The Prinzhorn Collection


I’m back on track (sort of) after returning from the conference in Heidelberg  and finishing a course on visual culture.  I have a lot to report.

The International conference was initiated by the Prinzhorn Collection and the European Outsider Art Association to discuss ethical questions around outsider art. It was held at the University of Heidelberg, where the Prinzhorn collection is housed. Since 2001, the collection has been on display in a former oratory of the University of Heidelberg and it has always been my dream to go there.

I don’t know what I expected or hoped to see – maybe a museum the size of a large house. In the photograph above, the museum is in a couple of rooms on the ground floor of the tall building in the foreground.


Sadly, the museum is very small, and only a tiny (very tiny) portion of  the permanent collection is on display at any one time. I saw a cabinet of original wood carvings by former psychiatric patients under the care of Hans Prinzhorn. You would recognize the carvings because they have appeared in almost every outsider art book published (like the one by Karl Brendel to the left). I approached the cabinet with a shock of recognition – the carvings were so familiar to me, but still surprising to see the real thing. They are small – something that is difficult to appreciate when seeing a photograph in a book. They are all about 12 inches (30 cm) tall, but the carvings are detailed and exquisite. I wished that I could hold them. I am always struck by the incredible creativity and imagination in every piece of outsider art that I see, and these were no exception.

The entrance to the museum holds a reception desk, a couple of benches,  a very small collection of books, and a few postcards. The main exhibit room is quite large, with a balcony that wraps around 3 sides of the room.

73a2c67d24Currently on exhibit is the work of Ovartaci (1849 – 1985), from Denmark (shown below). The theme of much of his work is transformation; he castrated himself in his transition from male to female. Other life-sized paintings and paper mache figures are fantastical creatures representing various reincarnation cycles of his life – a butterfly, bird, puma, and tiger. His own painted bed is the centre-piece of the exhibit, in a re-creation of his room in the psychiatric hospital.

Around the balcony were a few drawings from the permanent collection, as well as gorgeous photographs by Ono Ludwig, also on the theme of gender roles.

The most peculiar thing (to me) was the curator’s decision to refer to Ovartaci as “he” when Ovartaci clearly identified as female. I asked why that decision had been made and was told that the original biographical/archival material referred to Ovartaci as a male, and they decided to follow that decision. I doubt that the same decision would be made in North America…