constructions" of the high artists of his time, and formulates an idiosyncratically radical cultural critique, which seems to have been the actual impetus for the book. His own position, however, is comparable to that of Jean Dubuffet, who later described himself as a "discoverer of discoveries."

Until his death, Prinzhorn repeatedly spoke out in lectures and essays on the subject of his first book, without, however, going significantly beyond the theses set forth there. His attempt to follow up the success of his "Artistry of the Mentally Ill" with "Artistry of Inmates" in 1926 by transferring his theses to a related field failed. The emphasis of his numerous publications was in the field of psychotherapy, where his original approach attempted to link the philosophy of Ludwig Klages with the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud. Of particular note are the books "Body-Soul-Unity. A Core Problem of the New Psychology" (1927), "Psychotherapy. Preconditions, Essence, Limits. An Attempt to Clarify the Foundations" (1929) and "Personality Psychology. Development of a Biocentric Theory of Human Reality" (1932) as well as the anthology "Crisis of Psychoanalysis" (1928), which he edited.

Prinzhorn led the "unsteady life of an eternal seeker" (Wolfgang Geinitz), both privately and professionally. After leaving Heidelberg in 1921, he tried his luck at sanatoriums in Zurich, Dresden, and Wiesbaden, until he settled in Frankfurt am Main in 1925 with a psychotherapeutic practice. But even this was not very successful, especially since Prinzhorn saw himself more as a public figure. As a sought-after lecturer at home and abroad, he hoped in vain for a university position. After disappointments in his professional prospects and three failed marriages, he withdrew more and more, until he finally moved to Munich to live with an old aunt, earning his living mainly from publications and lectures. In 1932, Prinzhorn turned to the National Socialists, among others, for the realization of his ambitious plan of a "free national" cultural magazine, but, here as well, he failed.

From the late 1920s onward, it became increasingly clear that Prinzhorn shared many of the views and ideals of those currents among Germany's intellectuals of the time which Armin Mohler has called the "conservative revolution." Like many other contemporaries, he mistakenly believed that he had a say in Germany's political destiny, and that, as a "thinker," he could influence the "doers." In the series of articles "On National Socialism," which appeared in the conservative journal "Der Ring" ("The Ring") between 1930 and 1932, he dealt with various aspects of this ideology and its implementation from a psychological perspective. In doing so, he also voiced criticism, but, ultimately, he repeatedly excused the Nazis' actions against other political and ideological groups, as well as against many social minorities, by citing the special circumstances of the time. A final article in this series, which dealt with the "Jewish question" among other things and did not differ significantly in tenor from the preceding ones, was no longer printed. It is difficult to determine how Prinzhorn's relationship to the new rulers would have turned out. He took part in the "Day of Potsdam" in March 1933 as a friend of, among others, the guest conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. A few weeks later, on June 14, he died in a Munich hospital as a result of typhoid fever, which he had contracted on a trip to Italy.