The Prinzhorn collection


As any serious tourist will do, I checked the Internet for flea markets and outsider art in Berlin. I discovered a long list of flea markets, but only one outsider art gallery. I thought there would be more galleries since the world of art brut sprung into existence in Germany with the Prinzhorn collection  in Heidelberg.

We owe a lot to Hans Prinzhorn who, after studying art history and philosophy around 1900, received training in medicine and psychiatry during the First World War. In 1919, he began working at the psychiatric hospital at the Universityof Heidelberg. He was responsible for expanding a collection of art created by the patients. The work was started by Emil Kraepelin and by the time Prinzhorn left in 1921, the collection had grown to about 5,000 pieces of art produced by 450 patients.

Shortly after, Prinzhorn published his first book, called Artistry of the Mentally Ill. He included work done by patients at the Heidelberg hospital. His colleagues were not greatly impressed, but the art world was. Artist Jean Dubuffet was excited by the book, and coined the term “art brut” to describe the “raw” art work created by artists who had not been influenced by the outside world. To Dubuffet, these were expressions of “pure” creativity.

Prinzhorn almost faded into obscurity when he opened a private practice in psychiatry, but the art world changed forever. Shortly after Prinzhorn died in 1933, the collection was stored at the University of Heidelberg. Enter the Nazi regime. An art exhibit in 1937, titled Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibited a few works from the Prinzhorn collection along with some other works of modern art. This “modern” art was banned on the basis that it was “un-German”. Degenerate artists were dismissed from teaching positions, forbidden to exhibit their work, and sometimes forbidden to produce art at all. “Real” German art was traditional in style and promoted racial purity, militarism, and obedience. In short, the entire genre of modern art was labeled as contrary to the ideals of German society.

Fortunately, the Prinzhorn collection was stored away at the University rather than burned. Many years later, in 2001, the collection was put on display at the University of Heidelberg. I have wanted to see the collection since studying art history a lifetime ago but, sadly, the museum was closed for the month of May, and I was not able to see it. That pleasure awaits a future trip.