Inspired by ‘insane art’

A FEW weeks before Christmas, while visiting friends in Germany, I came across an intriguing little museum in Heidelberg. Its sole purpose is to house and display works of art created by people who spent time in mental hospitals prior to 1922. 

Its current exhibition coincided with the Looking To The Light project at the Glenside Hospital Museum.

The Bristol exhibition featured works by artists who drew their inspiration from the museum, which catalogues the development of mental health treatments, as well as the patients and staff of what began in 1861 as a municipal lunatic asylum.

The Heidelberg exhibition focused on a collection of works by patients, put together by art historian Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933). Having also trained in England to be a singer, he took up psychiatry after his second wife became ill. Combining his interests, he produced a seminal work, Artistry of the Mentally Ill. First published in 1922, an English translation had to wait 50 years.

Prinzhorn was more interested in the aesthetic value of artefacts made by patients than in their diagnostic potential.

His book was a sensation at the time, but not for being a breakthrough in the treatment of mental illness. Instead it influenced the artistic movements of the early 20th century, especially Dadaism and Surrealism, and gained notoriety among the fascists of National Socialism.

It became a source of inspiration among the avant-garde when multi-talented German artist Max Ernst showed it to his contemporaries in Paris. Many were fascinated by the theories of Sigmund Freud and saw the collection as a window into the subconscious.

This ‘art of the outsider’ led French painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet to form the Art Brut movement, a term that also came to be associated with Hitler’s notion of “degenerate art”. 

Despised by Nazis who sought to promote a heroic form of German culture, examples of ‘modern art’, including some of Prinzhorn’s collection, were put on display as evidence of this degeneracy. It was a prelude to censorship and the destruction of artworks.

Another sickening consequence was Aktion-T4, the Nazi policy to eradicate those who did not fit their notion of ‘the norm’. More than two dozen of the artists featured in Prinzhorn’s book would be murdered in ‘nursing homes’ set up to kill those regarded unfit to be citizens of the Third Reich. Bristol artist Liz Crow explored this in her short film Resistance, which can be found at

The patients’ fate was sealed when Prinzhorn was replaced at Heidelberg hospital by Carl Schnieder, a Nazi sympathiser. Prinzhorn himself would throw in his lot with the National Socialists, evidence perhaps of his naïveté. 

By contrast, the sophistication of the artworks prepared for Looking To The Light adds meaning to the structure, history, and artefacts of Glenside Museum. They are reflective pieces based on what the artists saw and thought about while visiting the museum. 

The exhibition’s title was inspired by a photograph taken in 1897 of bearded local furniture salesman Charles West looking towards the sky during a short stay at the hospital. He features in several of the artworks, which range from drawings and photographs to textiles, and installations. Despite many dissimilarities, there are some extraordinary resonances with items from Prinzhorn’s collection. 

On the reverse side of Anna Rathbone’s quilt, made from cut-up images photographed in the museum, is a poem stitched into an NHS sheet:

From the tangle of infinite fragmented echoes

we tug at the threads of what might be stories

fraying with each retelling

trying to stitch a knotted history

of a person, a place, a thing

into a fabric of guesswork unravelling as we sew

fibres pulled loose

by time, memory, perspective

leaving a single strand of truth

How can we ever really know?

The concept and the content reminded me of a handmade jacket on display in the Prinzhorn Collection. By Agnes Richter (1844-1918), it is embroidered inside and out with memories from her life.

There is great wit in the Glenside artists’ pieces, as there is in many of the Prinzhorn artefacts.

The fact that some of their creators were commenting on the madness of the world outside the asylum appears to have been lost on their curator. He would die of typhus, a recluse, just as Hitler came to power in 1933.

The exhibition booklet Looking To The Light is on sale at the museum, which is open on Wednesdays 10-11 pm and all day on Saturdays.

• Extended versions of these history columns can be found at

Mike Jempson contrasts two exhibitions, a century apart